Most of your meetings will be better if you…

Have a purpose.

State a purpose.

Execute on that purpose.

 

This means you know what success looks like for you, and you actually say it out loud to the person you’re meeting with. For example:

“I want to make sure we cover these three topics.”

“I wanted to connect because I really want to understand ________ from your perspective.”

“I’m hoping that by the end of this meeting we will finalize the partnership we’ve been discussing for the past six weeks, and that your company will commit to $1M of funding towards that partnership.”

I’m surprised how rare it is to hear people actually articulate their goals for a meeting.  Especially fundraisers.  Doing so doesn’t make you pushy, it makes you clear and effective.

 

You, Me, We

Some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to give feedback involves the simple switch from “you” phrases to “I” phrases, meaning switching from, “You weren’t as clear as you could have been today in making that point” to “I was confused by the points that you made today, and I didn’t feel like your message got across.”  It’s a small shift in language that helps create connection and a sense of shared ownership, instead of a feeling of judgment and separation.

Lately, I’ve found myself pining for a parallel shift of language in big meetings.

In meetings, among polite company, I challenge you to find a lot of “you” statements or a lot of “I” statements.  Safe meetings are the world of “we,” as in “we need to think about such-and-such” and “it’s important that we take action to correct this problem.”

Unfortunately “we” as a standalone doesn’t get us very far.  “We” abdicates responsibility and ownership and follow-though unless it is followed by “I,” as in, “We haven’t prioritized this important project, and what I’m prepared to do to help is….”

In feedback sessions gone awry, the conversation is all about the other person and how he needs to change.  In meetings gone awry, the group and the organization transform to a collective “we” separate from the people having the meeting.  We use safe language to create the illusion that “we” is anything other than a collection of “I”s who either will or won’t take steps – starting now, starting today – to make something else happen, something new happen, something hard and important happen.

There’s no “we” but you and me.

Some talk is cheap

The meeting you cancel because the topic has been covered, because the work is done, is a gift to everyone.

The meeting you never have because the conversation is too real or seems too hard – that is the real waste of time and opportunity.

It’s not time that’s scarce, it’s courage.

Anything else?

So often in meetings we claim that we want to hear from folks but actually communicate that we’d like them to stay quiet.

Open-ended questions, silences that last more than five seconds, smiling – people respond to those.

“Anything else?”   That provokes silence.

Meeting math

Not so long ago I strong-armed a bunch of my co-workers into reading one of the Domino books,  Read This Before our Next Meeting (free for Amazon Prime members).  The book is a diatribe against the meeting culture and all the associated time that’s wasted in poorly designed, poorly conceived, poorly run meetings.

It’s a book that you don’t necessarily enjoy reading, because the author, Al Pittampalli doesn’t care much if you like what he has to say, spending most of his energy hitting you over the head with anti-meeting diatribes without making the medicine go down too easily.

That said, the conclusions are hard to ignore: most meetings are inefficient, we are lazy about them, and we could be drastically more productive if we approached them differently.

My starting point is that we underestimate meeting time the way we underestimate the impact of copying 10 people on an email: it doesn’t feel like having 6 people in a 30 minute meeting is three hours of productive work that’s we’re using up.   But it is – so shouldn’t the organizer be obliged to spend at least a half hour of prep time each and every time he proposes to use 2.5 hours of his colleagues time?

The most aggressive suggestion in the book is that we should not use meetings to make decisions, we should use meetings to ratify decisions that have already been made.

The building blocks underneath that recommendation are: no meetings without prior agendas, no meetings without significant work done in advance by the meeting organizer, and no meetings without a proposed decision for the group to ratify.

Easy to say, but how often do we get a group together and someone says, “OK, we’re here to talk about…..”  That’s not the same as, “We’re planning to do _____, and this meeting is being called to ratify that decision.”

If that is the bar, you get a lot fewer meetings, a lot more preparation, a lot more time to do real work rather than sit in a room and talk.

