IC Matters › Best Practice

How to conduct effective team meetings

Sabine WojcieszakSabine Wojcieszak·
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Who is responsible for inspiring and motivating meetings? The answer is you! Let’s start with the situation below:

An ordinary working day after lunch. A group of four enters the elevator. “So what´s on this afternoon, folks?” She looks around to her colleagues. “I am meeting one of my customers to talk about their next projects!”, the young guy next to her answers. The other two look at each other: “Oh dear, we have a meeting. I don’t know why I should go there, but I have to although I have a lot to do. It will be the next time-consuming, boring one.” “Yeah, it is always the same. We don’t make any decisions. And Mr. “I-am-the-Best” will be playing the Boss again and start to fight with Mrs. “Know-it-all”. Let’s bet! I always feel like I am sitting in a theater watching a really bad drama!” The elevator opens and the four head off to start a more or less productive afternoon. Have you ever been witness to such or a similar situation?

Meetings are part of our daily work. On average we spend more than 15% of our working time in meetings. But to be honest: have you ever had one of the following sentences coming up to your mind during a meeting?

“Another boring meeting ahead. I have better things to do!”
“I have to go to the next meeting, which is a waste of my time.”
“Why the hell is he/she always beating around the bush?”
“Okay, fortunately I have my smartphone with me. Let’s check where to go to next weekend.”
“Bla, bla, bla.”
“Not even something to eat! He should have thought about this!”

Cross your heart: Have you ever thought one of these – or similar things – just once or twice? Or is this what comes up to your mind regularly? No need to feel ashamed – you are not alone!

If people join meetings with this personal attitude, the outcome of that meeting will be far below the value which should and could have been achieved. One bad thing about boring meetings is, that they cost time and with this – money. But the worst thing about bad meetings is: they are demotivating all the people taking part – now and for the future!

– People stop listening,
– they don’t contribute anymore,
– they do not make up their minds about the content,
– they do not feel engaged,
– failures will be repeated,
– good ideas will not be delivered,
– innovation will be killed.

And these are the really expensive things about bad meetings, which can turn out to be a danger for the success of the team and the company.

But what are your wishes for inspiring meetings?

Let’s dream of productive meetings, where decisions are made in an appropriate time. Let’s think of meetings where everyone is heard equally instead of those “never-come-to-an-end” guys or those “I-like-to-hear-myself-speak” people. Let’s imagine meetings where everyone contributes in an active way, you can talk and discuss openly and feedback is required. Our `dream` meetings are short and deliver helpful and important content with the wanted outcome, that pave the way for outstanding solutions, team improvement and to speed up work processes. Therefore all attendees focus on the meeting and team goals instead of straying around or following individual goals.
In this dream world everyone is looking forward to the next meeting and is inspired, motivated and happy before, during and after the meeting.

Is this really a never-never land or can you do something to make the dream of an inspiring meeting culture come true? The simple and short answer is:

Yes, you can!

The web offers a lot of practical approaches to run effective meetings. Setting up an agenda, have someone to keep the meeting minutes, prepare the meeting, invite the people etc., just a few of those most offered practical tips – most of them related to the meeting organizer or facilitator.

Sorry, this is not enough for having inspiring and motivating meetings, because ALL participants are responsible for the progress of the meeting. Due to the fact that everyone is involved in the meeting process you definitely need a positive meeting culture, which should be created, monitored and improved by the whole team. It points out the values and the related principles as well as meeting rules you want to follow – not only for the facilitator and organizer but also for the attendees.

Before you start to work on creating your meeting culture you need to find out the reasons why people get bored so that you can develop principles and rules which address these problems. Only once this cultural framework deals with the specific problems of your team and not with the common ones other companies might have, can the magic happen! Don’t look for “ready-to-adapt-solutions”, take your time and create your perfect match. A useful side effect is that you will learn a lot about your team and organization which will help to understand and improve your team dynamics.

Let’s concentrate on some core areas you should really have a look at while finding out more about your status-quo.

