Meetings: a place for connection, engagement and focused action?

Alexandra Montgomery

Have you ever thought of calculating the cost of your meetings? According to the Harvard Business Review, executives report they spend as much as 23 hours a week in scheduled meetings, not to mention ad-hoc conversations. Imagine, say, four to seven managers in a weekly hourly meeting, that is up to seven hours’ executive salary; you would want those meetings to be very productive, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, in the HBR study cited above, 71% of senior managers complain meetings are unproductive and inefficient and more than 60% think that meetings miss valuable opportunities to bring the team closer together.

Undoubtedly, conversations and meetings are essential where the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, for example, when we brainstorm and co-create together, explore possibilities and innovate, make decisions and co-ordinate action. In meetings we can inspire and support each other, reveal our human strengths (and development areas) and get to know each other better. Thus, the quality of our meetings directly affects trust, engagement and performance.

6 Guidelines and Practices for better meetings

In the following we outline immediately applicable guidelines and practices that will optimise meeting time, energy and outcomes.

1. Specify purpose and attendance

  • When you invite people to the meeting, ensure the purpose is clear. This sounds obvious but digging a little deeper might surprise you. Think of a meeting you attend regularly. Is the purpose clear to you? Is this meeting even necessary or can the same result be achieved in other less time-intensive ways? To what extent are the expectations of outcomes explicit? Is everyone aligned with that?
  • Be very specific as to what you would like to accomplish together. What is the focus, for example, to brainstorm new initiatives or to draft a plan to convene a partner meeting? Remind people briefly at the start of the meeting, and every time the conversation veers off or goes around in circles.
  • Consider whether your attendance is needed at all the meetings you are invited to. In which meetings could you delegate attendance to one of your team members? This also builds their competence, confidence and visibility. Inviting colleagues from other functions to your team meeting can be powerful not only for breaking silos but also for bringing in new perspectives.

2. Check-in to become fully present

  • A “check-in” is a mechanism at the start of the meeting where each participant shares something to become more present. Each person speaks from what is coming up for them, as honestly as possible, an emotion, thought or sensation; e.g. “I had some bad news last night, and I still feel a little distracted.” or “I’m really looking forward to this, the project is very dear to me.”
  • Time varies, but be explicit, e.g. one minute each. In creative work sessions or when important decisions need to be made, it is particularly important to be fully present and connect to the others.
  • No dialogue, one person shares and the others listen attentively.
  • Before the check-in round, take a moment to fully arrive. Connect with yourself, the others and the purpose of the meeting. An easy way to become present is to feel how your body is touching the chair or your feet are touching the ground. Take a few breaths in (through your nose), and make the exhale longer each time.
  • In larger virtual meetings, put 3-5 people in break-out groups so they can share among themselves. Alternatively, you could use “temperature checks”, one-word round robins or mood polls.
  • Agree in one of your next meetings to experiment with check-ins at the start of the meeting. Repeat for at least 3 – 5 meetings, then reflect together and adapt as necessary.

3. Use a facilitator and rotate

  • The facilitator guides and structures the meeting within the accorded time. Facilitation is a role in service of the group, not an ego-boosting exercise. It requires presence, attention and humility.
  • Rotate facilitation to provide shared leadership and promote engagement. If you typically facilitate a certain meeting, invite other people to do it. Likewise, if you don’t usually facilitate a meeting, ask to facilitate one!
  • Give members of your team equal opportunity to facilitate. If they lack experience, have a basic structure ready (some basic facilitation principles) and coach them through it. Be supportive.
  • Once all voices are heard on a particular issue, the facilitator summarises. Check if the summary corresponds with what the participants intended to say.
  • Record visually, ideally for all to see, agreements, outcomes/assigned actions and next steps and agree how to circulate the documentation.
  • If you need to document a lot during the meeting, assign this function to another participant – again, rotate the documenting task among all team members.

4. Change meeting routines

  • Sometimes when meetings stall, splitting into smaller groups can invigorate thinking and help the conversation dynamics. Alternatively, take 3 minutes for individual reflection on a particular issue, then share with another, then in the big group (1-2-All).
  • Experiment with meeting lengths and formats, try 30 or 45 minutes for regular meetings instead of an hour. For status updates you could use these agile-inspired questions: “What have you completed?”,” What are you working on today/this week or What are your priorities this week?” and “Where are you encountering obstacles?” Trying to pack as much as possible into one meeting (information sharing, decision-making, brainstorming etc.) is ineffective.
  • Watch out for group think and unconscious cognitive bias due to habitual ways of doing things. This article has more information on how to tackle bias in decision-making.
  • Change where people sit, rotate chairs, rooms, have stand-up meetings, go for coffee together, venture out into green spaces. When working from home, vary where you work from and which direction you face. You might be able to walk around as you are having a telephone conversation or stand for a while – changing ow you move will boost your mood and your thinking!

5. Work agenda ítems effectively

  • Be explicit with when and how you select and manage agenda items (e.g. ahead of meeting, recurring etc.). If possible, all meeting participants submit their items to create a shared Keep in mind the priority matrix (important + urgent and important + not urgent matters have priority). Avoid bringing “urgent + unimportant” items that can be dealt with outside a meeting by email or a call.
  • Use sociocratic meeting mechanisms to streamline decision-making. For example, prepare a proposal (or suggestions for action) for work items you are responsible for. During the meeting, use rounds of clarifying questions, objections and concerns – more information in this {link to sociocratic article please}
  • The person who brings the work item, specifies the time needed and facilitates the discussion around that work item (the facilitator keeps track of time). For each item, state clearly whether you want to share information, attain information, delegate something or make a decision.

6. Practise artful participation

  • Establish some ground rules, especially around punctuality, “air time”, interruptions (coming and going), mobile phones and communication style (non-judgemental, listening). In kick-off meetings, when people meet for the first time and in multicultural environments, it is especially important to agree explicitly on how you want to work together.
  • Before you say or do something in a meeting, ask yourself: “Is my comment/behaviour the greatest contribution I can make to the success of this meeting/project/discussion?”
  • Reveal your thoughts and sentiments before commenting on everyone else’s. This creates trust and transparency. Speak for yourself and your situation. “From my perspective …” Don’t assume you know what the other person’s situation is like. If you want to share an observation or opinion, be explicit, for example, “May I share what I see?”
  • Invite silence to reflect, small breaks to invigorate thinking.
  • Use a closing round to evaluate the meeting. Each participant gives feedback on how they experienced the meeting process and the outcomes. If desired, participants can say a couple of words on how they are leaving the meeting (emotions, thoughts, sensations).

Running your meetings more effectively can seem like a big challenge, especially when your organisation relies on them to share information, co-ordinate action and make decisions. Start small, experiment, review often and adapt as necessary – this way you can use this valuable time together as a conduit for change.

By Alexandra Montgomery

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