Meetings - The Best and Worst from 2015


Is it possible to do a Best and Worst list for meetings? While most people would argue that there is no such thing as a good meeting, I spend my days (many of them with tech leaders) helping companies try to use their time and energy as effectively as possible. Building a meeting culture that inspires performance and engagement is a big part of this and in doing so I see a lot of meetings. So, yes, Virginia, there are good and bad meetings. And they are worth revisiting before we start 2016.

Here are some of the cringe-worthy practices observed in 2015:

Nobody home

At one technology giant, the average meeting has 20 or more participants, the bulk of them virtual. Multi-tasking is so pervasive that they commonly ask one another when called upon: "Could you repeat the question? I was on mute." That's strange. I think you can still hear while on mute...

No need for notes

We observed the weekly 90 minute staff meeting of senior level scientists at a major pharmaceutical company. In a room of 20+ team members, no one took out a pen or piece of paper for the entire time, nor was there a designated note-taker. When asked how follow-up items were tracked, the meeting owner said "The honor system." If I were a gambler, I'd be willing to stake that the majority of those action items never make it out of the room...

Off the cuff

We sat in on over a dozen meetings at a prestigious international bank. In each one, the meeting commenced when someone, only occasionally the meeting owner, began to speak. A conversation would ensue and would only end when someone from the outside knocked and indicated that the room was needed. Unfortunately, the purpose of the meeting was never stated nor were any conclusions or outcomes. Meetings merely seemed a way to idle away the time rather than to drive forward outcomes...

So, is there hope for the working world or are we doomed to be trapped in a Dilbert cartoon for the rest of our working lives? While they were few and far between, we did witness leaders and organizations who worked hard to make sure that their meetings were a fruitful and fun use of time.

We honor them here on our 2015 Best of list:

Time to think

One forward-thinking biotech organization recognized that meetings were a barrier to overall effectiveness and has taken bold steps to shift the meeting culture. One of their most significant strategies is eliminating formal meetings before 9am or after 4pm local time. Doing so gives individuals work and think time blocks at the beginning and end of each day. In conjunction with this structural change, they have provided coaching on how to use the blocked time most effectively and how to escape the allure of perpetual busy-ness.

Saved by the bell

Remember in school when there was one bell to end a class and a different one to start the next? In between was the "passing period" to give kids time to go to their locker, use the restroom, etc. Turns out those of us in back to back meetings would benefit from the same simple practice. A large division of a tech company replaced 60 minute meetings with 45 minute ones. That 15 minute break allows them to be on time to their next meeting, jot a quick follow-up note to capture decisions and actions from the last one, mentally prepare, or take a short break. Perhaps it's time for all of us to go back to school.

Building the brand

A strategy team in a Fortune 100 technology firm recognized that their meeting "brand" was critical to their impact and influence across the organization. Because of this, they invested time in describing their brand today and setting an aspiration for how to shift it. They committed to adopting new practices for framing and guiding strategic conversations with senior executives. The impact was swift and remarkable. Within weeks, leaders were talking about how "supercharged" the group seemed to be.

What can we learn from these stand-out examples? Setting an intention is critical. Once you recognize that organizational time and attention is the most important asset in your organization - and that high-quality dialogue is a competitive advantage -- you'll start to set a higher standard for your meetings.

While you may need to fortify your meeting practices and skills across the organization, leadership commitment is the first and most critical step. If you're setting resolutions for 2016, may I suggest "Use my own and other's time more wisely this year."