9:57 a.m. The core strategy team arrives in the meeting room. The IT guys are busy testing the projector and making sure the video conferencing connections are seamless. The boss is already anxious and stressed out—for this is a crucial meeting that will define the future of his unit. The agenda has been predefined and two hours have been allocated to ensure that all points are discussed and key decisions are made. Everything has been engineered to perfection to ensure that nothing goes wrong.
Unfortunately, all this is not enough to avoid the train wreck that’s coming.
We’re halfway in and the leadership team is still going around and around about issues that are totally irrelevant to the objectives that had been set. The COO (the guy with the most authority and power in the room) intervenes and starts shouting so that everyone pays attention and gets focused again. People are angry and frustrated and start openly complaining that their morning has been totally wasted. One of the directors makes an excuse and leaves the room early, stating that he has an urgent call to make.
Needless to say, this was a totally ineffective, mismanaged and unproductive meeting—and everyone knows it.
If you’ve experienced similar situations in your career or throughout your professional engagements, then this situation may seem very familiar to you. For me, and after being in the professional sphere for more than 25 years, I am still surprised at how leaders, managers, teams, and facilitators design and facilitate their meetings. Accordingly, it’s my intent to share a more effective framework that anyone can use to plan, conduct, and track meetings more successfully.
The data is out there, and it’s scary: Billions of dollars are lost annually in wasted resources, employee disengagement, and unrealized potential.
So, who are the culprits of this ongoing inefficiency? Let’s start with the lack of a structured design for the meeting. This includes not having a clear agenda, not understanding the objective of the meeting, not aligning the team values, not understanding the success criteria for each one of the attendees and not tracking the meeting progress in real-time.
Next, there are issues related to assigning clear responsibilities during the meeting. Who is facilitating the dialogue? Who is maintaining a record of key actions and decisions? Who is keeping track of the time and correcting any deviation and unnecessary chit-chat? More importantly, who is preventing anyone from ‘hijacking’ the meeting to push their own agenda? What about ensuring that the entire group speaks and is also heard and appreciated? Who is setting the priorities for the meeting? Who is coaching the system? And the list goes on and on…
I’ve designed and co-created this framework to support you to conduct really successful meetings. I’ve tested it and iterated on the initial prototype a few times to reach this version, which I am now using and finding great success with. I’ll go through and explain the different parts of the tracker and also clarify and give examples of how it would be applied to a real-life example (in this case, a two-hour meeting with all four phases represented)
Let’s get started:
For any meeting to flow smoothly, there needs to be alignment and buy-in on the four key phases: DESIGN, DESCRIBE, DIALOGUE, and DELIVER.
There also needs to be an agreement in advance about how much time will be allocated to each one of the phases so that everyone can be aware of the agenda and monitor the progress in real time.
The way the framework works is that it is mandatory to spend at least 15 minutes in the beginning, to DESIGN the meeting. In some cases, this phase may last longer, but it can be successfully accomplished in 15 minutes as well.
DESIGN: Structure and align
What are the key team values for the meeting (align on team alliance)?
This stems for systemic coaching and is a crucial starting point to co-create the team alliance and agree on the values that need to be conveyed by all participants.
Why are we conducting this meeting? How do we each define success?
It’s important to gauge the expectations of everyone in the meetings and work to synthesize these findings and map them with the progress of the meeting. Using the ‘lit-match’ technique allows you to get feedback from everyone in a very short period of time. Ask everyone to imagine that they are holding a lit match in their hand and ask them to finish their answer before the match burns them (this usually limits the answer to less than seconds).
What will happen in each phase?
Here, we co-create the agenda for each of the meeting phases as well as allocating the respective time slots in the time-tracker using post-its. As the meeting progresses, we remove the post-it’s from the tracker to indicate where we are and where we are going.
Who will facilitate the meeting and manage the time-tracker?
Deciding on the facilitator, coach, and time-tracker (generally it is the same person).
Who is the scribe?
Deciding on the person who will keep a record of decisions, progress, actions, etc.
In many meetings that I have attended, people spend far too much time presenting and too little time actually discussing the data or information at hand. This is not to say that there isn’t any merit in sharing content, but it needs to be controlled and also clear to all that this is merely a necessary step to move towards engaging in constructive dialogue, unlocking the power of the team and aligning on crucial actions.
In this phase (which in the diagram represents 30 minutes), we share facts, research, presentations, etc. It is important to have and maintain the discipline of not asking questions or getting derailed during this phase. This is purely a phase where we DESCRIBE content related to the meeting. Important questions to consider: What content needs to be shared (decks, findings, notes, research, etc.)? What do we need clarity on? Who will be presenting the different parts of the content?
DIALOGUE: Discuss and co-create
I may be a little biased, but this is definitely my favorite part of any meeting. We do engage in some dialogue in the DESIGN phase to co-create the structure and outcomes – but this is the phase where the real magic happens. I believe it is important to have a talented facilitator or someone who is well-versed in the skills of coaching, emotional/social intelligence, and advanced communication. In this phase, we begin to consider how we can bring together and utilize the expertise in the room and find new breakthroughs, craft new insights, overcome perceived or real barriers, and reach other important outcomes too.
Consider questions such as What are the real issues or challenges that need to be discussed? What do we need clarity on? What about group coaching, ideation, brainstorming, or specific team activities?
This phase is designed specifically to allow the natural progression from the DESCRIBE phase to a place where the team can openly and confidently have a constructive DIALOGUE around the key objectives of the meeting.
Also note that the naming of these phases is intentional because this addresses the common issue of not knowing when we are allowed to voice our opinions, or when others will be open to our feedback. In this phase, it is perfectly all right to do so, and everyone knows it and is aligned with it.
DELIVER: Decide and assign
A common culprit of ineffective meetings is a lack of agreement on the next action steps with no specific, clear-cut outcomes and assignment of responsibilities. This is exactly why we have designed a DELIVER phase into the meeting and agreed in the start on a specific time slot to align on this vital part. In this last phase, we consider important questions: Who must do what by when? What are the key outcomes of the meeting? What are the key action points? What’s next and how will we hold ourselves accountable?
We also allow time for feedback using your preferred method. (I like to use the yellow hat, green hat, and black hat approach, combined with the ‘lit-match’ method I described earlier.)
Some people may shy away from spending 15 minutes at the start of a meeting to design how they would like the meeting to progress, especially in the age of scrum stand-up meetings, sprints, and quick-fire feedback. I would say that this approach is fluid enough to handle any timeframe and any type of engagement.
If you feel that the time slots are too long (15 minutes), shorten them to five minutes each. If you feel that there is no need to share any content, then write N/A in that phase and don’t allocate a slot for it in the time-tracker. If you want to spend the entire engagement coaching a team, plan to spend 90% of your time in the DIALOGUE phase.
I strongly believe that this approach can lead to much more effective and productive meetings and I invite you to give it a try. Also, feel free to use this model, iterate on it, and also share your feedback on how it may be improved.
May the power of collaboration, co-creation, and innovation contribute to your current and future success!
For more efficiency strategies, see 4 Employee Applications To Improve Business Productivity.