There is no question that the future of work is centered around meetings. Meetings are the way people share ideas, learn from each, collaborate to produce new knowledge, solve problems, and make decisions.
Meetings are central to the future of work, yet most people I talk to complain that their meetings are horribly mismanaged most of the time, and are all too often a painful waste of their time.
That’s why I am on a crusade to make every meeting matter.
The first step to making your meetings matter is to be more intentional about them. And that starts with being exceptionally clear about why you are calling the meeting and what purpose you want it to accomplish.
With apologies to Gertrude Stein, a meeting is not a meeting is not a meeting.
There are at least ten distinct reasons or purposes for holding a meeting. Of course, any particular meeting may well have more than one purpose, and usually does. These distinctively different purposes lead to substantially different kinds of meetings:
- Informing (announcing, teaching)
- Sharing (exchanging information, experiences, ideas, opinions)
- Exploring (brainstorming, reviewing alternatives, combining ideas and experiences to create new insights)
- Planning (identifying possibilities and establishing intentions)
- Problem-Solving (moving from a problem to a solution)
- Designing (developing new concepts or new intentions)
- Producing (actually creating something, such as computer code or a marketing slogan)
- Decision-making (narrowing down from multiple alternative possibilities to a single choice)
- Persuading (changing the mindsets of some or all of the participants)
- Inspiring (appealing to peoples’ emotions; motivating them towards new ways of thinking and/or acting)
That’s ten different reasons for calling a meeting. But in all honesty it’s just a suggestive list. What matters is that you are very clear about why you are calling this particular meeting. And it goes without saying that you need to communicate that purpose to everyone who you invite to participate.
Before you do that, however, ask yourself the most fundamental question of all: Is this meeting necessary?
Any meeting is an expensive proposition. It consumes a scarce and valuable organizational resource: the participants’ time.
So even if you have a legitimate goal of informing, influencing, or inspiring others, you still have to ask whether a meeting – whether in-person or distributed – is the most effective means of achieving that goal.
If you want to inform a group of people about a decision, a new strategy, or a new challenge, is a real-time face-to-face meeting the best way to do that? Why not prepare a memo or a white paper? Or send out a group email? Or publish a public online document that everyone who needs to know can access online? With any kind of written communication all the recipients can read it and absorb its meaning at a time that is convenient for them. And they all read the same words – not an insignificant benefit.
However, the obvious downside of a written communication is that it is one-way, and there is no way for you to know if the recipients understand what you’ve said, or whether they agree with it. Or perhaps it raises questions in their minds that aren’t addressed in the published document.
What happens then? There are two possibilities. First, some of the recipients may not voice their questions or concerns. In that case you won’t know whether they understood the message and its intent until they do or say something that demonstrates their misunderstanding. And by then it may be too late to prevent a mistake or, worse, an unnecessary conflict.
Second, if they do raise a question or offer a different way of looking at the issue, then you will probably become involved in a lengthy string of one-to-one conversations (either verbal or written ones; both are time-consuming). Some people will pick up the phone and call you to discuss their questions in person. Some of those calls will probably go into your voice mailbox, triggering a time-consuming back-and-forth exchange that could go on for days before the two of you finally connect in real time.
Others will send you an email; the same lengthy back-and-forth exchange will probably unfold. And emails take time to write, to read, and to respond to. Not only that, but if your email correspondents use “Reply to All” as lots of people do, many people will be spending time reading and reacting to messages and information that may not be at all important to them.
So while on the surface a meeting may seem like a major time sink, it can be the most effective way to share information with a group of people, and it may be the only way to ensure that they have all heard the same message and have developed a common understanding of its meaning.
And if you need to produce new information, solve a problem, or reach a decision, a meeting is almost certainly the best way to tap the so-called “wisdom of the crowd.”
Furthermore, if your purpose is to persuade your team to support an idea, or change what they have been doing, or march off in a new direction with you, then a meeting is almost the only way to proceed.
Why? For the simple reason that unless you are a successful politician or an accomplished Hollywood actor, persuasion works best when it is embedded in a two-way conversation. There are some highly charismatic leaders and professional speakers who are very good at persuading large numbers of people from a convention hall platform or by speaking into a television camera, but frankly they are few and far between.
If you are focused on changing a group’s mindset or actions, don’t depend on a memo or an email – especially if the change you are seeking is the least bit controversial or complex. If you want to persuade people to do something (or think something) – almost anything – differently than they are accustomed to, an interactive conversation is by far the most effective way to accomplish that goal.
This article is excerpted from Chapter Three of Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age. (Link is to Amazon.com).
Contact me today for a free 20-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and other corporate conversations both productive and popular. To explore what is possible, please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter.