They Would Rather Watch Paint Dry

According to this Inc. article, your employees would rather watch paint dry, move to the Antarctic, or get a mullet haircut than got to another of your meetings. It’s an interesting infographic, and the alternatives to even having meetings are worth considering.

But…

Before you consider throwing out the baby with the bathwater, consider first if there’s anything you could be doing better, including running a more effective meeting itself. Or maybe work on the underlying trust, conflict, and commitment issues, a lá Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

17 % of Your Employees Would Rather Watch Paint Dry

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The Easiest Way to Promote Gender Equality at Your Company

I believe that women need to learn to use three phrases, and I hope that my daughters have learned them as well:

  • Please don’t interrupt me / I’m not finished
  • I already said that, and
  • I don’t need you to explain that to me.

But women can’t do it all themselves. So this is a great rule for you, meeting chair-person, to enforce.

The Easiest Way to Promote Gender Equality at Your Company – Laura Montini

8 Simple Ideas To Make Meetings Better – Part 2

This continues “8 Simple Ideas to Make Meetings Better” 

c1fcd419b28af8ea964352198d3fbb01_w731_h600Use a Parking Lot

Important topics that aren’t part of the agenda can and will come up. You can stop them from de-railing your meeting by putting them in the “parking lot”. This means writing them down on a list that everybody can see, and reviewing that list near the end of the meeting to decide what to do next.

Hint: The “parking lot” cannot be a “I’m writing this down over here because I want you to shut up” list. In order for this to work, people in the meeting have to know and trust that it will be reviewed, and the items on the list are disposed of (make a decision, put on another agenda, have a separate meeting, etc.) properly. Otherwise the “parking lot” becomes ineffective.

Take Notes

Taking notes is what professionals do. Taking notes in any professional situation instead of relying on memory, or other’s memory, increases your organizational effectiveness by an order of magnitude. It’s worth the moments it takes to write things down in situ. Time you’ll save later trying to remember what was decided or having the same discussion with the same people again. Your memory is s not as good in the future as you think it is now.

Hint:  It is difficult to take notes, keep track of time, and take part in the discussion and decision-making simultaneously. If you’re doing one or even (if you’re really good) two well, another will suffer. It’s okay to delegate note-taking or time-keeping out to somebody else if you can.

Review Actions

Take an appropriate amount of time at the end of the meeting to check decisions and action items. The first time you do this it will take longer than you think it will, but that’s okay. Pinning down exactly who is going to do what by when is really really valuable.

Hint: Decisions without actions (work) are merely wishes and of no value. Action items consist of three things:

  • Who (one person accountable, even if more than one person is doing the work)
  • Is going to do what, specifically
  • By when, specifically

Corollary: “Make hay while the sun shines” applies here. If you’re assigned work, then get it done as soon as possible. Don’t leave it until the last minute. If something does comes up at the last minute, which it often does, you’ll look like a jerk for not doing what you promised.

Publish the Notes

Publish the notes as soon as practical after the end of the meeting. Not moments before the next meeting. That is useless. Also really unfair to expect people to complete their work when you publish the official record of the meeting and associated actions five minutes before they’re due. That’s an asshole move.

Hint: Take your own notes during other’s meetings, especially whatever work was assigned to you. Other’s ineffectiveness is not an excuse for your own sloppy work.

8 Simple Ideas To Make Meetings Better – Part 1

pmo-meeting-agendaIf you’ve ever felt like you were wasting your time in a meeting, you were probably right. And you shouldn’t tolerate it. Especially if you’re the one who called the meeting. So stop doing that.

Here’s some tips from 30 years of being in, chairing, and making meetings useful. I haven’t always run good meetings, but I get easily frustrated with in-efficiencies, so I’ve picked up a couple of things that work for me over the years:

Have a Reason

If you can’t think of why you’re having the meeting , or what you want to get out of it, then don’ t have it.

Hint: Showing everybody who’s boss by making them come to a meeting held by you doesn’t count as a reason.

