I’ve noted many times that corporate conversations are at the heart of 21st century work. After all, that’s the way most of us communicate with our colleagues, explore issues and opportunities, and make sense out of our experiences.
And I have also reported that there are something like 11 million meetings a day convened in the United States alone. Yet I have difficulty finding anyone who just can’t wait for their next meeting.
Given how much time we spend in meetings and other kinds of conversations, isn’t it worth figuring out which ones are worth holding?
There are four dimensions that drive every conversation and formal meeting:
- Purpose. Why are you calling the meeting? What are its intended outcomes? Is the conversation intended to exchange information, to change participants’ minds about some issue or challenge, to inspire, or to move people to action? In Steven Covey’s words, start with the end in mind.
- Participants. Who is, or should be, involved in the meeting? What are their talents, their learning styles? What do they know about each other? What are their roles and relationships?
- Process. What is the agenda for the meeting? What sequence of topics do you want the Participants to discuss? Will there be distinct phases to the meeting (e.g., information exchange, debate, decision-making)? Or will the conversation be more free-flowing? Will there be meeting Minutes or other “products” generated during the meeting and shared afterwards?
- Place. Is the meeting face-to-face or it distributed? Is it real-time, or spread out over hours or days via email or other social media?) What kind of space and furnishings (tables, chairs, white boards, etc.) will support the purpose and the process? What technologies, if any, will be available?
Whether any particular conversation is effective, and produces positive outcomes, depends intimately on these four critical components and how you as a leader guide the communications that take place.
But first ask yourself the most fundamental question of all: Is the meeting necessary? Any meeting is an expensive proposition. It consumes time for every participant – time they could use to do other work they are responsible for.
So even if you have a clear need to inform, influence, inspire, or otherwise collaborate with others, you still have to ask whether a meeting is the most effective or most productive 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 meeting the best way to do that? Why not prepare a memo or a white paper? Or send out a group email? With written communication all the recipients can read it and absorb its meaning at a time that is convenient for them.
Of course, 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 even if they read it). Or perhaps it raises questions in their minds that aren’t addressed in your original document.
What happens then? There are two possibilities. First, some of the recipients may simply not voice their questions or concerns. In that case you may never know whether they understood the message and its intent.
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). Some people will pick up the phone and call you to discuss their questions in person.
Of course, some of those calls will likely go into your voice mailbox, triggering a time-consuming back and forth that could go on for days before the two of you finally connect in real time.
Others may send you an email. And the same lengthy back-and-forth exchange will probably unfold. Remember that emails take time to write, to read, and to respond to. Not only that, but if your email correspondents use “Reply to All” 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 is often the most efficient way to pass on information to 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.
Moreover, a meeting is by far the best way to brainstorm and leverage the combined insights and experiences of a group of individuals. A meeting can potentially – that’s an important qualifier! – enable a group to gain or create meaningful information more quickly and more completely than any other form of communication.
But you still have to work out how to ensure that all those necessary meetings you convene are both productive and engaging. And that’s easier said than done!
More next time…
Contact me for a free consultation about how you can generate meaningful conversations within your own organization. And ask me about how you can join my ongoing monthly “Talking About Tomorrow” open conversation series.