A tip for better meetings: Meetings are not about you

So many books, articles, websites, webinars - good, bad and excellent – are written yearly about how to plan and conduct effective meetings that we hesitate to say anything more on the topic. Yet, most professionals daydream during meetings (91%), miss meetings (96%), miss parts of meetings (95%), bring other work to meetings (73%) or doze during meetings (39%).[1] Our experience confirms it: meetings continue to be as bad as they can be. They are boring, don’t accomplish much or very little, they last too long or not long enough, the power points would have been better sent in an e-mail, the wrong people are in the room, they lack good facilitation, don’t have a clear purpose or an agenda, and so on.

Meetings are not about YOU

If all the information for effective meetings is out there, why do people hold so many unproductive meetings and complain so much about them? We suggest that the technology available for conducting good meetings is not used for one major reason: the convener thinks the meeting is about him or her. But meetings are not about YOU, convener; meetings are about IT and THEM. “IT” is the issue you want to resolve and “THEM” is the people who can resolve it with you. Until YOU make that shift in your head and heart, your hands will not be able to conduct productive meetings. In other words, it is the convener’s role and responsibility to organize the meeting in a way that enables all who attend it to solve a problem, move closer to a vision, or learn and create something new.

Meetings are about IT and THEM

What do we mean that the meeting is about IT? There has to be an issue, a problem, a situation, or a vision that the convener brings people together to address. And it is about THEM, because unless the convener engages others in the issue, a good solution will not be found. The convener cannot go it alone.

Meetings and IT

If you understand, deep inside, that the meeting is not about YOU, but about IT you begin to use the technology for effective meetings. For example, you state a clear purpose and task for the meeting. You provide the information needed to understand the issue before the meeting. You design the meeting - you spend time identifying the best activities that will get the task accomplished. And you sequence and allocate the appropriate time for those activities. You invite those with Authority, Resources, Expertise, Information, and Need (ARE IN) to resolve the issue. You assign roles for recording, keeping time, facilitating conversations, so the discussions are on point, documented, and decisions are made and followed up.

Meetings and THEM

And if you understand that the meeting is about THEM collaborating with you, then you help the attendees prepare for the meeting. You send the agenda ahead of time, and remind participants of the meeting date and the start and closing time. You set expectations for preparing and participating in the meeting. You also make sure that participants know each other in ways that are relevant to the task. You remind them why they were invited and what they bring to the table.

If you believe the meeting is about THEM (not you) you help them talk to each other – not only to you – and you have flip charts, markers, white boards and other soft and hard technology to help them share information and make decisions. You provide a comfortable meeting space, good coffee or whatever food and refreshments are appropriate in your culture, you take care of THEM, for they are helping you with an important task.

Meetings and Pseudo-Meetings

Of course, there is the possibility that the convener does not want to resolve or improve anything.  The convener just wants to pretend to do something – call a meeting! – to resolve whatever. There are a few variations on this theme of abusing meetings, giving them a bad name, and wasting the precious resource of bringing people together. For example, the convener may be pretending to be an inclusive leader, when in fact, s/he thinks they know better. Or the convener may need to maintain a façade about espoused organizational values and ethics, such as collaboration without participation or diversity without inclusion. In that case we are no longer dealing with meetings and their purpose – to get an issue resolved, improve a situation, implement a vision, or create something new. In that case the function of the meeting is “pomp and ritual.”

If pomp and ritual is the purpose, there is not much that can be done to change the meeting dynamics. So, convener, stop complaining and shorten the meeting. Participant, don’t feel guilty about getting distracted and learn to enjoy the ritual - get them to serve nicer cookies and coffee. And CEO and Board of Directors, expect increased employee skepticism in your next survey results.

Otherwise, prepare your people and demand better meetings focused on IT and THEM, starting with YOU.

The State of Meetings Today. In Effective Meetings.com, http://www.effectivemeetings.com/meetingbasics/meetstate.asp. Downloaded April 8, 2010.

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