Who is responsible for a positive meeting outcome?

The answer to this question is the core component of your meeting culture. In a “content consuming” environment, people will say that the organizer or facilitator are responsible for it. But in an inspiring and motivating meeting culture everyone is responsible. All participants own the role of active contributors, who follow the discussions, give useful feedback, keep an eye on the meeting rules and speak up, if the committed values, principles and rules are not respected. They offer solutions and focus on the agreed goals. The limiting and obliged “I have to go to the meeting” will be replaced by an open-minded and constructive “I will join the meeting”. If they are not happy with the progress of the meeting, they will not rest in silence but share their point of view without blaming someone so that the team is enabled to change the direction of discussion or to find an agreement. If someone comes out of a meeting and complains about it, this person has not taken the contributor’s role seriously.

But to act in this open and honest way where everyone can speak about their own points of view, show their own opinions and speak up it is mandatory to have an environment of trust and psychological safety where no one needs to fear any kind of punishment. It is also helpful to discuss some rules or set up a guideline for giving and getting feedback if you haven’t done it yet. It should lead to the idea of “welcoming feedback” as a first and important step towards continual improvement.

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Invitation for a Meeting

On the first hand the invitation is the part of the meeting organizer. Before you invite people for a meeting, think if this meeting is really necessary or if there are other ways to get the same outcome. This consideration requires to make up your mind about the desired objectives. To have a team-wide or organization-wide standard about when to invite for a meeting you can set up some acceptance criteria like you do for a Definition of Done (DoD) or a Definition of Ready (DoR) the whole team agrees on. To avoid the “Death by Meeting” it is always important to think about the necessity of this meeting.
If your meeting fulfils the acceptance criteria, start to invite people to the meeting, but think carefully to whom this meeting is really important and what they can contribute to it.
Set up the agenda and a tight timeframe. But also add the desired objectives for that meeting and what you expect of the participants (this is the perfect world). The invitation should also include if this meeting is mandatory for everyone or if there is the choice of saying `No` for some people.
Other considerations play an important role at this stage. One of these is the place where to meet. Do you really need a meeting room or can you invite for a “Walk Talk” or a Stand-up? Therefore you make up your mind if you need something like a PowerPoint presentation, more active ways with flipcharts or whiteboards or if it is just some kind of discussion. If you don’t need any tools, a “Walk Talk” could be a good solution, because fresh air and some motion are helpful to get everyone out of their comfort zones for an open discussion. By the way, if you want to run inspiring and motivating meetings try to avoid tool-driven as much as possible and use activating moderation methods.

Here is an additional tip: Overthink the necessity of Jour Fixe and the way you run them!

On the other hand the invitation requires action on the side of the invited participants, too. ´Why am I invited?` or `What could be my contribution to this meeting?` are questions you should answer for yourself. If you don’t have any idea about that, ask the organizer! This means that you have to check the agenda asap after receiving it and not as late as at the beginning of the meeting. While acting this way you have time to prepare yourself to be able to contribute in the considered way and organize your schedule, so that you are not under time pressure because of and during the meeting. If the choice of “Saying No” is offered, use this option if necessary and give a `reasonable No`. Always have in mind: if the `choice of No` is offered and you say `Yes`, don’t start to complain about the meeting!

The Meeting

At this point we do not start with the mutual and important behavior of being punctual because this is a question of respect. If this is a problem within your team you definitely have to work on the value of respect! But let’s have a look at the idea of `everyone being heard equally`. To say it clearly: this is not only the organizer’s or facilitator’s issue! In many teams you find those `speak-a-lot` people on the one hand and some more introverts on the other hand. Here are two examples how to deal with those ´speak-a-lot` people.

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The first one is Time Boxing. This is a time limitation which is defined in your rules as a standard or which is defined explicitly for a special topic on the agenda. To do this you need to make sure that everyone knows this limitation. You also need a timekeeper, who is responsible to stop the speaker after the defined time. The timekeeper is NOT the facilitator or organizer. This role should change from meeting to meeting. Time boxing offers the same right for everyone. But it has also a disadvantage: it is only orientated on the time and not on the interest of the participants. Any minute can be boring especially when the context to the topic is missing!

