Overcoming Death by Meetings


Wow! 2019 has brought tons of new clients, both individuals and within organizations. It has been an exciting (and busy!) time, and I have never so frequently exclaimed “I have the best job EVER!” Thank you for sharing yourselves and organizations with me!

Last week, I facilitated a two-day retreat for a higher education information technology department focused on using Clifton StrengthsFinder, vulnerability and trust building (ala Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead), and overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. One thing that came up over and over again in this team was the experience of being overwhelmed, both by the amount of meetings they had and the sheer number of tasks they were responsible for. We constantly came back to a buffet metaphor. They had filled their plates going through the all-you-can-eat buffet, only to be handed another plate at the end and forced to fill it from the more-than-all-you-can-eat section. How true is this for so many of us, both in our personal and professional lives? We consistently heap on more without taking a moment to consider what might make handling it all easier and where our energy is best spent.

During the retreat, our conversation turned to the idea of a meeting audit, examining the many recurring commitments they had with a set of criteria that might help them evaluate and reflect on some important decision points. Read on for more information on what a meeting audit, in your personal and professional life, might look like.

First, take a look at all of the meetings/commitments you attend on a recurring basis and ask yourself some questions:

  1. What is the purpose of or intention for these meetings?

Sometimes meetings or commitments happen because they have always happened that way. When was the last time the purpose of the meeting was articulated? Once the purpose is clear, how are meetings helping move toward that purpose? If the purpose is unclear or forward progress isn’t being made, what changes can occur to help achieve the purpose? If the purpose is sharing information, could it be shared another way via technology?

One outputs of the retreat mentioned earlier was a review of team meetings with specific definitions of what each section of the meeting included and the purpose of that section. The simple act of clarifying exactly what the team collectively defines as an update, agenda item and action item is a great way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. For example, updates (anything that you simply needed other members of the team to be aware of) would be shared on a team site online prior to the meeting.Agenda items are those that need dialogue and feedback on the part of the team, have a sense of urgency around a decision being made, and are currently a priority. The meetings end with action items assigned to an individual with a due date established. These action items are included on the team site which serves as a mechanism for team accountability and follow up. These shared definitions create common understanding of the intention and purpose of sections of the team meeting, collective accountability to sticking with these agreed upon ways of being, create expectations of how to engage during meetings, and make future on-boarding of any new members of this team easier to understand and quickly acclimate to this culture.

This also holds true in outside organizations. What is the purpose of your church’s regular meetings?What about school organizations like PTA’s and PTO’s? City meetings? Team sports meetings? If the purpose is unclear, ask. You likely aren’t the only one wondering what you are doing here or why this meeting exists. And without clear purpose and direction, commitment, interest, and dedication will quickly fall off.

2. Who consistently attends?

Who always attend?Why?How can these people help accomplish the intended purpose of the meeting and/or organization? Are there redundancies in who is attending, especially if there are multiple people from the same functional area or with similar talents/resources attending? Are all important stakeholders represented? Why or why not?

3. How long is it?

The standard seems to be that every meeting has to be an hour, especially if people meet in person. This often locks us into a schedule that isn’t based on needs, but rather the way things have always been done. What would it look like to allocate a half hour to the meeting? This might mean starting exactly when you said you would and skipping some side chatter, but how much more could be accomplished? What if a one-hour meeting allocated the first half hour for dialogue and next steps and the last half hour for collective work time toward accomplishing those tasks? This can significantly boost productivity by allowing dedicated, uninterrupted work time where those with a collective interest and shared work can ask questions without waiting for a return phone call or email.

Additionally, when meetings use technology to meet, how can that be used to most effectively move a meeting forward? Has the agenda been shared ahead of time with opportunities for any necessary information sharing prior? What items need discussion? What is the intended outcome?

One idea shared in the IT retreat was that one team member had allocated specific times of the day for meetings (for example 10, 11, 2 and 3) and allotted a set time frame, 45 minutes, for each meeting. This allowed others to be aware of when meetings would happen while also setting aside dedicated work time and presence (a vitally important thing!) with important members of a work team. Those 15 minutes between meetings can also be vitally productive and allow for a bit of down time or preparation before jumping into the next thing.

4. How does this meeting fit into the flow of the day/week/month?

Often times there are a number of things that fit into the flow of a day, week or month.If we can put meeting or commitments that feed information into the next parts of the week, we can work much smarter. This might mean rearranging things. The payoff for this is often huge.

The same can be said for times of day or week. The smartest employees (and people!) I know are very aware of how their body and energy works throughout the day. If they typically feel sharpest and most energized in the morning or earlier in the week, they take on more complex tasks then, leaving less complex tasks for later in the day or after other tasks/meetings they know might zap their energy.

The same is true in home life. Making bigger meals earlier in the week or on nights when there are less commitments pays off in tasty leftovers on the busier nights. Doubling meals that can be frozen means less hectic nights and saving money on take out later. Packing practice gear into the car earlier in the week or the night before can save on day of chaos. Maybe the week's worth of car snacks are placed in a special bag or box and put in the car before the week starts. Consider how looking at the flow of the week can also be leveraged in your life outside of work as well.

5. Why are you the right person to be at this meeting?

Organizations (and people!) can be slow to change, which sometimes means that when you are the person who has always been in a certain meeting, you continue to get that invite. At the same time, your scope, role or responsibility may have changed, meaning that someone new might be the right person with the talents and time to give this project or task the energy it deserves. Examining if you are the right person is essential for meetings you feel like you have attended “forever.” How does you, specifically, being at this meeting help move forward the project or goals of your department in a way no one else could? If the answer is no, it’s time to look at who is the right person to attend.

It’s important to consider if systems and processes have been set up that are based on appropriate roles and responsibilities rather than a certain person or personality. Leadership based on people or personalities is not only unhealthy for the individual and organization; it’s also a recipe for failure when those people need to move on, either by their choice or other’s.

This can also be true in outside organizations like schools, churches, teams and more. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to provide information and systems in a way that encourages the next generation of leaders to get involved, and then to let them do it their way. If you find yourself getting possessive or defensive when someone proposes a new idea or way of being, it might be time to step back and do some self-examination. Our identities should not be drastically influenced by our commitments and ties to organizations; they should be based in our values and what is important to us.

Making change can feel a bit overwhelming. What would it look like to make a temporary change and evaluate how that worked? The IT team decided to restructure their Fridays in spring to working project days, with no set meetings to allow them time to actively work together while also having constructive feedback and dialogue on projects. They are committed to going back to evaluate this come summer. They were also able to consider other organizations and departments who have gone to this structure and leverage their experience to find ways to make this happen.

What would it look like to have no meeting days in your personal or professional life? No email hours in your world? No technology time at home? Try a temporary pause to see what you find.

For those of you hoping spring will eventually come, now is the time to set the stage for growth and change. Review your calendar and see how you can best leverage your time and energy to set yourself up for new beginnings.

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