Why are we meeting?

When my daughter was around 4 years old, two of our distant relatives visited us. As they were getting to know our daughter, they asked her “What does your dad do?”  She replied “He goes to meetings”.  In her mind my occupation was attending meetings.  This is because, whenever she would call me during the day (she had just learned how to use the phone), invariably I would be in a meeting. At home too, some of the evenings she would be asked not to make noise, as I would be in a “phone meeting”.

As I reflected on this unusual occupation, I realised there is quite a bit of reality to it. Most senior people in many organisations spend considerable time around meetings. Attending meetings, planning meetings, meetings to plan meetings, thinking about meetings, following through meetings, organising meetings, avoiding meetings and most importantly, complaining about all the meetings. And I have also noticed, around the world, some universal themes about all these meetings: meetings are a waste of time, we have too many meetings, wish our meetings were more productive and why can’t we have meetings that are brief and to the point.

There is a lot written about how to run a good meeting. How to organise them and make them successful. Most of the advice revolves around having a clear agenda. However here is a paradox. Increased number of books on how to conduct successful meetings seem to have increased the number of unproductive meetings!

Having spent considerable time both facilitating and participating in hundreds of meetings, I have identified three things which I believe are foundational to a great meeting. They are:

  • Well defined meeting Purpose and desired Products
  • Thought through Process and the presence of a skilled Facilitator
  • Intentional meeting Environment

I would like to elaborate on each of these three aspects. In this blog I have focused on the first element of a successful meeting. Next two blogs will deal with the rest.

Well defined meeting Purpose and the desired Products

Last month I was asked by a senior executive to facilitate a meeting. To prepare for the meeting, I asked him about the purpose of the meeting. He said, “We want to brainstorm solutions to the persistent quality issues we have in a very important project”.  I told him that it is not the purpose of the meeting.  It is what he wanted the participants to do in the meeting.

This is not unusual. We often equate the Purpose with the activity we are involved in or want to undertake. Purpose is the answer to the question-Why people should come together and identify solutions? It is the answer to the question-What is the meeting contributing to? Towards what objective? Purpose is a statement of the larger intent. In this particular context, the purpose of the meeting perhaps could be-

  • To institute a way to consistently deliver projects with zero defects, or
  • To demonstrate our organisations ability to deliver quality projects.

Every meeting is a subset of a larger process. If the purpose of a particular meeting is articulated showing the larger objective, the people participating in the meeting will find it more meaningful. There will be a greater sense of engagement and a desire to contribute.

Once the Purpose of a meeting is stated, the desired products should be defined clearly. They should be tangible, such that at the end of the meeting one can assess whether they have been achieved or not. So for the above stated meeting, the tangible products could include:

  • A common understanding of the causes that contribute to the quality issues,
  • Recommendations to the management on process changes,
  • An implementation plan with milestones, assignments and timelines.

The person calling for the meeting should state both the Purpose of the meeting and the Products (outcomes) expected from the meeting.

Once the Purpose and the Products are defined, it becomes easier to decide who should participate in a particular meeting.

Managers should cultivate the habit of thinking through the Purpose and the Products for every meeting they organise. Meeting invites should always accompany them. This communicates to all the participants that the meeting to which they are invited has been thought through. It also helps them start thinking and preparing for the meeting. Sending out the Purpose and the Products with the meeting invite is a visible symbol of taking responsibility for the success of the meeting.

Besides the tangible products, there are also intangible products in a meeting. When people are asked about a meeting, often their first response deals with the experience of the meeting: boring meeting, energising session, very well-orchestrated, interesting, waste of time, very engaging etc. This is the “Experiential product of a meeting”.  Many remember the actual outcomes of the meeting only on probing. In some we don’t even remember the outcomes, only remember the experience.

Unfortunately, when we plan a meeting we seldom think through the kind of experience we want the participants to have in the meeting. Asking the question about the experiential outcome is equally important as the tangible products. While the meeting sponsor articulates the meeting Purpose and the Products, the facilitator of the meeting should think through the experiential aspects of the meeting. This is because, the process and the meeting environment largely contribute to the experience of the meeting. They are managed by the facilitator.

I will elaborate on these points in the next blog. Until then start thinking of the Purpose and the Products for your next meeting. This way the participants will know why they are meeting.

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