Miles To Go
Volume 1 | Issue 3 | Fall 2014
What’s the Major Underleveraged Resource in All Companies?
Two days out of *each* week: this is the amount of time senior executives are devoting to meetings with three or more coworkers, according to recent research from Bain. If meetings alone are consuming approximately 40% of CEOs schedules and 15% of an organization’s collective time (not including preparation time), it would be safe to assume that they are working, right?
The problem is that nearly 100% of executives we work with – who are pros at extracting high performance in every other activity – tell us that many of the meetings they are involved in are not effective. The time they spend in meetings is edging out the hours they need for strategy, problem-solving, and the pure *thinking* required to operate effectively.
Companies spend millions of dollars on mining efficiencies throughout their operations – from shaving off seconds in manufacturing time to redesigning office spaces – to improve productivity. But the pile-on of meetings is a factor that, while widely derided, has stubbornly held on as one of a company’s most undermanaged – and underleveraged – resources.
In working with leaders around the globe, we’ve identified concrete ways that executives can turn around their meeting experience. By implementing these tools, leaders can transform meetings to accomplish what they *should* be accomplishing: fostering productive discussion and debate; moving ideas to action; and strengthening teams.
5 Rules for Highly Strategic Meetings
Rule #1: Demand high quality inputs – before the meeting. How much of a meeting’s time is solely devoted to consuming information? By the time materials are presented, there is little opportunity to digest and then offer meaningful steps forward. Pre-reads – well-written, well-thought-out, and data driven – distributed ‘X’ days before a meeting offer the opportunity for turning to strategic discussion as soon as the meeting starts.
Requirements: If the meeting presenter hasn’t distributed the pre-read with enough time for participants to read it, cancel the meeting. Also, be prepared to call out or even un-invite team members who have not read the materials as they will have nothing to offer to the discussion.
Rule #2: Make sure the right people are in the room, every single time. Many of the performance issues around teams start without key individuals in the room when certain topics are discussed. This then demands another meeting, to go through the issue a second time. At every meeting, it is important to ensure that the correct people are in the room – meetings need to be mandatory, with very few acceptable reasons why someone cannot attend. Likewise, it is important that you stick to the needed players for the meeting—casting the net too wide can also create unnecessary inefficiency.
Requirements: Allocate time to curate an invite list that includes all key contributors for a given topic. Additionally, strictly enforcing an “attendance policy” may be called for, especially if people have gotten into the habit of skipping meetings. Addressing the issue of non-attendance directly with them will likely ensure compliance going forward.
Rule #3: Have the meeting you prepared to have. Allowing meeting discussion to drift onto other topics, rather than the key issue at hand, wastes time. Many leaders can be masterful at introducing a new topic during a meeting—working to put their issues on the table when, in reality, nobody has prepared to have that discussion. The resulting anecdotal discussions that ensue are immature conversations and your stated meeting objectives are not likely to be met. Make sure you do not fall into this trap of moving away from the agenda everyone prepared for and came to discuss. It is crucial that meeting leaders encourage a mature conversation, where participant commentary stays on topic, nobody is permitted to hijack the meeting and shared opinions are rooted in real data and sound analysis.
Requirements: As a leader, you are responsible for steering the team back to focus on the business issue and the relevant data at hand if the meeting gets off track. It can be tempting for seasoned executives to raise issues that are front of mind for them. These are the times it’s especially important to catch these behaviors early and redirect the meeting. If worthy issues or ideas surface, then ensure the work is done to bring that content back to the next meeting where you are prepared to have a fact-based and data-driven discussion. As a meeting leader, it is your responsibility to keep the meeting on track, stifle storytelling and maintain focus on key data points to have the meeting you planned to have.
Rule #4: Build in accountability. The best meetings in the world are useless unless there is follow-up. Minutes must be taken and distributed, each time, with the key assignment spelled out to the “DRP.” The “Directly Responsible Person” (or what Apple calls the “DRI” – Directly Responsible Individual) now owns the action stemming from the meeting, and is responsible for moving it forward. Using this person as your single interface on project execution helps to make ownership clear and directs those with questions to the right place. In addition to driving accountability, assigning individual ownership motivates individuals to invest deeply in the success of the project as its outcome becomes inextricably tied to reputation and personal pride.
Requirements: Assigning single-point accountability drives execution to a higher level. The DRP is now recognized as *the* interface for a particular project or to-do, making him or her “publicly” accountable. During meetings, aim to breed accountability by regularly deferring to the DRP whose name appears next to all of the agenda items they are responsible for during a meeting. With every task tagged, there’s rarely any confusion about who should be leading that piece of the discussion.
Rule #5: Practice. Even when a team’s meeting policies are clearly laid out (distributing pre-reads, maintaining attendance, keeping a focus on the facts, and assigning DRPs), meetings may, over time, start to lose some of their discipline. We’re all busy, and it’s tempting to cut a few corners when everything’s on fire. After a few months, you may find yourself back to dreading the meetings you worked so hard to improve…as they’ve lost their impact through laxness.
Requirements: Meetings themselves require practice, ideally in the form of team-building meetings (yes, meetings to work on meetings). As the leader, schedule team time together with the express purpose of refreshing the governance and practice around meetings so that they can be turned around. Use these as opportunities to determine what caused the meetings to go off-track, and, if necessary, to work on either the meeting policies themselves or the compliance around those policies.
Remember: bringing more governance and structure to meetings doesn’t make you a bureaucrat – it makes you effective.
- Develop the agenda– the starting element to any good meeting is being focused on the correct content. Key people need to be involved in developing the agenda
- Set the standard– set clear guidelines around what is expected of a pre-read (how long should it be, what should it include, how far in advance it is sent out) and set the expectation that it will be consumed so that people come to the meeting ready to have a real discussion
- Make it mandatory– ensure the right people are in the room so that you do not have to have another meeting to go through the same material a second time
- Have the meeting you intend to have– do not let anyone “hijack” the meeting! Stay on track and redirect anecdotal evidence or off-topic conversation
- Be a taskmaster– assign Directly Responsible Individuals to follow-up on each item and confirm their “marching orders” at the end of each meeting
- Keep it up– conduct a “state of the meeting” meeting once or twice annually to solicit input and develop more best practices