April 2016: How to disrupt a meeting... to make it better

It is estimated by some that we spend between 35-50% of our working hours in meetings (Muse.com). And an HBR article from 2014 suggested that one corporation studied spent around 300,000 hours per annum supporting their monthly Executive meeting alone.

Without fear of disagreement I can say that meetings rarely pay their way. Most of us will have been in countless meetings where we felt bored by the content, frustrated by the lack of progress, irritated by the lack of structure and thoroughly fed up by the usual suspects dominating the conversation.

But can meetings ever pay their way? And if so, is it just a matter of chance or are there things that we can routinely do to ensure that our meetings will actually lead somewhere and produce something usable?

Potentially there are lots of things that we can do to change how meetings work of which being clear about purpose, listening to each other and keeping track of outcomes, are just three. But the main obstacle that we all face is convention and habit. We are taught how to attend meetings by, well, going to lots of them. Starting with school. A thirteen-year series of daily meetings run by people we have to call sir and miss, during which we spend a lot of time being told to be quiet. That’s a good start.

During this time and later in our corporate upbringing we also learn that really important meetings are long and tiring. We learn that running out of time is proof of industry and that stopping before getting tired or running out of time is just plain weird.

We also soon learn that the person who calls the meeting calls the shots. That the most senior person gets the last word and that the most junior person is probably there to be seen but not heard too much.

So the challenge is daring to stick out by flouting convention in front of other people who we might not know that well or who might be senior to us. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. My experience of taking risks with the way sessions are run suggests that disruption almost always leads to a better outcome than the one originally sought. These disruptions need not be cataclysmic either, just well chosen. Here are 3 areas to focus on and potentially to disrupt.

The place – change it

Not everyone has the luck to work in a place which was built after industrial architects stopped treating us like cattle. Many buildings are now designed with natural daylight and good ventilation in mind. Chairs are often comfortable the design of meeting room tables often makes it possible to switch things around depending on how many people are intending to work together. Be prepared to move the odd chair and table around to make the room work for you. If the table is large, dare to ask people to sit in places that make it easier to talk with eye contact. Lastly on this: coffee shops.

Just one thought there… it’s getting warmer: dump the papers and take a walk. Eat, Prêt, Costa and the rest are fine for a quick, informal ‘hello and get to know you’ or for sealing the deal with a little relationship building. The clue is in the title folks: Eat, Manger, Coffee. Enough said.

Purpose

Hearing the word ‘meeting’ gives me a not dissimilar feeling to when I hear the word ‘synergy’. I would like to suggest that we find a special place for the ‘meeting’ word as we have for other tired expressions including but not limited to: blue sky thinking, teamwork, pushing the envelope and soft skills. I want to suggest: ideas session, decision time and troubleshooting group.

But frankly, even if these never leave the page, I do at least suggest that we name time slots together in terms of their output, not their appearance.

Once we’re in the room together, do something drastic. Instead of idling into the conversation like sticks drifting over a weir, expressly pin down what the session is for and even give yourself and the group visual reminders of what you are there to do. Go ahead and commit these things to a flipchart:

The objective (preferably one, never more than three)

The end time

The form of good outputs (what will they look like?)

No one is too intelligent, too experienced or too senior to do this.

People

We are frail and we lie. We say we’re fine when we’re not and worse, we don’t even know when we’re fine and when we’re not. So, rule No.1 assume that people need looking after. Here are three quick wins:

Without fail, make sure that everyone has a drink. According to wide research even 1% dehydration will adversely affect memory and focus and can cause headaches and tempers to fray. Citrix blog link http://blog.gotomeeting.co.uk/2016/03/23/why-dehydration-could-be-killing-your-daily-performance-at-work.html. Even if people don’t want one offering it shows thoughtfulness and respect for the wellbeing of your colleagues.

Pay attention to what people are saying. Make interjections additive even when you disagree. Listen out for the feelings behind points that are being strongly made. Verbally reflect back what you are hearing – the feelings as well as the facts.

If the session is forecast to be long, suggest breaks every 45 minutes or at least when people look fidgety or distracted. Be brave, call it out. If they ignore you remind them that according to a study commissioned by Microsoft goldfish now have a longer attention span than us. In the last 16 years our span has fallen from 12 seconds to 8. The goldfish has stayed at 9.

View all blog posts