Have an Agenda

Which should line up with your reason to have the meeting, and helps you decide whom to invite. An agenda is not just a list of talking points. It is:

  • a list of topics,
  • the time you plan to spend on each one,
  • who the champion / presenter  for each agenda item is, and
  • in the order you’re going to discuss them

Hint: You can arrange your agenda in a couple of different ways (and these are not the only options):

  • go from involving the most people (general announcements kind of thing) down to the least (specific discussions involving limited people), and let others leave the meeting early
  • have “guests” or subject matter experts come in at specific times (like for a training)
  • I like to arrange my meetings in priority order so that the most important discussion happen and decisions get made first if we do run out of time

Invite the Right People

By “right” I mean people who can contribute the to discussion and decision-making, and have a proven track record (as far as you can) of delivering what they promise. Having deadwood (people who can’t or don’t contribute) is a waste of your time and company resources.

Hint: If it’s a regular or standing meeting, don’t be afraid to prune the invite list every once in a while. They tend to grow over time for some reason. Most meetings are effective for active and engaged decision-making when there are fewer than eight people involved.

Corollary: Don’t be afraid to prune your own calendar once in a while either. If you’re attending meetings just to be in the loop, consider just getting the meeting notes instead.

Start on Time, End on Time

The best way I know to start and end meetings on time is to actually just start and end them on time. No matter who is there or isn’t there. And don’t go back to review things for late comers. Being late for your next meeting because your last meeting went long is a self-fulfilling, self-damaging habit that should and can be broken.

Hint: If you do have to go long, and sometimes this is unavoidable, stop before the scheduled end time and ask if everybody is okay with going late. Getting consent is an acceptable way of handling this situation. Of course, if not everybody that needs to can stay, you should respect this and find a different way (like scheduling a follow-up meeting) to handle it.

Making Meetings Suck Less: Preparation

“The will to win is worthless if you do not have the will to prepare!” — Thane Yost

You might think you don’t have to prepare for every meeting you attend.

You’re wrong.

If you’re going to meetings you get paid to bring your brain. You get paid to be focused and present, not to do check text messages or plan your kid’s birthday party. Every little thing you do that doesn’t help move the meeting forward, everything that distracts you from being present, contributes to make the meeting suck.

Even if your preparation consists of reviewing the agenda and meeting minutes from the last meeting, and making sure you’re completed your actions (the actions you entered into your personal productivity planner and completed when you first received the minutes), it gets you in the right frame of mind to make sure the meeting is productive, effective, and focused.

No matter the size or purpose of a meeting, preparation for all participants is directly proportional to its success. If you are running the meeting this goes double. This means having an agenda published ahead of time, and distributed to all the attendees in enough time for you and them to prepare properly.

Agenda is key. For a complex, multi-day, large meeting you may have to meet to decide the agenda and attendees! This may seem a little Dilbertesque, but if it clearly supports the purpose of the meeting you’re preparing for, then go for it. Having a stand-up meeting in your office a half an hour before an important client meeting is different. That’s called “panicking”.

Don’t be that manager: walking into a key, client facing meeting and winging it. It’s embarrassing for everybody concerned, and the only person you’re fooling is yourself.

Consider the following for your meeting agendas:

  1. Purpose – if you don’t have a clear purpose, then go back to setting goals. Even a weekly staff meeting should have a purpose that lines up with the team’s purpose. It doesn’t hurt to reinforce what the team’s priorities are.
  2. Time & Location – this may include an appropriate map for people coming from out-of-plant or out-of-town.
  3. Attendees – whose attending by name, company, and role as applicable. If you’re the boss make it clear to anyone that can’t attend that you expect them to send a delegate in their place. It’s a great development opportunity!
  4. Special Instructions – instructions for teleconferencing, security, etc.
  5. Description – a short but meaningful description of the purpose of the meeting. Think: “This meeting will be successful if _____.” Keep it to one line.
  6. Agenda Items, including
    1. Start time and responsible person – when to start and who is leading the discussion for this item. The start time for the next item is the end time for the current item.
    2. Description – a short but meaningful description of what to discuss, decide, or debate.
    3. Outcome – if you set up your agenda in three columns, “Outcome” is the blank column for making notes, capturing action items and due dates, etc. An easy way for you and the attendees to keep notes.

The last agenda item should be “clean-up”; a review of the action items (who does what by when), setting or confirming the date and time for the next meeting,etc.

