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You Are How You Meet: Change Your Meetings, Change Your Culture

Jordan Hirsch, Director, Strategy
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Across the globe, companies in every industry are grappling with digital transformation. Leaders and teams are rethinking every aspect of their business, from how their products are made to how they interact with customers. And yet, while companies are embracing change (or trying to), one thing seems yoked to the past: Meetings.

Sure, we increasingly meet via video conference, but despite changes in meeting technology, many of our meeting habits — mostly bad ones — remain unchanged.

In fact, it's a good bet that some of you are reading this article during a meeting. If you are, don’t worry —  you’re not alone: according to TED, 73 percent of employees cop to doing other work during meetings. And 71 percent of employees in this Harvard Business Review poll  found meetings to be “unproductive and inefficient.”  Bad meetings don’t just take up time, they also cost a lot of money and drain morale — and they can hinder transformation.

Meetings are more than blocks on your calendar - they’re also a reflection of an organization’s culture. And if your culture’s not keeping up with your digital transformation, you’re going to get left behind. What does it say about your culture, for example, when meetings routinely start late, or when people spend the whole time on their laptops clearly doing something else? What does it say about your culture if most of your employees spend most of their time together being “unproductive and inefficient?” To twist an old adage: you are how you meet.

And that’s actually good news. If meetings are an expression of organizational culture, then they are also a powerful lever you can pull to change that culture. You can start to change the meeting culture at your company even if you’re not the one calling the meetings.

Here’s how:

  1. Ask Why You’re Having A Meeting

    Perhaps the most important thing you can do if you’re thinking about hosting (or attending) a meeting is to ask and answer, “What is the purpose of this meeting? What outcomes do we hope to achieve together?”

    There’s no one right answer. Meetings can serve a lot of different and valid purposes, from idea-generation to fact-finding, to decision-making, to name just a few. Knowing whether your goal is to reach a decision or simply explore options, for example, can bring tremendous clarity and focus to a meeting, and leave everyone feeling better about time well spent — not to mention helping you move your work forward in a more effective way.

    In addition to group meetings, you might also have regularly scheduled one-on-one time with people throughout your organization — in particular, people you manage, or are managed by. In these cases, make sure you both have the same expectations of this standing meeting. Is the goal to share status updates? Discuss big-picture ideas? Check in on how you’re both feeling?

    There are many fine reasons to have a meeting, but “because I got invited,” or “because we had it last week,” or “because our methodology says we’re supposed to meet every morning” are not among them. If you can achieve your desired outcome just as easily without a meeting, hold off before you send or accept a meeting invitation.
     

  2. Know Your Role in a Meeting
    OK, you know why the meeting exists. But do you know why you should be there?

    If you don’t know your role in a meeting, you’re limiting your ability to contribute. Are you there to facilitate and help the team move forward? Are you there to share your subject matter expertise? Are you there to be kept “in the loop?” (if so, you can probably get a read-out over email instead!).

    Different kinds of meetings require different kinds of roles. Knowing whether you’re there to help read the room, take notes, contribute an opinion, or something else entirely not only helps you understand why to attend but also helps you to prepare.  

    In addition to knowing what purpose you serve at the meeting, knowing your role in advance also lets you set your intention. It might sound strange to set an intention for a meeting, but taking even 30 seconds before you walk in the room or join a call to think about what you personally intend to give to the meeting, and to get out of it,  can pay huge dividends. Most of us spend a lot of time in meetings; setting an intention helps you get the most out of that time.
     

  3. Practice Good Meeting Hygiene
    I’m sure you already know that every meeting is supposed to have an agenda. And yet, according to Inc magazine,  63 percent of meetings have no planned agenda. Agendas can be more than just a list of topics to talk about. A good way to supercharge your agendas is to organize them as a series of questions for the group to answer. Rather than just mentioning the name of a topic, questions in your agenda tell the group in advance what you want to know or decide about the topic. If you want to crowdsource your agenda, check out the Lean Coffee method of creating an agenda for a meeting as a group.

