One of my favorite books on facilitating meetings is Death by Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni. It’s framed in the form of a fable that’s not only easy reading, but also helps you relate to the message. The message lays out the two main reasons meetings are usually so poor and what to do about them. So what are these key points you ask?
Welcome Conflict. I’m often amused when I receive emails from readers asking how they can solve an issue in their group without addressing it directly or without ruffling feathers. I’m amused because I can relate to their sincere desire to maintain harmony. But when outer harmony comes at the expense of inner suffering, we don’t really have harmony. What we’ve really got is fake harmony outside and raging wars inside.
In Death by Meeting,”Will, one of the main characters, queries his group as to whether they’d rather attend a two-hour movie or a two-hour meeting. The answer was of course obvious. Why? What is it about movies that meetings tend to lack? In a word, “conflict.” Every movie has a conflict to be resolved in one form or another, either externally or internally. Conflict is interesting, it’s spicy. It brings out our best and our worst and we enjoy watching it unfold.
But what is it that we avoid most in meetings? Yes, you’ve got it. It’s conflict! But only through conflict, disagreement, argument, heated discussion, etc. can we really flesh out an issue to its core and discover resolution. Only when all views are adequately aired will participants be willing to agree and support a solution that might not be their initially chosen one.
Enter the Drama. Will further suggested that meetings should be more interesting than movies given that we can interact in them and affect their outcome, and that their results often have a stake in our livelihoods. It goes without saying however, that we have to be more than passive bystanders watching meetings unfold as if they were movies without engaging…without risking a conflict.
Structural Context. Finally, Will suggests that another key problem we have with meetings is that we try to do too much in each one. We stress our meeting structures so that they are doomed to fail us. He suggests four different types of meetings that separate near-term actions, long term strategy, and big-picture company issues into separate meeting venues each with their own purpose and format.
Two Strategies for Drastically Improving Your Meetings
Welcome Conflict. Whether you’re the meeting leader or a participant, welcome conflict when it begins to occur. Let everyone know that it’s a good thing. It means that there’s passion and interest in the subject and that the engaging participants are digging below the surface into that unknown region of diversity where more truth and complexity is available, along with the possibility of a real solution.
For example, “Suzy and Michael, it’s great to hear you discussing this issue with such passion. This discussion is long overdue and I’m happy you’re working it through. If it feels uncomfortable at times, that’s OK, it should feel uncomfortable. Resolving differences is sometimes painful. Seeking to stay comfortable around this or any difficult situation simply perpetuates it.”
Keep Conflict Respectable. When we speak of conflict here, we speak of conflicting opinions versus conflicting people. Make it clear that there is a difference in ideas and opinions and that this is good. Support participants in maintaining respect for one another, refraining from name calling and personal attacks, and get them to focus on owning and expressing their own views versus making assumptions about others.
For example, Suzy might say, “Michael, you think money grows on trees. We can’t afford to hire a new salesperson just because you can’t do your job.” You could coach her to refrain from making assumptions about Michael’s values. Suggest a questions instead. Something like, “Michael, how do you think a new salesperson will help us and how do you suggest we pay for one?”
Separate Meetings Types. Patrick suggests four types of meeting structures in his book, the 5-minute Daily Check-in, the 45-90 minute Weekly Tactical, the 2-4 hour Monthly or Ad Hoc Strategy, and the 1-2 day Quarterly Off-site Review. The two most common are the Weekly Tactical Meeting (WTM) and the Monthly Strategic Meeting (MSM).
In the WTM, there is no agenda coming into the meeting. A few minutes are relegated for check-in by each team member around their key tasks for the week. Then a few minutes are used to develop an agenda that contains the top few items that need the most attention based on the check-in. Then for the rest of the meeting, only these near-term tactical issues are discussed. If something strategic comes up that needs to be addressed, it is parked and deferred to an upcoming Strategy Meeting.
Strategy Meetings are scheduled to address strategic decision-making or can be convened Ad Hoc as needed to address an immediate concern. Strategy meetings focus on only one or two issues which are afforded the time they require. Therefore, it’s suggested that participants block out four hours for the strategic meetings so that the items can be brought to completion.
Conflict is good. It creates drama and interest and is often required to work through complex problems. Having walked through a conflict to its resolution, participants build trust and respect, qualities that enhance and improve their working relationships and ability to resolve future issues.
Providing a meeting structure separating tactics from strategy prevents much of the jumping around that occurs in most meetings between immediate issues and long term strategy. Both of which need to be dealt with but within different contexts.
What challenges do you have in the meetings you lead or attend? Based on the ideas in this article, how can you bring more spice into your meetings? Please click on the Add Your Comments link above and share your thoughts, stories, and experiences around this topic. I’d love to hear from you!