Nine Steps to Better Meetings

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be “meetings.”

~Dave Barry, “Things That It Took Me 50 Years to Learn”

It’s fashionable to hate meetings. As someone who has squirmed or dozed my way through a career-full of them, I have some sympathy for this point of view, and I know I’m not alone.

But what if this view is entirely wrong? Let’s start with a thought experiment. Ask yourself: What would your organization be like if it really had no meetings?

Thinking about the mid-sized company I used to run, it was fun imagining how I might have used all those extra hours. I could also see how happy my employees would have been going home an hour earlier – and my managers would have finished up by noon.

But as I thought longer, it became clear that more than a few important things would go missing if that company actually had no meetings. Some of the questions that started to gnaw at me were:

  • How would our engineers have developed new products without input from customers, marketing, and production?
  • How would I have tapped into my people’s best ideas about what direction to take the company? Would all future strategy sessions have been just me with a whiteboard?
  • How would we have developed ideas to attract and retain Millennials without getting my recruiting people in the same room with some of our younger staff to talk it over?

In short, the more I thought about it, the more I came to see that meetings play an essential role in change and innovation – or at least they can, if they’re properly set up and run. If you don’t have meetings, or you allow them to become backward looking, routine and boring, your organisation is destined to keep repeating the same things over and over, whether good or bad.

This gives a clue about the essential purpose of meetings: to shape, plan and deliver change. By implication, your company’s ability to drive effective change is only as good as your meetings.

Which means it’s vitally important to take a cold hard look at how good your meetings actually are. Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” puts it this way:


“… no action, activity or process is more central to a healthy organisation than the meeting. As dreaded as the “M” word has become, there is no better way to have a fundamental impact on the organisation than by changing the way it does meetings…. Bad meetings are the birthplace of unhealthy organisations, and good meetings are the origin of cohesion, clarity and communication.”


Most senior execs I know think they run pretty good meetings – it’s everyone else’s meetings that are the problem. But that’s partly because they’ve become used to a standard of meeting that is, frankly, pretty poor. Once they re-experience what a truly dynamic and productive meeting feels like, most realize there is plenty of room for improvement in their organisation.

Here are nine simple questions to ask that will give you a health-check of your organisation’s meetings:

1. Is everyone fully present?

A wise friend of mine once said, “People aren’t fully in the room until they’ve spoken.” I find that’s true. If some participants haven’t spoken in the first 10 minutes (or at all), chances are they’re not paying full attention either. A simple ice- breaker that takes no more than five minutes brings everyone into the room and increases the likelihood of people speaking up later in the meeting. It helps everyone to be fully present, and not thinking about their last or next meeting.

Of course, smart phones and other devices are huge distractions. If you want to have a great meeting, insist that all of these are switched off.

2. Is everyone contributing?

Or is 80 percent of the “air-time” being dominated by two or three people, making it difficult for others to speak their minds? As Susan Cain demonstrated in her seminal book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” introverts have just as much to contribute as anyone, but almost every meeting culture I have encountered seemed to be designed by and for the extroverts in the group. By going around the room and having everyone briefly state their views on any matter of importance, the collective intelligence of the group is more fully harnessed.

3. Is everyone completely clear on the problem you want to solve? Are you?

This speaks to the quality of your agenda. Agenda items framed as questions generate far better thinking about the issue, and far more focused discussions, than simple bullet points. So, instead of a normal, sleep-inducing agenda that has Sales, Finance and HR as the main items, try to replace these with the most important question of the day, such as:

  • The Sales portion of the agenda might become “How do we win back these three big customers we lost last quarter?”
  • Finance might become “How can we reduce our inventory costs?”
  • And HR might become “How can we retain our best software engineers?”

By framing agenda items as questions, people have a chance to think about the issue before they arrive, and the purpose of the discussion is clear to all from the outset.

4. Is anyone asking questions? Or is everyone just making statements?

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fully understand another person’s perspective without asking questions – no matter how articulate they may be. Why? Because we all see things from different starting points, and if we don’t understand their starting point then it’s impossible to fully grasp their intent. Questions like: “What problem are you trying to solve?” “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” “What other options did you consider?” and “What data or information had the biggest impact on your thinking?” will give you a much deeper understanding of your colleague’s point of view.

The real beauty of asking questions emerges when sorting out disagreements: When the other person feels you have truly taken the time to understand their point of view, it makes it ten times easier for them to relax and truly hear your point of view.