So, if you’re leading a meeting,

  1. Create and publish an agenda of the appropriate level of detail.
  2. Facilitate, take notes, and take part in the meeting. Be present. Depending on the meeting you may wish to delegate the note-taking or facilitation or both to somebody else
  3. Create and publish minutes of the meeting as soon as possible, while the details are still fresh.

How to Make Your Meetings Suck Less

meetings

Doing nothing is very hard to do … you never know when you’re finished.” — Leslie Nielson

Here’s a game you can play during your next meeting.

Estimate the average hourly salary of everybody in the room. Take your own as a baseline if need be, and multiply that by the number of people in the room.

Now calculate how much the meeting is costing the company in combined salaries and wages per minute. That is, multiply the average salary by the number of people and divide by 60.

That’s how much it’s costing you to run the meeting. Which is fine, if the meeting is being productive. But if it’s not, then why are you having it? Why are all those high-priced people locked in a room with you when they could be doing other, more valuable work?

Some signs of a time-wasting meeting:

  • No agenda, no purpose, or you don’t know why you in particular are there
  • It starts late
  • One or two people dominate all discussion, or nobody talks, or everybody is talking over top of each other. The person running the meeting has lost control
  • It gets side-tracked on trivialities, drama, and details instead of being focused on problems, solutions, and strategy
  • Decisions from previous meetings are revisited, sometimes over and over again
  • You leave the meeting not knowing what was decided
  • You leave the meeting not knowing who is supposed to do what by when
  • You go to all the meetings because you’re afraid you’re going to miss something
  • The meeting takes longer than scheduled
  • The meeting continues after the meeting, with attendees politicking in the hallways, because they didn’t say what they should have said in the meeting

If you’re in charge of running a meeting, how do you run a meeting that doesn’t suck? Read the list above, and do the opposite. If it’s your meeting, you have the power as to set the when, the how, and the who. Including when to start and stop.

If it’s not your meeting, you have the power to go or not go. To value your own and the company’s time, and not waste it.

If it’s your bosses meeting, well then you may a problem. Take notes, and start your own “don’t do this” file of all the things that don’t work. One day, when you’re the boss, you might need a reminder of what does and doesn’t work.

What Do Rituals Have To Do With Business?

I had a boss once who had three levels of acknowledgement. When he was being briefed on a project or program and he agreed he would say just that: “Agreed”. It meant you had his approval. If he said “Understood”, he got what you were saying but didn’t necessary like what you were doing. If he said “Noted”, you had failed. It got to the point were we were anticipating his response, cheering when somebody got the coveted “Agreed”, and moaning when somebody failed and got the dreaded “Noted”. It gave us a sense of shared community and took some of the sting out the rebuke. It spurred us on to do better next time.

Every organization has its own language, rituals, and rhythm. Military and para-militaries are an obvious example, as are religious groups. But also businesses volunteer and community groups, sports teams, and families all have their accepted ways of communicating and making decisions. Some are more functional than others.

Discipline or Regret

Communications need a structure. “You can run your business with discipline, or you can run you business with regret.”* I would add that you also need to run you business with intent. Every meeting, celebration, and contact inside and outside a business need to support the purpose and vision of that company. Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings each need their own purpose. They need to follow a simple format with some structure. And when things are busy, that doesn’t mean fewer meetings.

Focused, clear communications are even more important when we’re under the gun. An army unit can give us a great example of this. When an infantry company is in garrison, training, or otherwise in a relaxed state weekly briefings are probably sufficient. Would this be acceptable in theatre, or in combat operations? Absolutely not. So why is it acceptable for businesses to complain that they don’t have time for meetings? They’re right, in a way. They don’t have time for unfocused, un-informative, un-productive meetings.

If people hate meetings in your company, it’s probably because you run them badly, and your leadership doesn’t know how or doesn’t have the fortitude to run them correctly. It’s a basic management skill that every leader needs to learn and practise.

Your Meeting Checklist

Here are a couple of items you can check the meetings you run. They’re not rocket science, but like the skating and puck-handling in hockey, if you don’t have mastery of the basics then you can’t move to the next level.