    Punctuality. Another critical area of good meeting hygiene is punctuality. How often do meetings are you company start on time? How often do they end on time? This is a small thing, but letting it go teaches people at your company that it’s OK to disrespect each other’s time.

    Multi-tasking. Multi-tasking during meetings is another trouble spot. In fact, while many factors contribute to a poor meeting culture, multitasking is one of the worst of all — a 2014 study found that multitasking lowered the participant’s IQ more than smoking marijuana or staying up all night.

    Commit to giving every meeting you’re in your full attention. Do your part to start and end on time to show respect for other people’s schedules. And send and/or read the agenda in advance. Treat your time in a meeting as a precious resource and make the most of it.
     

  4. Make Your Meeting Interactive
    While the old statistic about how people remember and retain so much more of what they do as compared to what they simply talk or hear about has been debunked, there are still good reasons to use your time together to do something instead of (or in addition to) talking about something.

    For one thing, doing a group activity like drawing on a whiteboard or writing sticky notes and organizing them on the wall breaks up the usual rhythm that most meetings fall into. If you're all in the room together it energizes people to get up and move around — and if you're meeting via video conference,  finding moments for interactivity can keep people more engaged, minimizing the temptation to multi-task. (There are a number of good online whiteboard tools remote teams can use to get in on the action.)

    Drawing or writing to explore a problem or idea also activates different parts of the brain than talking and listening and can lead to fresh insights.

    Structured activities can also be an equalizing force in a meeting: if you pose a question to the group, it's pretty likely that the people to speak first are either of high status or are simply comfortable speaking in front of a group (which not everyone is). Their opinions can easily influence what others say afterward. Conversely, calling on the quiet people to speak before they've had a chance to gather their thoughts can make them feel put on the spot, nervous, or even defensive. (Daniel Stillman goes into more detail on what he calls “the problem with popcorn.”)

    Compare these verbal communication challenges to asking all meeting participants to write down three ideas on sticky notes, then group those notes together as a team to find areas of alignment — and misalignment. This method allows different types of thinkers and communicators in the room the time and space to get their ideas out on a level playing field.
     

  5. Know When To Walk Away

    It might feel strange, but sometimes the best thing you can do is let a meeting die. Do any of these situations sound familiar?

    • Every week you attend a meeting that was very useful early on in a project, but no longer feels necessary.
       
    • A regular meeting that was needed for short period to help address a specific issue is still on your calendar but the issue has long been resolved.
       
    • Meeting as a group on a regular basis to “share status” simply because that’s how you’ve always done it, even though the statuses aren’t that helpful to anyone in the meeting.

    If you find yourself part of a meeting that has outlived its usefulness, consider speaking up about ending it. A simple way to raise the issue is to ask, “What do we all think this meeting is for?” and see if anyone has an answer — or if people have different answers.

    Try some of the tips above first to see if the meeting’s usefulness can be resurrected, but if you've clearly identified what the goal of the meeting is, and that goal has been achieved, there's no need to meet this week just because you met last week.

    Consider moving meetings to a different format; for example, rather than have a daily stand-up call, your team can post their status updates in your company's group chat system. Then, not only do you get a written archive that you can reference later, but people can choose which topics to follow up on independently without taking everyone's time to do so.

    Bottom line: Sometimes letting a meeting die is the most humane thing for everyone involved.

Life is short, and we spend most of our waking hours at work. We owe it to each other — and to ourselves — to make those hours as meaningful as possible. Every time you schedule or participate in a meeting, you have a chance to make a small but impactful change to your company’s culture. You can choose to try something new in the name of using your and other people’s time as effectively as possible.  In a world where so many changes feel big and daunting, changing your meeting culture is a powerful and positive tool that’s within everything’s grasp.

 

Jordan Hirsch

Director, Strategy