By Jef Williams
When you look at your calendar what do you see? If you are like me, or the people I work with, it’s filled with blocks. These blocks tend to populate vertically throughout the day and populate across your week. We are an industry that requires meetings. Lots of meetings. For many, just looking to add a meeting is not unlike a game of Tetris, wedging items in where they can fit. This can be especially difficult when attempting to coordinate with other busy people. Meetings are an important way to conduct our business, but too often we fall into patterns of ineffective meeting management. This leads to loss in productivity as well as a general sense of helplessness as we try to balance our meeting schedule with getting “actual work done,” as I have often heard it posed.
My business is reliant upon effective meetings – as is yours. Working with providers of all shapes and sizes across North America, I have discovered many similarities to how meetings are managed – effectively or ineffectively. To streamline meetings, there are a number of best practices our organization has employed. Some of these best practices we learned from meeting management experts while many came from clients who have developed best practices. Other came from our own trial and error. If there is anything I have learned, it is that meetings are not going away. However, implementing structure can have a huge positive impact on the value of each meeting and this translates into greater effectiveness organizationally as well as culturally.
Here are some questions worth asking and processes worth exploring when addressing meeting management.
What is the purpose of this meeting?
There are many different purposes for meetings. One of the most important questions you can ask yourself when scheduling a meeting is, “What is the purpose of this meeting?” Some meetings are informational, others are designed to create alignment and seek to reach a decision. I find that meetings that have not been carefully structured with a clear definition of its purpose leads to participants who are disengaged. This is simply because there is a clear lack of definition related to the meeting itself. Informational meetings can be important as a tool to engage attendees. The first question to ask for each informational meeting is whether it needs to be a meeting at all. Many meetings can be replaced with well-crafted emails or other forms of communication. So, the question we should ask is, “Does everyone need to be in the room for this?”
Meetings can be an effective way to create alignment within an organization. Within health care we have many different silos of teams often working without good visibility to the efforts and goals of other teams within the organization. Effectively using real-time discussions can be the best way to understand differences or differing strategies within the organization and real-time communication can be a way to talk through conflict or efforts that appear to be working at cross purposes. This type of communication has historically been most effective in face-to-face meetings. In the new normal, where many of our meetings have been moved to virtual online meetings, this has become a bit more difficult. Some important things to consider with alignment meetings is a carefully defined attendee list, as well as an intentional approach to include everyone in the conversation. It is not uncommon for alignment meetings to be driven by one or two prominent voices who feel very comfortable sharing opinions or leading discussions. The most effective alignment meetings, however, are facilitated by leaders who bring out the ideas and thoughts of all participants.
Finally, there are meetings that are designed to reach specific outcomes and promote decision-making. The best way to ensure that a meeting achieves its outcome, especially as it relates to decision-making, is to ensure that all the participants have received all the information necessary to make said decision prior to the meeting. All too often, decision-making meetings are pursued without sharing all the requisite information prior to the real-time event. This leaves people feeling less than prepared or less informed to make an important decision. When scheduling a meeting of this type, it can help to create a list of relevant documents or information to ensure everyone arrives prepared for discussion, debate and decision-making.
Who needs to attend this meeting?
How do we decide who we invite to a meeting? It can be politically driven. It can be to ensure there is adequate representation from all the stakeholders. In some cases, it is simply an invitation list that has been populated over time. It is easy to fall into a pattern of sending out invitation lists to meetings which contribute to the overall meeting fatigue many people have. People tend to participate in meetings they are invited to even when they do not have immediate interest or contribute value to the outcome of that specific meeting. Just as good leaders delegate work, good leaders delegate associated meetings. Yet, often leaders struggle to pass on delegated meetings – which runs counterproductive to the work we seek to accomplish. Good delegation requires that we not only assign work, but we empower those people we delegate to lead the process which should include internal conversations and ultimately decision-making within the context of the assignment.
What is the agenda for this meeting?
Good meeting agendas include several components that help serve the facilitator, as well as the participants, in understanding the framework for the meeting as well as its pacing. Most meetings include multiple agenda items and it is important for those who lead effective meetings to clearly define the agenda topics, identify the person who will lead each agenda item and establish a timeframe for each agenda item. People are frustrated when meetings run long, especially when so many attendees are attending back-to-back meetings on any given day. One of the most common reasons for meetings running long is an overly packed agenda or a lack of discipline to budgeting time for each agenda item and keeping to that time structure. An agenda should be provided ahead of every meeting to allow for review and comment. This improves overall engagement and participation.
How are we documenting the content of this meeting?
Any meeting worth having is a meeting worth documenting. Our organization has built the role of scribe into every one of our meetings. Good meetings generate good content that needs to be memorialized within the organization or within the project. Good meeting minutes capture the dialogue of the meeting and the spirit of that dialogue. By drafting good meeting minutes, we allow peripheral stakeholders to feel engaged when they cannot attend a meeting (or choose not to attend). The minutes provide access to the content, Action items and decisions are identified in the minutes. This ensures the topics covered have been well documented. This prevents wasting time on these items at future meetings. How do we measure the effectiveness of this meeting?
As meetings are the lifeblood of any organization and are ubiquitous in our daily routines, it is easy to fall into patterns of ineffectiveness. Organizations that prioritize effective meeting management build feedback loops into their models. Whether this is formal feedback or simply informal polling of participants, we should continually measure the effectiveness of our meetings. Simple questions such as: Did you feel this was a good use of your time? Did you feel the meeting accomplished its goals? Did you feel that everyone in the room had the ability to participate? Are all good ways of measuring our meetings.
Meetings reflect the culture of any organization. Too often they are overlooked as a useful tool to change culture in a positive way. May your next meeting be effective and accomplish its goals as well as the goals of your organization.
Jef Williams, MBA, PMP, CIIP, is a managing partner at Paragon Consulting Partners.