“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’,” so claims the American author Dave Barry. And he’s kind of got a point. Like it or not, meetings are a key – sometimes useless – part of our lives. But meetings could be so much better. Follow this simple advice and maybe, just maybe, the human race can finally achieve its full potential. Oh wait, should we have a meeting about that?
First things first: don’t go in blind. Every meeting should have a purpose – and everyone should know exactly what it is. “It sounds simple but it’s actually very powerful,” says Hayden Wood, co-founder and CEO of energy startup Bulb. He never has a meeting without an agenda. “We often put one in the event invitation, but if that hasn’t been done we agree an agenda at the start of the meeting.”
Amy Cowpe, chief of staff at human resources software startup CharlieHR, says her team uses the first five minutes of each leadership meeting to say what they’re most worried about – the issues that crop up most become the agenda. “It ensures that you’re talking about what’s most mission critical,” she says.
Once you know what the focus is, turn it into action. “I ask, ‘what’s stopping us from doing this today?’ and often the answer is ‘nothing’,” says Wood. That’s how you use meetings to get things done.
Bulb recently implemented a new incentive structure. “It was conceived on day one, communicated on day two, and put in place on day three,” says Wood. That’s not typical. One of Wood’s colleagues used to work at one of the big four tech companies, “they spent three months trying to implement a new incentive structure for one of their teams,” says Wood. Focus your meetings on action, he says, and you can get stuff done.
Rather than tackling giant decisions in one go, Bulb streamlines the process by splitting them up “so they become more bite-sized and manageable,” says Wood. It’s a way of working that works at big corporates, too. “It’s something we continually push ourselves on, can we be faster?” says Emily Maxey, vice president global marketing at adidas. “Can we strip back layers of decision making to ensure we are moving at the pace consumers expect?”
You’re more likely to get these swift outcomes if you’re hearing from everyone in the room. “One of the things we’ve found makes meetings unproductive is when they’re not optimised for both fast thinkers and slow thinkers,” says Cowpe, explaining that at CharlieHR, half the leadership team are textbook fast thinkers. “They find it really easy to chuck around ideas in the moment,” she says. But that leaves the other half of the team, who are introverted slower thinkers, without much of a chance to contribute.
“During our leadership meetings, those louder voices were being heard more,” says Cowpe. “That meant that we weren’t always coming to the best decisions.” Having a range of perspectives and insights on a particular topic is crucial for success’ says Maxey.
To tackle this issue, the team at CharlieHR sends out a pre-read with the invite, especially if the meeting is going to cover a hefty topic. That gives quieter colleagues a chance to prep for the discussion. “We also do mandatory sharing,” says Cowpe. Specific questions are sent out in advance and everyone gives their answer during the meeting. This has proven far more effective for getting input from introverts than simply asking if anyone “has any thoughts”.
It’s important to remember that, while productivity is important, there are still people in the room. “It’s good to humanise people. So, at the start of every meeting he does a check-in,” says Wood. “We go round the room and everyone answers three questions: what are you feeling? Is anything going to distract you today? And something light-hearted and fun that changes each.” It might sound glib, but Wood says it has a positive impact. “It’s really powerful because it helps us understand the mood we’re all bringing into the meeting.”
All attendees should have a specific role. “The worst meetings are when people in the room don’t know what role they are playing,” says Cowpe. She uses a specific framework called RACI: responsible, accountable, consulted and informed. Only two or three people will fall under the responsible and accountable headings; they’re the ones making the decision. The Cs are only in the room to give an opinion, “and that clarity makes meetings more productive,” she says.
Assigning these roles also makes it easier to trim down who you actually invite to the meeting. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has a simpler rule: if you can’t feed the whole meeting with two pizzas, then there are too many people in the room.
When you’re in a meeting, really listen. That’s much easier said than done because “everyone’s natural instinct is ‘listening to respond’,” says Cowpe. “People are so desperate to express their point, they listen egotistically because they want to say something they think is valuable.”
Cowpe and her colleagues label different verbal behaviours with colours. Red is bad: “interrupting is a total no-no,” she says. Green is good: bringing someone into the conversation or asking a question. Neutral communication, like disagreeing with someone or offering up your own ideas, is labelled Blue.
The system is based on the work of psychologist Neil Rackham, and everyone at CharlieHR understands it. Meetings are interspersed with comments like: “Great Green comms, Alice” or “Oooh those were Red comms, Gary”. “It’s a bit jokey,” says Cowpe, so no one gets humiliated and the positive behaviours become engrained. “Now our meetings have a much slower pace to them,” she says. “It doesn’t take longer, the rhythm of the meeting is just slower, and we get to better decisions.”
Really, the biggest mistake is making meetings your default. “Try and avoid this death-by-meeting culture,” says Wood. Take a second to consider whether an email would suffice. “Often when you think of what outcome you want, it’s clear that a meeting isn’t the best way to achieve it,” says Cowpe. The best way to avoid unproductive meetings? Don’t have them at all.
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