Few people like meetings. That’s not because we don’t like spending time with smart people, it’s because most meetings don’t really move things forward. Instead, very often they feel much more like energy and time drains. How often did you come out of meetings energized because you felt that you had made a big step forward and now have a clear path to success?
Many of the meetings we find in our daily business routines are what I would call ‘circular brainstormings’. Instead of moving forward on a given topic in subsequent meetings, we tend to revisit previous assumptions and decisions and fall back into discussions we had already closed in the meeting before. That leads us to needing another follow-up meeting to close out what we tried to accomplish in the first meeting, but failed because we needed to spend too much time on baselining (again).
We all lose a LOT of time in those meetings.
Circular brainstormings happen when:
- New attendees join the group and think they need to be caught up during the meeting at the expense of everyone else.
- Attendees don’t remember what was discussed last time and need to re-invent definitions and previous decisions.
- It’s unclear what the expected outcomes and deliverables of the meeting are, and the team tries to make them up on the fly.
- Everyone just has too much fun brainstorming and not much desire to get to the point where concrete action items and follow-ups will get assigned.
Circular brainstormings happen if we as leaders don’t interject and force ‘forward momentum’. Groups have a tendency for circular brainstorming since it’s a lot of fun, only requires much easier ‘pie in the sky’ dreaming and high-level what-ifs, instead of concrete action plans and ownership. Most importantly, it doesn’t require commitment to action.
As leaders we need to hold ourselves and our teams accountable to have meetings with ‘forward momentum’. And yes, I include myself, since unchecked, we all have the same tendencies.
A couple of things that help with ‘forward momentum’ are:
- Protecting the baseline – When we exit a meeting we made certain decisions and assumptions based on deep discussions. As we go into the follow-up meeting, we need to recap briefly and then fiercely protect that baseline. Unless there are earth-shattering new insights, we cannot re-open decisions, discussion, definitions that were previously locked. Forward momentum means building on what was established before, not starting all over again from scratch every single time. This also includes decisions that were made in other groups if the meeting is to further define details of a broader direction that was already set (if you were given a direction, don’t re-invent the strategy).
- Two minute rule – We need to hold attendees accountable to be informed what was discussed and decided before. If people are new, they can be caught up offline, but not at the cost of the group’s time. We cannot have 20 people in a room to educate one person. If a discussion gets sidetracked because someone missed previously discussed topics, that catch-up needs to be taken offline unless it can be resolved in 2 mins (an those 2 mins include follow-up questions).
- Know what success looks like – Every meeting needs to have an agenda. But every meeting also needs to have clearly defined outcomes (unless it’s an update meeting). What decisions will we have made at the end of the meeting? What artifacts will we have produced and shared at the end? Having those clearly defined outcomes can help to keep everyone on track and will keep the meeting owners accountable to maintain forward momentum.
- Lock the baseline for the next meeting – In order to protect the baseline in the next meeting (see above), you first need to establish that baseline. At the end of each brainstorming and decision meeting, we need to be clear and explicit as to what we have decided and assume that as facts and truths for following meetings. We need to be clear as to what is still ambiguous and needs further investigation. We need to make two steps forward every time, not two steps forward and one step back.
Try it out! Be courageous and drive the meetings you attend forward. If you cannot break the loop and the group insists on circular brainstorming, pack your stuff, leave and do something productive.
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