Get something on paper first – only then start talking

There are three types of meetings and interactions with people (I’m sure the official literature has more, but for me, it comes down to these three critical archetypes):

  1. Brainstorming – You have no idea what to do, and you need as many ideas as possible from everyone.
  2. Making decisions – You have a plan or are pretty close to a plan and just need to get over the final step of making a decision.
  3. Informing – This is presenting out. All options have been evaluated, and now it’s only about reporting out on those.

…and then there’s the fourth variety: the unstructured “let’s just talk it over” meeting where you go wild across all types, everyone talks, and no one listens, and with all likelihood, the group will spend most of the time in a deep rat hole on a minor topic, completely missing the bigger picture (while 90% of the attendees tune out).

Let’s not have that last type of interaction; it’s not fun.

We all know how to run “Informing” meetings: you collect all the facts you can remember, organize them into a logical story flow, and build a nice PPT to walk folks through the evolution of thoughts that got you where you are. Bonus points if you make it look good (design matters) and throw a fun joke or two in there to lighten up the mood.

Most of us also know how to do “Brainstorming” meetings: you need a lot of Post-Its, a big white wall, a framing question, and off you go. Make sure to collect inputs and avoid getting locked in any one of the ideas – you want to go quick to gather a wide perspective instead of dwelling in deep details. Also, make sure that you proactively include quieter participants. Easy peasy and always fun as no one needs to make any commitments at this stage.

But how about “Making decisions”, when we do need to get people to make commitments?

This is harder as most people would much rather talk about inconsequential ‘What-ifs’ than making a decision that will lead them to commit and being accountable for outcomes. In the “making decisions” phase, meetings have a high propensity to be derailed by semi-related questions that come out of the blue or by digging into very deep discussions on very small subjects until all available time is spent.

A good – if not the best – way to keep decision meetings focused, structured, and moving forward, is to bring written content to the meeting. The written word has gravity, and seeing a document keeps everyone on topic. Of course, you need to share this document in the meeting so that everyone sees it on the screen as you guide through discussions, and everyone can also see how decisions get added to the document as the discussion progresses. That visibility and documentation allow you to keep people moving forward and to dwarf any attempts of going back to things that were already decided. It takes time and energy to prepare a strong written document, but the effort will pay off many times in decision-making meetings.

If you want to convince, you need to start writing!

A word of caution: this approach and this type of meeting are focused on narrowing down an information funnel and coming to decisions. Employ them at the right time(s) of a project. It’s not an effective way to gather as many ideas, questions, and concerns as possible – for that, you need to have a brainstorming meeting, and you need to hold yourself back from the temptation of providing initial ideas.

A blank page creates ideas. A written (draft) plan focuses discussions.

Widen the funnel with brainstorming meetings, shrink it with decision-making meetings. Never mix up the two!! You cannot do both in the same meeting.

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Meeting effectiveness and efficiency

We all spend a LOT of time in meetings. That time is important and valuable, as meetings help us to discuss topics, get different opinions, resolve issues, and decide on actions. However, those meetings can also waste a lot of time.

So how do we make meetings more effective? Here are some things that I learned over time – 8 quick checks for your next meeting:

  • Shorter is better – Humans have a tendency to always fill the available time (I think it’s a yet undiscovered law of physics). If you have 2 hours for a task, you will need two hours. If you have only 30 mins, you will focus on what’s most important and be done after those 30 mins. Likewise, if you have 1 hour for a meeting, you will fill that time. Think about what the absolute required minimum duration for a meeting is and then schedule for that time. That will force you and everyone else to stay on topic and move forward.
  • Have an agenda! – If you don’t chart out the way, you will not reach your destination. Share a meeting agenda ahead of time to set proper expectations and get the results out of your meeting that you need. In a previous team, we had a rule to not join a meeting if it didn’t have a clear agenda and purpose.
  • Define desired outcomes and manage towards those outcomes – If you don’t say what you need from the meeting, you might be surprised by what you will get. In tandem with the agenda, also define what the desired outcomes are (e.g. “In this meeting we will agree on the proposed project plan and develop a complete list of necessary changes to that plan. After the meeting, execution against that plan will start.”). If you define clearly what you want to achieve, attendees will be more focused on helping you to get there. It will also give you a way to redirect discussions if they get derailed (and they always will).
  • Recognize sidetracks and get back on track – Every meeting goes sideways at some point. Identify discussions that are not critical to the agenda and your desired and stated meeting outcomes, suggest to move them offline, and politely redirect the group back to the actual agenda. Something that can be quickly solved in the room (2 mins or less) is ok; everything else should be dealt with offline.
  • Know who should be there (and who shouldn’t) – It’s easy to invite anyone who could be even remotely interested. That is also very expensive and doesn’t really add to your credibility as a thoughtful leader. Decide who really should be in the meeting to make the desired progress. Send meeting notes to everyone else.
  • Engage people by asking them directly for input – Many people join meetings, make up their own thoughts, but stay quiet. This is particularly pronounced in virtual meetings and the worst for attendees who join only on audio. It’s so easy to multitask, or just hide away. Ask people specifically for their opinions. Ask them by name. This is important if you need a decision, but it is also a critical tool to ensure that more introvert communicators are not drowned out in meetings – their thoughts and opinions are just as important but often harder to get.
  • Drive for decisions – Be sure to get the outcomes you desired from the meeting. Drive for decisions, ask people by name for their sign-off or explicit disagreement. A little tip / dirty trick: how you phrase the question matters. “Are you all ok with this?” leaves ambiguity and wiggle room. You will never know for sure that you have full buy-in or a defendable group decision. “So in summary, the decision of this meeting is X, unless anyone voices any objections now.” removes ambiguity, and forces people to voice any concerns right now. They cannot say “I didn’t know or agree” later. Everyone needs to be clear that now is the time to voice concerns or rest their peace forever. This is not about forcing a specific outcome; it is about eliminating decision avoidance.
  • Write the meeting notes – Everyone will have a slightly different opinion of what was discussed and decided in the meeting. And as time passes by and memory fades, those gaps will just widen. Write down all decisions to have them documented and make them stick. Plus, who writes the meeting notes controls the decisions to a large part. Bonus points if you take the notes in the meeting and share your screen so that everyone sees them and has an opportunity to jump in right away if they disagree.

Inefficient meetings have been one of my pet peeves for a long time (being a true introvert, I hate long meetings without clear purpose and tangible forward progress). Following the above rules can make all your meetings substantially better.

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