Business leaders always look for ways to boost engagement and productivity, but few of us would start with meetings. A 2015 Harris Poll found that going to meetings is the biggest obstacle to getting work done. Many of us see meetings as a necessary evil. For most C-suite executives, meetings devour 40% of our worktime: focusing on them even more is not exactly appealing.
But creating better meetings is a highly effective way to make your people happier, energized and more productive — without increasing their hours or salary. Here’s one simple but effective approach with an immense payoff: Don’t think of it as a meeting. Instead, think of being on an airplane flight, with the meeting participants as the passengers.
Confined in a small space together for a designated period of time, passengers are subject to possibly rough weather, unpleasant neighbors, a fatigued pilot, or worse. But we all have to fly. It’s a useful analogy since that’s what it feels like, most of the time, to be in a meeting. Imagine your people’s surprise when you can make the “flight” a whole lot more bearable in 5 practical steps:
1. Question its necessity.
Start planning the meeting by asking if it’s even necessary. As a leader, you sometimes challenge teams to justify the purpose behind an action. First identify the meeting’s purpose, then ask if it’s best served by a meeting, or there’s another way.
2. Measure the cost.
Meetings all have a cost. There’s the cost of what people are paid to sit in the meeting and there’s the price of all the work they’re not doing because they’re in a meeting. Knowing the cost, is the meeting worth it?
3. Create an agenda.
The meeting agenda is a flight plan, defining where you’re going and how long it should take. To keep the meeting on course, break the agenda into items that have 5 key points: title, timeframe, process, purpose and focus. Process could be “discussion, then Q&A.” “Purpose” should be two sentences arguing the item’s importance. “Focus” is the outcome you want from the group. Distribute the agenda in advance.
4. Watch the clock.
Even if people arrive late or you don’t hit every agenda item, end the meeting on time. It sends a powerful message: you respect everyone’s time. Designating a timekeeper can generate useful data on how accurate the agenda was, and help refine it for next time. Being released from a meeting as promised makes people far more willing to attend another one.
5. Define the process.
Without a clear meeting process, people resort to stress behaviors —talking out of turn, making snarky comments, or not contributing until the meeting is already over. Defuse them ahead of time with these three tools:
Control the air traffic. Use a whiteboard, projector, or computer and screen to keep everyone focused. Write the subject at hand in a “topic” box, the process for discussing it in the “process box,” and don’t let people deviate.
Establish a speaking order. Either make it voluntary with a show of hands, or make it circular, going around the room. When everyone knows they’ll get their turn to speak, they become better listeners. Setting a time limit will prevent tangents and rambling.
Use a flight recorder. Visually recording everything people say cuts back on their need to repeat themselves to drive their point home. The visual collection of everyone’s ideas also enables the group to achieve holographic thinking — with a greater, more detailed understanding of the subject and higher-quality ideas and solutions.
Frustration kills engagement quickly — but feeling gratified and energized by a well-planned, well-led meeting builds it just as fast. Follow these five steps and you’ll see the difference for yourself. Instead of dreading meetings, your people will look forward to them, and colleagues may likely ask how you did it. We all prefer a smooth flight, after all.
For more information, see Dealing With Meetings You Can’t Stand: Meet Less and Do More.