The more disagreement there is, the more questions you need to ensure a healthy meeting. But most meetings are run the other way; a few polite questions are asked to get things going, but once the conflict is out in the open, it’s a battle of statements. This causes people to become entrenched in their views.

5. Are you practicing “Or” thinking or “And” thinking”?

The highest purpose of a meeting is to generate solutions that couldn’t have emerged without the meeting, by combining the thinking and perspectives of the different meeting participants. But most meetings act mainly as a debating society for ideas that the participants came in with before the meeting even started.

This is typically because participants are locked into an ‘or’ mindset – i.e. “either we go with Anne’s exciting proposal, or we play it safe and avoid the risks that Jim is pointing out.” The best meeting masters recognise this is a perfect moment to practice “and” thinking: “How do we get most of the benefits of Anne’s proposal and avoid the risks that Jim has helpfully pointed out?”

6. Do people “walk down the ladder?”

People don’t just wake up one morning with a fully formed proposal for change. They reach their conclusion in a series of steps – steps that are almost certainly entirely logical to them, even if their conclusion seems wrong to others.

The Ladder of Inference, popularized by Professor Chris Argyris, uses a ladder as a model for this process. At the bottom of the ladder is the data we are aware of, or select as most relevant. As we move up the rungs, we interpret this data and assign it a deeper meaning. Finally, at the top of the ladder are our conclusions and resulting proposals.

As Argyris points out, problems emerge because most meetings boil down to “dueling ladders”, where the participants argue from the tops of their ladders – that is, they start with their conclusions. But for a group to collectively decide which ideas are most compelling, and, even more importantly, to create new ladders that are better than the ones brought into the meeting, we need to see every step along the ladder.

The irony is that the more senior and experienced we are as professionals, the more swiftly and unconsciously we “zoom up the ladder,” drawing conclusions in a single, over-confident bound of judgment. By making a conscious practice of walking down your ladder, and helping others to do the same, your team will be able to form much more resilient commitments, as they are based a truly shared logic. When people start walking down their ladders as a matter of habit, the quality of discussions begins to soar.

7. Are your meetings interruption free?

Many meetings resemble a ping-pong match with eight players and five live balls – chaos! Given the rapid-fire pace of many meetings, we often feel forced to interrupt others just to ensure that our voice isn’t the one that gets drowned out. With everyone else caught up in the same dynamics, it soon feels as if most of our cognition is spent playing ping-pong – thinking of our response to what has been said and trying to find our moment to get into the game – instead of really listening and thinking about the issue at hand. Recent studies by neuroscientists indicate that as much as 65% of our cognitive processing power can be diverted when we are interrupted, because interruptions are processed by our brain as threats, igniting the “fight or flight” response network located in the primitive part of our brain known as the amygdala.

By eliminating the habit of interrupting each other, we can restore the brain to full power and allow it to focus on the problem at hand rather than the dynamics in the room.

8. Are you addressing the “elephants in the room?”

Are the “real” issues only being talked about outside the office because they’re deemed too sensitive to raise in a meeting? These undiscussables, often referred to as the “elephant in the room”, act like sand thrown into the gears of a meeting. When there are no elephants, the discussion flows easily and creatively. But when the discussion becomes stilted and the energy is low, it’s often because people know the elephant is there, but feel they can’t talk about it. This gives people the feeling that they are participating in a fake discussion, so they tune out.

The goal is to make it easier to discuss the undiscussables. It takes courage for people to speak up, and most people will not show more courage than their boss. Which means it’s probably up to you to be the person who takes the plunge and names the elephant. There may be an awkward silence as a result of you speaking up. In my experience, however, nine times out of ten the discussion is soon back on track and much better for it. Why? Because the whole nature of the elephant in the room is that almost everyone already knows about it, so the challenge in talking about it is typically far less than people assume.

It does take time and some skill to become adept at this. Patience, sensitivity and encouragement all help. Also, remember that there are some undiscussables that really shouldn’t be discussed in public, but they still need to be processed, probably in a confidential “offline” meeting.

9. Do you and your colleagues self-manage your meetings?

Even the best team in the world is going to have its off days, when people are interrupting, everyone’s standing on the top of their ladder, and no one is asking any questions. The question is whether you and your colleagues have the ability to get the meeting back on track. How? Encourage people to point out the issue (saying perhaps, “this meeting feels stilted and dull compared to usual” or “we seem to have wandered off the original question”) and thank them when they do it. Don’t wait for a consultant like myself to come along to make your meetings work!

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