Give yourself a passing grade only if you can say yes to all of the following:

1. It starts on time
2. Only the people who need to be there are invited and show up
3. It has an agenda that is distributed ahead of time
4. It sticks to the agenda
5. Everybody is physically, mentally, and emotionally present and contributes to the conversation, debate, or decision without fear of retribution or punishment for speaking honestly
6. It ends on time
7. Who is going to what by when has been decided, written down, and distributed to all attendees

If It’s Not Your Meeting

Even if it’s not your meeting to run, there are still some things you can do to make meetings in your organization more effective:

1. Sit up and pay attention. Face whoever is speaking. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships by supporting your fellow dwellers of whatever particular level of hell you’re trapped in together.

2. Put away your laptop and smart-phone. This is a variation of the previous point. You’re not fooling anybody with your “Blackberry Prayer”, and it’s insulting that you think they are How about turning off the laptop and actually being present instead of just doing your e-mail in the same room as a bunch of other people who are ignoring each other?

If You’re Still Not Convinced

If you’re still not convinced that ritual and structure have a place in business consider this. When Scouting was established in 1907, it got started with a set of rituals. Ceremonies for opening a meeting, closing a meeting, inducting new members, passing graduating members out. The Scouts learn ceremonies for deciding discipline for their peers, planning camping activities, and running campfires.

First they learn the “ritual”, and within that they make all the decisions and execute their work (going to camp, cooking their own food, earning merit badges). The structure of the patrols and troop give the youth the process they need to make and carry out their decisions. The same rituals work if it’s just a local Scout troop meeting with a dozen kids, or a World Jamboree with 10,000.

So how would it feel if a troop of fifteen-year-old boys and girls ran and executed meetings better than your company does? Who provides the “adult” supervision in your company?

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What’s the worst meeting you’ve been in? The best? Does your company have standard agendas for daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings?

Working in Small Teams

What is the right size for your team? Is your organization too flat and the team too big? Can your company become too big?

Vladimir Lenin once said

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

He was talking about guns and tanks, of course, but it holds true for people too. Adding somebody to a team doesn’t just increment the complexity  and communication within that team by 1, it increases it by the size of the team plus one. For example, if there are two people working together, there is 1 path for communication. Three people, 3 paths (an increase of 2). Four people, 6 ways to communicate (and mis-communicate). Five people, 10 ways and so on.

One More Makes All the Difference

By adding one more person, pretty soon the number of relationships to keep track of becomes very crowded. One of the principle of Scouting laid down by it’s founder was “working in small groups”. He knew from his previous experience that both adults and youth work best in groups of about eight or so.

Years later research came up with the “seven plus or minus two rule“*, which tells us that our brains can hold about seven pieces of information, or deal with seven people (give or take) at the same time. More than that, and we start to lose track of what’s going on.

In Real Life

As a Scout leader I had the unique opportunity to observe the affect of adding or removing and individual Scout to or from a patrol. Just by changing one person the dynamic of the group changed entirely. An energetic, disruptive kid would make the patrol energetic too. Not always a bad thing mind you.

Now, in my work as a consultant I work with many executive teams that come in different sizes and configurations. I’ve noticed that when there are three or fewer people in the room the interaction, conversation, challenging ideas just don’t take off with any energy. At nine or more it starts to break down again. People don’t get heard, one or two people  dominate the conversation, there’s just too much going on to capture it all in a meaningful way. The ideal number of thinking, contributing, energetic people in a room has an upper and a lower limit.

Your Actions

Are your teams the “right” size for your organization? Are you trying to get too much done by stuffing as many people into the room as possible, and therefore slowing things down and falling into the trap of a false economy? Or are you trying to “keep people focused” by making your team too small, and then losing out by excluding people them instead of getting them engaged and switched on?

*Later research showed that short-term memory capacity is probably closer to four “chunks” rather than seven.

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with RESULTS.com

Preparing for Meetings – What You Need to Do Before the Meeting Starts

This week’s articles are a re-blog of the year’s most popular posts.You’re running a meeting. What can you do to give it a better chance of success? Do like the Scouts do – be prepared.  Enjoy!

meetings

No matter the size or purpose of a meeting, preparation for all participants is directly proportional to its success. If you are running the meeting this goes double. This means having an agenda published ahead of time, and distributed to all the attendees in enough time for you and them to prepare properly.

