Have you ever found yourself in a team meeting that’s supposed to smoothly put everyone’s heads together to conceptualize something big, something groundbreaking, but, instead, you’ve ended up getting everyone exhausted, pissed off, and mentally wandering off while the feasible outcome remained a distant dream?
I guess it happened to all of us. You look to your right, and find Jane responding to an email from someone who has a pressing matter and definitely cannot wait for another 90 minutes. Gary, across the table, is hurriedly trying to eat his lunch as he just finished a client call and really couldn’t get it before the agenda started (gosh, how many times a week can a person have a burrito?). Oh, wait, what agenda? You were just supposed to talk about “the thing,” right? At least Janet and her dog are on time. They always are, but she seems quite upset that the meeting is getting late again. Well, not as upset as her dog trying to get some of Gary’s delicious burrito, and definitely not as upset as Christie’s baby when she lost sight of her mummy. Yeah, but you know it’s only going to be five more minutes of this delay and Janet is going to snap, reaching the very same state. Someone else is playing Angry Birds, while the conversation runs around gym, shopping, and plans for the weekend.
Even when you finally succeed to get the conversation back on track in an environment like that, chances are you are not really going to get anywhere. No clear goal and lack of agenda will effectively keep the work off the track, while the general attitude and numerous distractions will not only prevent your teammates from making any sensible contribution but will also make everyone exhausted and frustrated. The good news is—you can avoid it. If this is something you are facing repeatedly—you can change that. Some of the steps below might seem rough, especially for teams that don’t have much of a discussion culture developed but trust me—in most of the cases they will be of invaluable help.
Plan is nothing; planning is everything
The very fundament. It’s not necessarily about having the entire meeting precisely outlined, minute after minute. The very first point that has to be covered when drawing up your agenda is what is this meeting about. Sounds silly? I advise you to randomly ask people in your company what was the main goal of meetings they’ve had in the recent past to see how consistent their views are.
Anyway, when planning a meeting, you need to be very clear about the ‘WHY’ behind it so that people can put their minds onto this specific thing. “Advertising strategy for the customer” sounds cool for sure, but does everyone know what strategy means? Is it supposed to have a specific form? The starting point for every discussion should be making sure that all the people who are putting their time into this meeting are on the same page and, hence, it is of critical importance for everyone to understand what is the scope and the outcome that you are expecting to come up with. Don’t be afraid to set goals in finite terms. Once you have the ‘why,’ the goal, and the scope—put them all in a specific time frame. I’m not saying this time frame should be unbendable, but establishing it as close to sacred is going to be necessary. Why? It’s going to help you keep the meeting within the specific scope and park all the ideas and topics that may be important, but not necessarily for this meeting. This, in turn, will help the team keep the right focus and be way more productive in the process. Remember to take into account the most basic things like human physiology, so plan working blocks that last for no more than 90 minutes and apply short breaks when needed.
Stand your ground
Let’s start by acknowledging that there are different kinds of meetings, all right? Some might be for reports and announcements, some might be reflection-oriented, while others are supposed to bring a creative outcome or an idea (they’re usually called brainstorming sessions). I think we can agree that all of them will have their own set of rules and mechanics, but an important starting point is to set some ground rules that would apply to all of them. This part aims to manage the distractions and the general approach towards meetings. This is also the part that will generate the biggest amount of friction and pain, trying to bring change to your team—so be careful with that.
The first thing you might want to do is to create the right approach towards meetings in general. “I know you guys are not happy with how our meetings are usually handled, but, hey, let’s change it together—let’s talk about it,”—this statement should serve as a decent opening. Let everyone voice out what they would want to see being changed about how the team spaces are run—it generally serves two purposes. One, being the fact that it will bring a wider perspective to everyone in the team—at the end of the day, it’s usually other people that we get pissed off at in these meetings, right? The second purpose is that you will let your team blow off a little steam and give them a sense of contribution, as they will get to build something together.