(Bonus: the next time you get 20 people in the room for a 30 minute meeting, make sure you’re getting 10 hours’ worth of organizational impact out of that half an hour).

Telephonitis

Twice in the last week I’ve been on important conference calls where severe “telephonitis” set in.  “Telephonitis” is the process whereby otherwise conversant, engaged, active people become silent in the face of a group conference call.

Maybe someday videoconferencing will become the norm, but I think phone calls are here to stay – at least for the next few decades.

You probably conduct enough business with meetings by phone that this is worth correcting.  Here’s where you can start:

  1. Create an “in the room” role.  You assign someone (or have them spontaneously volunteer) to be the voice of the sentiment “in the room,” explaining to people on the phone what’s going on.  This person fills in the silences with comments like, “Yes, everyone agrees,” or “Angela, you look like you’re not convinced by that last remark, can you tell us what’s on your mind?”
  2. When silence starts to set in, start cold calling people.  This has two effects: making sure you’re hearing from people, and creating an incentive (for those who don’t like being called on) for people to speak up when they have something to say.
  3. Create a norm that when an important question comes up, you’ll go around the horn and ask everyone to say something
  4. Have people who are not “in the room” lead the call.  Keeps them engaged and validates that just because they’re on the phone doesn’t mean they are less important.
  5. Never equate silence with agreement. It’s bad enough to do this in person.  Worse still on the phone.
  6. Keep calls short.  More than 30 minutes on the phone and you’ve probably lost the person dialing in.
  7. Keep groups small.  Less than 4 is ideal, but 6 or fewer seems to work.  After that, see above.

It’s almost impossible to overestimate how hard it is for someone on the phone to stay engaged in a conversation without visual / physical cues as feedback.  And if the person on the phone is not engaged (if they are a listener) or not getting feedback (if they are a speaker), you’re missed the entire point of a meeting – to inform the people who are on the call and, often, to get their input or assent to a set of decisions.

And one last suggestion: if you’re asking people to call in to a conference call at an inhumane time (very early or very late), be religious about starting the call on time.  It’s the easiest way to show respect for people who aren’t in the room.

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How busy should you be (the 125% rule)?

Whatever amount of time you set aside for work, you don’t want to be 100% busy.  You don’t want just enough work so you can get it done in the time you’ve set aside.  You want more.

How much more?  Lately I think the right amount is around 125% – that is, having 25% more work to do than you could really get done.

If you handle this in the right way, it forces you to work both smarter and faster: smarter comes from being forced to triage and put the most important things at the top.  Faster comes from learning to spend the right amount of time on things, which means less time for things that are less important (without throwing quality out the window).  Faster also comes from learning to say ‘no’ politely to things that you should say ‘no’ to (e.g. meetings you don’t need to attend); and smarter comes from making time for new things that could be great, knowing that something will be sacrificed in the meantime.

There’s a limit, of course.  200% busy is a disaster…it means the end of your personal time and your sanity, and it’s completely unsustainable.  I started my career as a management consultant with a 200% job.  I learned a ton, but I was always exhausted, I essentially sacrificed my personal life, and I never could have kept that up for the decades it takes to build a career.  And 25% is mind-numbingly boring (it’s possible – I actually had a job that devolved into this), not to mention you’ll never produce enough to get anywhere professionally.

So if you’re at 100% and have been asked to do more, take advantage. Don’t be afraid to work hard. And if you haven’t been asked to do more, find somewhere to jump in and do more.

What does 125% feel like?  It feels like (usually) controlled chaos…”usually” because there are always ebbs and flows, so if you’re normally at 125% you’ll have some 150% peaks that are very hard to manage.  125% is a little overwhelming, but it’s also exciting.  You’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re learning.   And you’ll discover that you can get a lot more done than you thought possible.

(Oh, and if you hadn’t noticed, this is part of the reason that having a job you hate makes it very hard to be very successful.  Success comes from a lot of things, but hard work is part of the answer.  Think about how painful it is to work really hard for 10, 20, or 30 years at something you basically dislike or don’t care much about.)