Invitations to the meeting should include the agenda as well as any logistical details such as place, refreshments, safety & bathrooms, if projectors are needed, and so on. One of my earlier jobs included doing military work at secure facilities, which meant that meeting invitation included instructions for visit clearances and getting through security. Any special instructions such as this should also be part of the agenda and the meeting invitation.

Agenda is key. For a complex, multi-day, large meeting you may have to meet to decide the agenda and attendees! This may seem a little Dilbert-esque, but if it clearly supports the purpose of the meeting you’re preparing for, then go for it. Having a stand-up meeting in your office a half an hour before an important client meeting has a different name. That’s called “panicking”.

The only thing that’s worse than this might be walking into a meeting for which you are the key participant and winging it. It’s embarrassing for everybody concerned, and the only person you might be fooling is yourself.

In general, your agenda will consist of:

  1. Purpose – the purpose of this meeting is clearly stated up front for everybody to see. If you don’t have a clear purpose, then go back to setting goals. Even a weekly staff meeting should have a purpose that lines up with the team’s purpose. It doesn’t hurt to reinforce what the team’s priorities are.
  2. Time & Location – where and when to meet. This may include an appropriate map for people coming from out-of-plant or out-of-town. If you can include a specific map from their hotel to your building that’s even better.
  3. Attendees – whose attending by name, company, and role as applicable. This may seem like overkill for a weekly staff meeting where everybody knows each other. Still, who you’re expecting to attend is clearly stated up front. You should make it clear to anyone that can’t attend (vacations and conflicts sometimes happen) that you expect them to send a delegate in their place. If you’re lucky enough to receive such information for a meeting somebody else is organizing, ignore it at your own peril.*
  4. Special Instructions – if any, instructions for dialling in by teleconference, arriving half an hour early to get through security, who to contact in case of an issue, etc., all goes here.Start time and responsible party – when to start and who is leading the discussion for this item. The start time for the next item is the end time for the current item. This allows attendees to prepare what they need to, for the time allotted to them.
  5. Description – a short but meaningful description of the purpose of the meeting. Keep in mind how you will know if the meeting was successful when crafting this one-liner.
  6. Outcome – I always set up my agendas in a table format with three columns: one for start time & responsible party (shortened to “Led By:”), the second for the description, and the third for an outcome. The “Outcome” column is blank, but big enough to write notes into during the meeting. This includes action items if any, who was responsible for that action or actions, and the due date for the action. This way I could keep notes on the agenda for writing minutes after the meeting, or other participants could keep track for themselves.
  7. Agenda Items, including
    1. Start time and responsible party – when to start and who is leading the discussion for this item. The start time for the next item is the end time for the current item. This allows attendees to prepare what they need to, for the time allotted to them.
    2. Description – a short but meaningful description of what to discuss, decide, or debate.
    3. Outcome – I always set up my agendas in a table format with three columns: one for start time & responsible party (shortened to “Led By:”), the second for the description, and the third for an outcome. The “Outcome” column is blank, but big enough to write notes into during the meeting. This includes action items if any, who was responsible for that action or actions, and the due date for the action. This way I could keep notes on the agenda for writing minutes after the meeting, or other participants could keep track for themselves.

In summary, be ready to:

  1. Create and publish an agenda of appropriate detail and timeliness to allow all participant to prepare for the meeting themselves.
  2. Facilitate, take notes, and take part in the meeting. Depending on the meeting you may wish to delegate the note-taking or facilitation or both to somebody else
  3. Create and publish minutes of the meeting as soon as possible after the meeting. I suggest you do this immediately after the meeting while the details are still fresh. The longer you put this off, the lessor the quality of the minutes, and the less well prepared you will be for the next meeting. Block out the time to do this.

You might also be interested in:

How to prepare a useful agenda – setting the intent and desired outcome for a meeting will in itself make it more useful
Running the meeting – how to start on time, stick to the agenda, end on time, and handle intentional and unintentional sabotage
Laptops in meetings – just don’t – why bring laptops to meetings is a career killer

*Who didn’t attend, sent a delegate, or teleconference in instead of attending in person can sometimes tell you a lot about the meeting’s strategic & political context. I don’t advocate that you play games to get ahead, but ignoring the “politics” of a meeting is just wilful ignorance. That’s fine if you like being stuck in your current position forever. Your choice. But that’s a different post.