“If it weren’t for the meetings, this would be the perfect job.”
How many times have you felt this way about your weekly group status meeting? Unfortunately, business meetings are a fact of professional life and a critical component of running a successful business. But you hate it. It’s a boring, tedious, unfocused and lethargic hour or two that you will never get back. Right?
Why we hate business meetings
It seems most people dread business meetings in spite of them being a critical part of the company process. After all, business meetings are where most critical company decisions get made, the direction of the company is set and monitored, and where information regarding the business is disseminated to the team. If we feel business meetings are boring and tedious, how can we be making good decisions?
More importantly, why do we find business meetings boring and tedious in the first place? Only once we have a better understanding of why we hate business meetings can we hope to learn how to conduct a business meeting our employees won’t actually hate.
Business meetings often reflect the personality of the company
Many times, the overall personality of the company can closely mirror the personality of the typical business meeting. If the meeting is typically dominated by one or two loud arm-waving individuals, chances are good that the company is run the same way. If meetings are poorly attended, start late and have people wandering in after the meeting has started, this is probably how the company performs during the day. The effect these meetings can have on company performance and efficiency can be devastating. Lethargic meetings can lead to a lethargic company.
Business meetings often feel longer than they actually are
They say that time is relative. A week spent on a diet is much longer than a week spent on a cruise ship. Two hours in a boring business meeting is way longer than two hours spent watching a movie. How can this be? A business meeting is where decisions are made that can affect your daily, weekly and future life and the success of the company. A business meeting should be interactive and the topics relevant to us personally. A movie, on the other hand, is very passive. You get to just sit there. You can’t interact with the actors in any way, you can’t affect the outcome of the movie at all and in most cases the actual movie has absolutely nothing to do with us personally. How it ends will have no effect on our lives. Yet, we would rather be there than in a business meeting.
Most business meetings are boring and unengaging
Why do business meetings feel so much longer than they actually are? Well, most business meetings are boring, most movies aren’t. Think about your typical movie. In the first 10 minutes or so something happens that grabs your attention and invests you in the movie in some way. In Jaws, a woman gets eaten by a shark while that scary music plays. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is chased by a giant rock and in Saving Private Ryan the first 10 minutes are, well, intense. So, what happens in the first 10 minutes of your typical business meeting? The agenda is passed out while people wander in, there is some small talk then the leader starts taking about budgets. Again. You have heard it all before, it doesn’t really interest you and someone will probably publish the minutes of the meeting, which you won’t read. And the clock ticks away the time just like that 7th grade history class you hated.
Business meetings often avoid conflict
In your typical movie there is always some sort of conflict created. This is what makes the movie interesting. The conflict may be between two people, like Rocky Balboa fighting Apollo Creed in Rocky II, or it may be man against nature, like Chief Martin Brody fighting a massive shark in Jaws. There is some conflict set up that really needs to get resolved, and the pursuit of that resolution is what keeps you engaged in the movie. If you think about your favorite movies, every one of them does this. It grabs your attention right away and keeps it during the entire two hours or so. In your typical meeting, none of this happens in spite of the fact that the meeting has way more direct impact on you than a movie and you get to participate and affect the outcome if you so choose. While there is no way to make a meeting as engaging as a movie, there is certainly room to improve.
How to conduct a business meeting that’s actually engaging
Well, what if we ran our meetings like a director creates a movie? In the first 10 minutes our attention is grabbed because the purpose and intent of the meeting is revealed. Over the next hour or two conflict is created as the team wrestles with the business topic or topics, arguments ensue, passions flair, arms get waved and everyone participates. Before you know it, the time has passed, and decisions have been made. Everyone leaves the meeting excited and engaged. Wouldn’t that be fun and far more interesting than the current business meetings you attend?
So, if we want to know how to conduct a business meeting that keeps your team’s attention, let’s first think about what prevents this and what we can change to make it happen. In the first 10 minutes of our current business meeting format, the dreaded agenda is passed around. This agenda is most likely created by the team leader and, while they may have asked for input during the week, most likely nobody gave any so the agenda probably doesn’t change much week to week or has stuff on it you could care less about.
Breaking the status quo
Most companies conduct a business meeting as follows: First a status report from marketing, then a status report from sales, then a status report from the rest of the departments.
During these status reports there is very little engagement from the rest of the team other than a question or two. In fact, if there is any disagreement during a discussion it will probably get tamped down by the leader before it gets out of hand and the topic becomes tabled for later. What might have been an interesting conversation is stifled so nobody gets uncomfortable. It’s boring. If we want to learn how to conduct a business meeting that keeps employees interested, we tend to break the status quo and create a new format that fosters engagement.
Setting the business meeting agenda
Eliminating the “pre-set” meeting agenda: the lightning round
What if there was no agenda? What if the meeting started without a list of stuff to slog through? What if the first 10 minutes of the meeting were spent setting the agenda for the rest of the meeting? This can be done with something we might call the lightning round.
In this first round, each team member in the meeting has one minute to state what they are working on this week, what’s important and what they are wrestling with. (One minute is actually a long time, try staring at the clock for exactly one minute.) During this first 10 minutes or so, everyone is writing down the things they want to hear more about or have something to say about. Maybe it’s the advertising strategy Bob is working on. Maybe it’s a new feature set for the product Sally is trying to nail down. Maybe someone just has questions about something that affects their department. Nothing is debated in this first lightning round, no questions are asked, just written down.