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Another possibility which is more participant orientated is the idea of some kind of Referees with Yellow and Red Cards. Two or more participants – depends on the team itself and on the size of the meeting – take the role of the referees and have each a yellow and a red card. They show the yellow card to the speaker if they have the opinion that this person now should come to end because it is not related to the topic or there isn’t anything new. With the yellow card the speaker has the chance to close the explanations or to come back to the topic or add something new and important. The red card means: Stop it now! This works very easily because everyone knows the principles of the red and yellow cards. Sometimes even those who don’t have the role of the referee ask the referee to raise the cards and so the whole group is involved.
You also have to deal with the introverts in the meeting, because they might have important and helpful ideas and information. Ask them directly: “Kevin, what do you think about this question?” Use questions they cannot answer just with `Yes` or `No`. Activating moderation methods like using post-its or cards for some brainstorming may also help introverts to participate. But no matter how well one method works, it becomes boring if you use it too excessively! A mixture of different methods is always the best.

To make meetings inspiring and motivating it is important to make decisions about the topics and focus on the meeting objectives. Perhaps you have been part of meetings where you have had the impression that it was time to make a decision, but the discussion went on and on and on. And in the end after all this “beating around the bush” no decision was made at all, because you simply forgot about it or everyone became unsure because of over-discussion. Another possibility in such situations is that everyone believes that there was a decision but each have a different version in mind. So working with this different versions in the heads becomes quiet challenging. To avoid this, the GEMO-principle could be a good choice. GEMO means `Good enough, move on`. Every participant can ask the question: “Are we good enough here to make a decision?” All others have to answer explicitly with `Yes` or `No`. Then you sum up the decision and ask if all agree on this. If yes, go on with the next topic. GEMO includes also situations where you come to the conclusion, that you don’t have enough information or knowledge to decide on this question. Then the decision is to gain more information or knowledge until the next meeting and discuss it then.

Some people are sitting in an interdisciplinary meeting. Ivy, a senior developer explains some technical backgrounds of the project. As she has finished her presentation, she asks, if everyone has understood the issues. All other people around were nodding. Martin, a sales guy, then says: “Oh well, Ivy, but I would like to have an app which can do ´the Magic`.” Ivy roles with her eyes: “Martin, it is always the same! Can’t you listen to me? I have explained, that we will implement `The Magic` in the next step because of certain issues.”

This is a typical situation especially in interdisciplinary meetings – but not only there. People pretend to have understood the delivered content. Most of the time the nodding of the heads leads to go on to the next topic. But it is not uncommon that people just nod because they don’t want to show their lack of understanding. To make sure that the delivered content is understood, ask someone to explain it in their own words. Also questions like `What are the advantages from your point of view?` are helpful to check the understanding. Don’t be surprised if people, who have nodded before, now say, “oh, yeah, I got it but I can’t say it with my own words” or “I thought I have understood it, but I think I haven’t”! To check the common understanding is essential for the outcome of a meeting. You can’t make any good decision without the understanding of the topic! If you do so, it will have an extreme negative impact on the following work and its results and can lead to failure and demotivation.

Conclusion

There are a lot more things you can work on to make your meetings inspiring and motivating. But the most important thing is to find your own way!
Don’t follow some checklists without thinking – some advice may turn out well, but others may be counterproductive for your team!
If you are unsure what can help in your special situation, ask for help from outside. Sometimes it is very helpful to have an outside view for e.g. of a coach, who is not involved in the team’s or organization’s network. This coach can ask the important `Why`-questions and will help you to develop your meeting culture!
If you spend time and money on meetings, do it right and get the best out of it!

Check out Poppulo’s whitepaper on delivering effective internal communications which is a nice follow on from what you’ve just read.


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