Make the Switch to Decision Based Meetings

bored meeting

Many of us spend a significant portion of our time in meetings – meetings that drag on and on and in many cases one that aren’t really necessary.  Oftentimes too these meetings are essentially what Patrick Lencioni calls “meeting stew” – this hodge podge of topics that in many cases aren’t related.  As a leader, it is important that meetings are effective and that we are respective of everyone’s time so that when we do pull a group together for a meeting, we can be fully productive and ensure that our participants are engaged and not distracted.  Too many meetings and ineffective meetings cause employees to disengage and to multi-task which leads to a cycle of more meetings because we aren’t getting things done during those times.

As a matter of practice, I try to stick to only conducting meetings when decisions need to be made.  If I’m simply communicating information, that can be done via e-mail or using innovative tools such as Brainshark or pre-recorded videos.  Even in the case of training type meetings, consider more asynchronous methods such as eLearning.  Now there are some exceptions such as 1:1 meetings with employees or critical meetings where important information needs to be covered and feedback is desired, but most of our meetings don’t fall into these categories.  Most of our meetings are providing status updates, staff meetings, project team meetings, or ad hoc committee meetings where we’re trying to drive change or discuss ideas for change.  These are the meetings that we need to flip from agenda driven and unfocused to specific and decision based.

Below is a simple 4 step model that you can use to facilitate effective decision based meetings in order to increase your efficiency and that of your team members.

Step 1:  Prepare for the Meeting

When planning a decision based meeting consider the following:

  1. At the end of the meeting, what decisions need to be made? – If there are no decisions being made which require discussion or review, consider whether a meeting is going to add value or not. In some cases, a meeting is needed such as during periods of significant change where we need to gauge reaction and obtain feedback, but this generally isn’t the case.
  2. Who are the right people to have in the meeting? – Having more people in a meeting doesn’t necessarily provide for more and better discussions and having fewer doesn’t necessarily make it easier for decisions to be made. Be sure that your invitation includes both those who are your decision makers and those who are essential to provide those decision makers with the guidance they need to make the decision. Absent either of those two will require follow-up meetings which will likely lead to more follow-up meetings and so on.
  3. Are my expectations realistic for a single meeting? If many decisions need to be made, consider breaking that meeting down into smaller ones. This can also help ensure you have the right people engaged if different decisions require a different mix of people involved. Overall, having smaller, shorter, specific meetings can help avoid the “meeting stew” and keep your participants focused on the decisions at hand.
  4. Reach out to those most senior (e.g. executives) in the meeting ahead of time to see if there is anything in particular they want to be sure you address. Often times when dealing with executive audiences (and those with a more dominant personal style), they want to be sure they get the result they want from the meeting which may be different from yours. If they have a specific item that needs to be covered, if it is truly inappropriate for the scope of the meeting, set up time to address that topic outside of the meeting, preferably beforehand. This will help re-focus their attention on what you need them to be focused on.
  5. How can I best visually make my point? In the end, you’re trying to get decisions made and to help the decision makers make those decisions effectively. Be sure you have a visually appealing and substantive report or presentation, but if you have a particularly compelling point that you want to make, consider how you can do this outside of traditional PowerPoints or mainstream ideas. For example, if you’re trying to illustrate that 80% of your revenue come from 2 customers; layout 10-1 dollar bills on the table, then remove 8 of them to show the affect. Part of leading and driving change is winning their minds and their hearts – being visual and impactful can help you do that.
  6. What should I send them ahead of time? Sending information ahead of a meeting can be good if you need the participants to review something in order to make the meeting more efficient, however; consider whether it will cause them to read ahead and if that’s what you want. For instance, if you’re trying to present a specific point or recommendation, reading ahead may cause the participants to make assumptions about the content or come into the meeting with a decision made which may not be what you want them to do.


Step 2:  Setting Expectations for the Meeting

Once you’ve addressed these items, e-mail the attendees prior to the meeting to illustrate the following:

  • The outcome that is needed from the meeting.
  • The decisions that need to be made.
  • State the time frame for the meeting to avoid the meeting from running over.
  • Identify if there is anything the attendees need to be prepared for prior to attending the meeting.
  • Send along any pre-work that you are asking the client to review prior to the meeting.
  • Set the expectation that items that do not support the stated outcome can be addressed in a separate meeting or at the end of the meeting once the outcome has been met. If you’ve already determined items that will not be discussed, state this as well.
  • Let them know that they can reach out to you ahead of time with any questions or for support that will be needed in order to make the meeting successful.

Ultimately, this is about setting expectations and ensuring you have buy-in on the “agenda” for the meeting.

Step 3:  Facilitating the Meeting

Prior to the meeting, be sure that if you’re presenting something that it is fully set up and any audio/video issues are worked out.  Once the meeting begins, be sure to:

  • Review the expectations for the meeting.
  • If appropriate, let them know that you will be taking notes and will send them out after the meeting has ended. This may help focus them on you rather than trying to take notes themselves if someone else is already doing so for the group.
  • Ask if anyone has any questions regarding these expectations before you get started. If there are, dispose of them at that time, whether it is putting them into a parking lot for later discussion or addressing quickly in order to move on.
  • Stay on task. If the discussion begins to weave away from the stated outcome and expectations, bring the group back.   For instance, you can say “That’s an excellent point and I want to discuss this with you more, but let’s append this item to discuss once we’ve achieve our outcome for this meeting.”
  • Encourage participants to disagree and don’t stray away from conflict. The objective of the meeting is to make a decision and this means that the right decision needs to be made. Conflict is healthy in helping teams collaborate and make good decisions.
  • At the end of the meeting, review any actions or decisions being made. Also, be sure that for any outstanding actions, it is clear who is responsible for delivering on those and when they’ve committed to completing the action.
  • Ask the group if there are any questions or anything that you can do to support them better.

Step 4:  Reflect on the Meeting

Once the meeting has completed, it is important to reflect on the meeting and identify what’s next.

  • Identify what your next steps are (e.g. follow-up meeting, individual discussions).
  • Think about what went well and what opportunities exist for continued improvement. It is always good to consider how you can improve your skills and this is a good time to do so especially when working with newer audiences.

Effective meetings are few and far between, however; as a leader you have the power to turn this around.  By moving to short, specific, and decision based meetings with the right people engaged, you can avoid many of the perils that come with ineffective meetings and break the cycle.  This over time will lead to fewer meetings which will allow your teams to spend more time doing what they do best!

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