It probably seems like you spend most of your working life in meetings.
So does Connie Williams. The difference is that as General Managing Partner, CMO & Chief Knowledge Officer at Synecticsworld, a company that studies meeting processes (to train people to hold better ones), she watches hours and hours of other people’s meetings. That may sound like “a profession born in hell,” she jokes, but it gives her surprising insights into why so many meetings go wrong before they start. If you want to keep from poisoning the well, and if you want to summon up the best from your team, here’s how to learn from other people’s mistakes.
“The language you use is really important,” says Williams. Telling people that you’re having a meeting to look at the problems in a project focuses people on the problems. It also starts the carping about who created the problems.
Instead, “Put it in problem-solving language,” says Williams. Try what she calls “to be” framing: “What do you want this to be?” How can we build a better campaign? How can we find new clients? How can we keep this existing one happy? If you give people an objective, they really do think about it. So make sure you’ve chosen the right objective.
Leaders poison the well by stringing people along. You already have an answer and you want the team to buy in, but you frame the meeting as a chance for people to share their ideas. This just wastes time and energy.
In good meetings, Williams says, you agree upon how a decision will be made from the start. If people have an honest chance of influencing the decision, let them know. If you just want feedback on the current best thinking, then ask people to tell you what’s right with it, and then tell you what’s wrong with it.
Some meetings really are about brainstorming ideas. But there are plenty of ways to screw this up too. “If you don’t set a good climate of openness and trust, and all the pieces that people need in order to let their brains be fully engaged in the process, you’re going to suppress ideas,” Williams says.
Leaders may ask for people’s “good” ideas, which immediately causes everyone to clam up. Just as bad, a facilitator will claim that there are no bad ideas, and then not write someone’s suggestion down, as if the person must be joking.
Of course, the truth is that “there are loads of bad ideas out there,” says Williams, but smart leaders take a cue from improv troupes. Improv actors constructing a scene learn to use “yes, and” language. When someone puts an idea out there, you acknowledge it and build on it. “There’s almost always a thread you can pull out,” she says.
In the videos she’s watched, Williams has noticed a pattern. “I think it’s funny. You set an hour for a meeting, and you’re always at an hour and 5 minutes.” As the end of the hour approaches, the leader recognizes that “We’ve just wasted 55 minutes and now we’ve really got to make some decisions.” The problem is that people are already halfway out the door.
Do everyone a favor and reach that epiphany much earlier. Williams loves the idea of a 37.5-minute meeting. “If people get out of a meeting early haven gotten something done, they’ll come back the next time,” she says.