Staying on track
After 10 minutes, everyone has, or should have, written stuff down they want to talk about. This certainly isn’t as grabbing as the first 10 minutes of a movie, but it serves the same purpose, getting everyone invested in the meeting. Now we can go into the status portion of the meeting, the part that used to take the entire meeting time. Each team member who might have a status report to give has 2 or 3 minutes to give it. This may not seem like a lot of time, but you will find that if people know they have a timed deadline they can cover a lot of material quickly, and it prevents the team from diving down the dreaded ‘rathole’ that can knock a meeting right off the tracks. Again, everyone else writes things down that need to be discussed more and there is little interaction, by design, so far.
At this point, it’s time to set the agenda. You should be no more than 15 minutes into the hour meeting, so there is plenty of time to talk about what’s important. You go around the room and everyone states three topics they want to talk about, based on what they have heard thus far. Someone is writing these topics on the board. So now you have a list of topics that the team is actually interested in. Time to sort it, quickly.
Sorting the meeting agenda
The list should be sorted into three groups.
The first is topics that are tactical. These have an immediate impact on the company.
The second is topics that are strategic. These have a longer-term effect on the company and will require deeper conversation by the team.
The third group are core topics. These have an overall impact on the direction or success of the company and will require a day or more of discussion to resolve.
You will come across topics that don’t seem to fit into these categories or aren’t really needing a discussion. They should be knocked off the list. Your team will get really good about identifying these items as they get more familiar with this process.
The tactical topics on the board are now the agenda for the weekly meeting. The strategic and core topics on the board are documented and shelved for other meetings that can focus on those topics exclusively.
There is a reason we don’t want to mix tactical conversations with strategic topics. It’s called context-switching. It is very difficult for a team to switch between tactical and strategic issues back and forth in the same meeting. It’s like watching a 30-minute comedy on TV and channel surfing to an action film during the commercials. It’s like talking about your Christmas tree decorations at the same time you are discussing the quality of your school system.
The topics need to be separated into different meetings. The weekly meeting is for tactical issues, and it is up to the team leader to enforce this and not let the meeting stray into strategic issues. If a strategic topic comes up during the meeting, put it on the strategic list.
How to conduct a business meeting for tactical topics
Now, on to the tactical topic list. Learning how to conduct a business meeting for tactical topics is much easier than the strategic and core topics, as it has a natural flow that engages team members by design.
Each item was put on the list by someone in the room, and that person leads the conversation first by stating the reason it’s on the list and the decision that needs to be made. You should have prioritized the list, with the most important or critical at the top. Now comes the discomfort. If you haven’t read my articles on the Five Dysfunctions that cause a breakdown in team dynamics, you should do so now.
Your team members may be reluctant to speak their thoughts in a group setting. If you, the team leader, allow this you are going to have a boring meeting and we will have accomplished nothing. You have to mine for conflict, it’s the conflict and passionate debate that will keep people engaged in the topic and make the meeting interesting.
Ask people directly about their thoughts on the subject and don’t try to stifle the conversation if it gets heated. That’s what you want. The topic is on the agenda because it was important to the team so make them talk about it. Take the time to drive the topic in to the ground and make a decision when the discussion has exhausted itself. Do not attempt to achieve group consensus, it isn’t important and probably won’t happen. Just focus on getting everyone’s thoughts on the table.
When the topic is done and resolved, move to the next item on the list. If the item can’t be resolved, it may need to go in the strategic list for later. You will find that you can’t always get through the entire tactical list in the time allotted. This will likely not happen as often once you do this for a few weeks, but if it does you can either allocate more time or just move items to the following week. This is why you prioritized the list at the beginning of the meeting. Many times, you will find that a topic moved to the following week is no longer important a week later as it was resolved elsewhere.
If you do this and stick to it, you will find that the weekly status meetings are now far more interesting and engaging as well as productive.
How to conduct a business meeting for strategic topics
If you are successful at running your weekly status meetings in the manner outlined above, you will be creating a nice list of strategic issues that need to be discussed and you are going to need to know how to conduct a business meeting for these strategic topics that are just as engaging.
There is no rule about how often you need to have a strategy meeting, but you shouldn’t have one with more than 2 or 3 items to discuss as they will take longer to resolve. The strategy meeting should be scheduled for 2 hours, maybe more depending on the topics. You should definitely have an agenda containing the issues you have created as a team in the tactical weekly meetings. The agenda should be published at least several days before the meeting, so the team members have time to do any required research and can generally prepare for the meeting.
Your job as the CEO or as the leader of a team is to keep the meeting on topic; mine for conflict and make sure everyone is participating in the conversation. Encourage passionate debate and arm waving, as it means team members are involved and engaged. Again, if you haven’t read my series of articles on team dysfunction, this is a good time to do so. You aren’t seeking consensus; it just isn’t going to happen. You do want to make sure everyone with something to say about the topic has been heard and the topic has been debated.
Once you make the decision, the conversation needs to be over unless new information comes to light. No hallway debates after the fact, no email threads trying to change minds. The team needs to understand that the time for debate is during the meeting and there will be no tolerance for it after the meeting.
How to conduct a business meeting for core topics
The last category of topics are those that have far-reaching impact on the company and can’t be covered adequately in 2 hours. Should you acquire a competitor? Enter a new market? Create a new product line? These kinds of items really require the undivided attention of the team and should be handled in an off-site 1 to 3 day event, maybe held quarterly or twice a year, depending on how many things you have to cover.
Again, the agenda should be created and distributed weeks before the event so everyone can be prepared for the conversations. The rules of engagement are the same as the weekly and monthly meetings described above. You need the off-site location so the team can be fully-immersed in the conversation and not interrupted by their daily routine. It’s also fun to schedule these where the team can have some fun time together after the meetings are done each day.
If you can successfully change your meeting strategy as described here, you will find that your team will enjoy your weekly staff meetings as much as a good movie. Well, maybe not, but they will definitely get more out of it.
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