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8 Ways to Make Meetings Work

A pattern of chickens on a blue background.

​According to best-selling author Dan Pink, 55 million meetings occur in U.S. workplaces each day. According to a study reported in MIT Sloan Management Review, senior managers spend nearly 23 hours per week in meetings.

These figures aren't typos! How much of this astronomical investment of time is wasted? I cringe to imagine it.

Pink shares an imaginative solution for keeping meetings on track, a surprisingly low-tech approach inspired by enterprise software company Atlassian: a squeaky rubber chicken. Whenever someone goes off topic while speaking during a meeting or takes more than his or her fair share of speaking time, another meeting participant grabs the chicken and squeezes it. The high-pitched squeak is enough to silence long-winded or overzealous speakers.

For years, I've been coaching executives and HR professionals on how to conduct efficient and effective meetings. In addition to the rubber-chicken tactic, which I've now added to my arsenal, I share the following tips with clients:

  1. Have an agenda. Don't just show up and wing it. The meeting leader should send a proposed agenda in advance of the meeting. To promote inclusiveness, structure and ownership of responsibility, the leader should invite meeting participants to suggest additional items in advance of the meeting.
  2. Make strict adherence to time, attendance and punctuality non-negotiable. I recall a project in which I helped a board with a cultural initiative. One board member consistently came to board meetings 20 minutes late. Upon arriving, he had a standard opening: "Sorry I'm late [followed by garbled excuse]. What did I miss?" He'd then weigh in on the discussion as if he'd been there at the beginning. After he left the board (with some nudging from other board members), the positive energy boost was palpable.
  3. Control discussion flow. For a meeting to be effective, the leader must control flow. When the leader doesn't, the best ideas are often not expressed. I tell people that as an extrovert, I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that introverts are smarter than we are because when someone else is talking, introverts are processing what the person is saying, whereas we extroverts are simply waiting to talk. If you're a meeting leader, commit to fostering an introvert-friendly environment. If that means getting a rubber chicken, so be it.
  4. If you are the meeting leader, save your opinions for last (if you express them at all). Especially when the meeting leader is in the power position, it's important that he or she repress the desire to express opinions. Renowned CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith calls a leader's tendency to have his or her say the "plus 5 percent, minus 50 percent problem." The boss can't resist adding a little improvement to an employee's idea. Perhaps the idea improves by 5 percent, while the employee's zest plunges by 50 percent. As meeting leader, your job is to listen, process and coalesce, not opine. The more you facilitate and the less you decide, the better the meeting's return on investment.
  5. Confirm the other person's position before you disagree with him or her. How many meetings have you attended that got bogged down in pointless, repetitive arguments? The parties who were arguing probably never bothered to make sure they fully understood each other's position. Instead, they made assumptions. If you are the meeting leader, make clear that you're not averse to disagreement—provided that the objector first clarifies what he or she is disagreeing with.
  6. Before closing the meeting, recap the key takeaways. As the meeting leader, say, "Here's what I've noted as key takeaways … What did I miss?" Often, the most important takeaways are who will do what and when it will be done. Make sure you get confirmation at the meeting's close.
  7. Shortly after the meeting, the leader should write and distribute a Same Day Summary (SDS). Readers of my column know how bullish I am about the SDS. It's been gratifying to hear how they've used the summaries to good effect. A meeting is a good time to use the summary. Among other benefits, it will spare you a lot of post-meeting effort to keep everyone on the same page.   
  8. Include the SDS of the prior meeting with the next meeting's advance agenda. Linking the summaries to subsequent meetings keeps things focused. It also builds accountability without being heavy-handed. More than once, I've received the advance agenda with the previous meeting's summary and immediately mobilized to complete what I had committed to do—as stated in the SDS.

Since Dan Pink was the inspiration for this column, I'm leaving him the last word: "Jathan, I like your checklist, but don't forget the most important thing. Before even sending out that calendar invite, ask yourself, 'Is this meeting really necessary? Is this the best way to get done what we need to get done?' "

Thanks, Dan. Good point. Perhaps we can get that number down to something less than 55 million meetings.


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