Put productive meetings on your agenda

Put productive meetings on your agenda

Jan Thibodeau

Done right, meetings are one of the most powerful communication tools. Why, then, are they so painful? More important, why is it that nothing much happens once participants leave the meeting table? In Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni tackles these troubling questions.

Lencioni uses a leadership fable to illustrate how to make meetings more engaging and productive. The main characters are Casey, the CEO of Yip Software, and Will, the newly hired executive assistant, film school graduate and whiz kid. Casey’s problem is that deadly, unproductive meetings threaten to undermine the success of the company, not to mention his career. Will uses his knowledge of movie structure to introduce a new meeting framework and techniques for engaging participants. The result: Company and career are saved.

Lencioni’s solutions

Lencioni offers two antidotes for boring meetings: the hook and the conflict. Like a good movie, an effective meeting hooks participants from the beginning. In the fable, Will explains that you need to jolt participants in the first 10 minutes of the meeting so that they understand what is at stake and why the meeting matters. For example, you might highlight a competitive threat or illustrate the dangers of a bad decision.

A meeting with healthy conflict and debate is an engaging, interactive meeting. Yet too many meeting leaders avoid and even discourage conflict. The book offers useful techniques to help leaders “mine” for conflict and encourage active debate.

One of the reasons staff meetings are unproductive is that they tend to include every type of issue, “like a bad stew with too many random ingredients,” Lencioni writes. Will advises different meeting structures for different purposes: Daily Check-In, Weekly Tactical, Monthly (or Ad Hoc) Strategic and Quarterly Off-Site.

The most useful concept in this part of the book is the weekly meeting model, used for a staff meeting that focuses on tactical issues. The model includes a five-minute “lightning round” in which each person indicates two or three priorities for the week. Next, critical metrics are reported–revenue, expenses, customer satisfaction, whatever is important to the work team.

After the lightning round and metrics, you set the meeting agenda. Lencioni argues that the agenda for the weekly staff meeting should reflect what everyone is working on, not on the leader’s best guess 48 hours before the meeting. Further; the staff meeting should not include discussion about longer-term strategic issues. These should be kept for the monthly strategic meeting, for which the author offers another practical model.

Reduce sneaker time

For the business communicator, ineffective meetings constitute a significant challenge. “When we flail to get clarity and alignment during meetings, we set in motion a colossal wave of human activity as executives and their reports scramble to figure out what everyone else is doing and why’ Lencioni writes. This is what he calls “sneaker time”–the time it takes for people to send e-mail, leave voice mail and roam the halls to clarify issues–and it is one of the most underestimated black holes in organizations today.

Death by Meeting is a quick and easy read that can equip you with some simple and practical techniques for improving meetings. And depending on the amount of sneaker time that occurs in your organization, sharing these techniques with senior management could help to address this familiar lament.

Jan Thibodeau, ABC, is president of JT Communications LLC in Cumberland, Rhode Island, where she helps organizations develop and implement communication strategy, including improving meeting effectiveness.

COPYRIGHT 2005 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group