Building a Better Meeting: An Interview with Dr. Rick Brinkman

If I had a nickel for every pointless meeting that I attended, I’ve have quite a few nickels. In the corporate world, Americans waste untold amounts of time listening to people blather on about irrelevant things.

I was curious about solutions to this common problem. To this end, I sat down with Dr. Rick Brinkman, author of Dealing With Meetings You Can’t Stand: Meet Less and Do More. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What motivation for writing this book?

RB: My parents met in the ghetto in the beginning of the war. My father is German and mother is Polish. They married and were sent to Auschwitz and survived through the grace of multiple miracles — including finding each other again after the war.

I have always felt, even as a child, that I was on a mission to turn conflict into cooperation. I’ve been doing my part by teaching communication, performing 4,000 programs in 17 countries over the last 30 years and writing 5 books.

In my experience, everyone at a meeting has something of value to contribute. The integration of people’s different points of view on any subject creates what I call Holographic Thinking™— which quickly produces higher-quality ideas and solutions, so you can meet less and do more.

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PS: We have all been in pointless and seemingly interminable meetings. What percentage of them are truly necessary and how can you politely opt out of pointless one?

RB: The overall meeting and each agenda item need to have a clear purpose that is relevant to everyone and realistically timed. Rather than politely opting out, suggest that you “try an experiment — using a process to make the meeting more focused, productive and shorter.” It’s a rare person who refuses.

There’s one legitimate reason for a meeting: so people can interact on a particular subject. Holding a meeting to present information is wasting your time. According to the Cambridge Psychological Society, 24 hours after a business meeting, people remember only 9 percent of it, — and half inaccurately.

Do a pre-meeting checklist that questions the meeting’s existence: What is the real purpose? Is it best served by a meeting, or is there a better way to accomplish our purpose? Then, count the direct cost of what people are paid, and the cost of all the tasks people aren’t doing while in the meeting. Then, start and end the meeting on time — whether or not everyone is there, or the agenda has been accomplished.

PS: As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you end up someplace else.” Talk to me about that in the context of your book.

RB: Think of people at meetings as passengers on a plane, trapped together in a contained space for a period of time. The flight may be delayed, go off course or even be hijacked. If it ends late, it could cause the passengers to miss other connections or meetings. The agenda is like a flight plan, with where you are going and when you will be there. Each agenda item should include a Title, Timeframe, Process (i.e. presentation, Q&A, then 20 minute discussion), and two even more essential items: Purpose (two sentences stating why this item is more important than anything else you need to do), and Focus (what you want from the group regarding this item). Are you looking for possible negative side effects of a new policy? Ideas on streamlining the workflow? You need both purpose and focus to keep the meeting on course. Stick to the time of each agenda item. Have someone take time notes, so your agendas become more accurate.

PS: How much do superfluous meetings cost us?

RB: A 2015 Harris Poll found that the primary obstacle to getting work done is having to attend meetings. In 2015 there were 36 to 56 million meetings held in the U.S. — and unnecessary, unproductive meetings cost up to $283 billion a year.

PS: Any tips on making meetings more productive?

RB: At the meeting, establish these three mission-critical tool to keep things moving and curb disruptive behavior. Maintain air traffic control. Use a visual device, like a whiteboard, with a topic and process box to keep people focused. In the topic box, write the subject being focused on in the current moment. In the process box, write the process being used, i.e. discussion or brainstorming. Only allow people to speak to the topic, using the specified process. This eliminates inappropriate tangents.

Establish a speaking order. Otherwise, passive people will talk too little and assertive people will talk too much. A voluntary speaking order has people raise their hand and you put their names on the whiteboard. Knowing when their turn is coming, they relax and listen. Better is a pre-established circular order that goes around the room, so you hear from everyone, including the passive Yes, Maybe and Nothing people — who tend to withhold their ideas until after the meeting. Set a time limit so people know how long they can speak. This prevents Know-it-Alls and Think-They-Know-it-Alls from going on and on.

Use flight recording to create holographic thinking. When you record what people say so everyone can see it, whether using a flip chart or a computer projecting onto a screen, you give the speaker’s point importance and visibility over time. Even minutes later, it’s still in the group’s awareness. Flight recording saves time, reduces repetition, and gets everyone to see all points in their totality, depersonalized into important factors. When all factors are considered, the group arrives at “holographic thinking”: Ideas are more complete and solutions are more effective.

This makes it safe for those passive Yes, Maybe and Nothing people to speak up, and forces the Whiners and No people to address specific issues, since you can’t write “everything is wrong” on a flip chart. The Know-it-Alls are satisfied since everyone sees their contribution, and the Tanks are smiling because they didn’t have to push the group to get on with things.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly this process can transform your meetings. Everyone will thank you for it.

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