I’m not much of a gambler here, but I would bet my last penny that the lists of problems that different teams around the world would come up with will often be rather similar. We don’t start and finish on time, there is no outcome, it doesn’t bring anything to the table, other people don’t pay attention, sometimes I don’t know why I’m even there, the scope of the meeting doesn’t concern me, and so on and so forth. The good news is that most of these things can be managed with a few simple ground rules.
There is a couple of things to consider when organizing a meeting:
The rule is pretty straightforward: we always start on time, no matter what. Is someone late? Good, let them join after you’ve started. You really don’t want to be wasting everyone else’s time because that one person went out for a smoke or shopping. Sure, there are things that are legit reasons for being late, and that’s cool. You will be surprised, however, seeing how eagerly people will re-prioritize after they’ve joined a meeting being late, once or twice. Try to stick to the time frame you established and, just as much as you pushed to start on time, try to finish on time or at least close to it. But wait, are you nowhere close to the end of the meeting? Sorry, you are going to have to organize another one. Over time, your teammates will learn to use the time efficiently, but, just a heads-up, it might turn out to be a quite painful process.
It has to support team discussion and can’t enable people to zone out. I guess you must have seen this scene—5 people at the table and two on the couch or something. Who, would you bet, is going to catch some z’s first? Don’t have space for it? Try as hard as possible to make it.
The second thing when it comes to space is managing distractions as they are one of the major reasons people yawn in meetings. First of all—no electronic devices allowed. Seriously, bringing a laptop to a meeting where you don’t plan on having a presentation—what would possibly be your intention for doing so, if not using it? If you want to have people engaged, you tell them to leave their laptops behind that door. Don’t be afraid to call out the ones who are using their mobiles—don’t be a jerk about it, but feel free to tell them that if there is someone they need to call or text, they have all the right in the world to do it outside.
Another thing—food, pets, and all the other things that will potentially distract others from thinking about anything else than the very scope of the meeting. It’s cool to have this nice and cozy start-up atmosphere, but let’s set our priorities straight. You know how it goes—one person takes out a burrito, then the other gets a sandwich and all of the sudden you are closer to a family picnic than a creative team space. This is the part with the most flexibility, so it’s highly dependable on what your team needs, but the general rule is that the room and behavior should enable focus, which leads us to the next point.
The truth is, you are not going to get much but frustration and headache out of any team space if you don’t produce any outcome. Well, it’s hard to get any valuable outcome if you don’t have the right focus. And while it’s perfectly fine for people to yawn a little from time to time, you might want to get the right stimuli in place to spark the highest possible efficiency, just as much as you want to limit the distractions. Have your agenda written somewhere on the board or a flipchart, to keep everyone’s minds on the right track. Point out if you are wandering off and don’t be afraid to park even the greatest ideas if they are out of the scope. It surely does help a lot to have certain roles assigned to the team members (it’s a good idea to make them rotate as well), so there is a sense of accountability towards the team and space itself. The roles should reflect the rules you have established together, but it’s always a good idea to have a moderator (calling out whenever you are taking a wrong turn), a time-keeper, and a note-taker. They will help you keep the discussion on the right track, be on time, and have a good summary of your meeting, especially if you are making decisions and assigning tasks there.
Teamwork is everything
With all that being said, I still wouldn’t expect that everything is going to change after you apply some good prep and establish ground rules for one meeting. It’s a skill, and it takes practice. It takes consistency. With all that being put into use, however, you have a good chance of making a much better use of the potential you have around you, while the team will be able to enjoy efficiency and get much closer to achieving its goals, simply because it will use its time way more effectively.
I’d still say the most important part of all is as simple as talking with your teammates. Ask them, openly, what is it that they are unhappy with during your meetings and design the change together—open the space for everyone to contribute and make sure everyone understands the ‘why’ behind it. It will make the application of the abovementioned tools much smoother and everyone’s life much easier—you need to have the team on board, after all.