Designing Meetings

DESIGNING MEETINGS

Meetings represent over half of our time at work. As one executive from Danone confided to me in an exasperated tone, “I can only get stuff done after 6 p.m. and I’m already booked for the next three weeks- at least!”. Abundant literature also indicates that most of these meetings are incredibly inefficient: agonisingly slow, with no decisions made and erratic participation by those present. Since effective self-management is built around teams who know how to work together, meetings are a critical component in the field of organisational design.

Introduction

 Well managed companies already have official or unofficial policies concerning fixing meeting agendas beforehand and imposing fairly rigorous time boxing. Maybe this is already your case. But great companies go a step further and are able answer the following questions without hesitation: What is the objective of each of the meetings I attend? What are the different types of meetings we need in our organisation? What are the decisions we need to make? Who really needs to show up at each of these meetings? And most importantly, how do we decide together? Is it the Highest Paid Person in the room or maybe the decision is made behind closed doors after the meeting? If you truly want to be a collaborative organisation with the skilful participation of everyone involved, you will need to be able to design and conduct meetings for specific objectives with very precise processes in order to reach your goals. So let us examine each of these questions in turn.

1. What exactly are we doing together?

While people are exasperated by the number of meetings they have, they rarely refuse to go to them. It is a social taboo. It reminds me a bit how we shovel emails all day (generally while in meetings). What would happen if I just did not read them all, or go to all of those meetings? Would the company explode in mid-air? Most probably not. The first step of improving meetings is getting clarity on what the team needs to get done over time. This is highly specific to the nature of the interactions and activities of the group as well as the Purpose they have. So start by making an inventory of how many meetings you have as a team today. Then, make an inventory of all the types of topics that are addressed, and crucially, if the intention of each topic is typically for information sharing, getting advice, brainstorming, or making a decision. This last category is of particular importance as it speaks directly to the power relationships within the group.

Then take a step back and reflect: giving the Purpose of our team and the value we are supposed to be creating, what are the precise number and nature of meetings we require?

There is a bit of methodology involved, but you can quickly and efficiently identify:

  1. how many meetings there should be,
  2. what the expected outcome is of each one
  3. who should be there
  4. what format should be used to conduct the meetings

 I have worked with teams who after conducting this exercise came to the collective realisation that behind all the job titles and complicated official organigrams, that the level of interconnectedness and shared Purpose was so weak between them that they basically only needed to meet on an occasional basis to share information. Real decisions and in-depth discussions were best made elsewhere in the organisation, but the fear of useless was so strong within the group that they kept meddling along without changing things. After a moment of collective embarrassment, all were relieved at having gained clarify and cleared a bit more their agenda and mutual expectations.

2. What are my options in terms of processes for managing meetings?

People often bring topics to discussions without clearly defining what they expect the rest of the team to do with the topic addressed. Do you just want people’s opinion, or do you expect them to commit to some course of action? When these distinctions are not clear, contamination is never far: topic 1 brought up by person A morphs into topic 2 that persons B and C ardently defend and a three way argument discussion ensues – while everyone else goes back to their emails discretely while the topic boils over.

 According to the Google Aristotle study on team efficiency high performing groups are those that consistently generate “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking’’ and “high average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt.”

 These qualities can be generated with the right processes, baked-in systematically in a customised manner according to the group’s needs. For instance, if a topic is tabled for purely information sharing, there should be space for questions of clarification: why is this topic important? How will it concern me? Who is involved? Why choose this type of solution? But since you are not seeking advice, the space for debate should be extremely limited and if becomes necessary addressed in another venue. If on the other hand you are bringing a subject up for advice (it is a complex subject for instance, that may concern other people), the team should be able to not ask questions of clarification but each group member should be systematically solicited for their reaction: do they have a better idea, do they agree/disagree on the subject, any improvements to suggest, etc. That way, no one is left out, and no one can say they were left out either. The goal here would be not to make a decision with the group, just to gather valuable input through a generative conversation. We are living is a time of great experimentation in this field of meeting design. Thanks to group facilitation technics based on collective intelligence, Agile methodology, design thinking as well as the latest in Sociocracy and Holacracy inspired tools, there is quite a pallet available to choose from. The most important thing is not be dogmatic. Design the best process that is adapted to your meeting – but then stick to it long enough and see if it is generating results.

3. The trickiest part: making decisions

 There is one type of objective for a given topic that requires special attention: decision making. It is probably the trickiest and things quickly become fuzzy. Very often when a decision has to be made, we are not really sure if the owner of the topic is really seeking a decision or not. We do not know who exactly has (or should have) the power of making the decision. And so we lean towards a kind of concensus, mixed with a bit of behind the doors diplomacy after or before the meeting. This is a recipe of a lot of wasted time and energy and a serious source of demotivation for employees. Why is he or she bringing it up if the decision is already made? Or you have spent nearly two hours arguing and the group still have not made a decision. It is therefore very important to have a rigorous process in place to tackle these tricky topics. Luckily there is one process out there that can help: Integrative Decision Making (IDM), popularised by Holacracy. It is perhaps the most mature tool of decision making available today. It is based on consent rather then on concensus. It manages objections in a very constructive manner and ensures the group’s participation. The secret sauce to this is making a strong distinction between a simple preference and a true objection.

A summary of the key steps of IDM are below:

1. Formulate proposal

  • Give context and reasons to create meaning for proposal
  • Name the roles concerned by the topic who will participate in decision making
  • The proposal does not need to be perfect

2. Clarification round
3. Reaction round
4. Amended proposal by initiator
+  If necessary, proposer can withdraw proposal and return later
5. Objection round
6. Integration

If you are interested in this more in detail please check out this more detailed explanation by one of the founders of Holacracy Brian Robertson. This process can be tweaked but is a very robust basis for decision making. It pushes the group to make small incremental decisions in an efficient manner, favouring a trial and error approach as opposed to a risk adverse blame game.

4. “Some facilitation required

In your future living organisation, NO meetings will be run without a designated facilitator. In fact, the capacity to facilitate well, is probably the future -the only future – of management as we know it today. Without a facilitator to guarantee the process, meetings will invariably fail, at least in the early stages, as old habits will take control of the meeting. A facilitator is someone who is trained within the team and has absolute authority on conduct of the meeting – but not on the content discussed. This means that the “boss” or other influential person in the room is precluded from being the facilitator.

5. Some hope and some reality checks on Meeting Design 

You cannot design your way out of interpersonal conflict – but you can lessen it considerably. Designing the right meetings will improve employee wellbeing, by bringing greater clarity and transparency in the group, and reducing the “signal to noise” ratio by treating properly all issues as they arise. Group dynamics become more healthy.

Be strict with the process you put in place, in the beginning – initially some people might feel constrained by the often strict step-by-step processes put into place, they will want to skip some things, or speed others up. As a facilitator, do not let this happen. For the processes to change behaviours, they must be respected for a little while. Later, you can begin to improvise.

Ultimately, the process is not important: it’s the cultural transformation that really counts – once you learn a few meeting patterns, you can begin to free yourself of them and adapt on the fly your meetings, thanks to the collective intelligence of the group that safeguards the intent. Your culture has changed

After the power shift, comes the consciousness shift. Properly designed meetings will put power in the right hands and bring clarity and a strong sense of individual responsibility to all. But more than that, becoming conscious of the system you are working in, thanks notably to meeting design, leads invariable to a shift in mindset, even a shift of consciousness as we shift to a higher order of complexity to tackle our problems.

6. A final word: the emperor has no clothes

Efficiently designed meetings will force clarity on the roles people have. Some people will be emancipated and freer to express their opinions within the mew meeting framework. Others may realise that their role is not what they thought it was, perhaps more limited, or even not required in that particular meeting. This is a delicate subject. When someone expects to have the “right” to be in a meeting, but in fact does not contribute, they will very quickly feel excluded. Realising that “the king is naked” is hard. This is why we strongly recommend to follow-up the implementation of new efficient meeting process some coaching of the team to make this transition as safe as possible for everyone.

Eric-Axel Zimmer, Co-founder Fabric