Is your schedule packed with team meetings? Boring meetings? Meetings where everyone on your team talks in circles? How on earth do you lead better team meetings?
It turns out too many meetings are harmful to your overall business success and productivity. It may seem counterintuitive, but meetings are one of the most common productivity killers in the workplace.
In fact, according to the career website Muse, middle management spends about 35% of their time in meetings. Upper management spends a whopping 50% of their work time in meetings. 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings and the number grows every year. Worse yet, executives report feeling that more than half of their meeting time is wasted (67%).
Unfortunately, meetings are also necessary in today’s workplace. The planning for many tasks is based on communication. Many business leaders (particularly small business owners and entrepreneurs) realize project planning is often a company-wide event steeped in a collaborative environment. After all, bits of the project plan will be assigned to and/or affect most of the team members in your company or department.
So, how do you boost meeting productivity? How do you know when a meeting is necessary or when solitude is the best answer? Here’s how to lead better meetings (and cut out the timewasting ones).
Is Groupwork Bad for Creativity?
You want each team member to contribute to the creative process, from the overall project planning down to the actionable to-do list. If you want to establish the best initiatives to achieve company goals, you must appreciate each employee’s need for think time. How many times have you heard, “This great idea came to me in the shower”? Plain and simple: people need time to think!
Group interactions may stifle creativity, no matter how energetic you are or how balanced your team may be. It’s important for leaders to know how many meetings, group brainstorming, or collaboration time is too much. (Hint: you need a lot less meeting time than you think.)
Research dating back to the 1950s, along with more recent studies, found that big groups don’t do anything to increase the flow of creativity. In fact, group work may result in negative outcomes including bullying, opinion mimicking, passing the buck, and plain old laziness. People simply act differently from Group A to Group B. It all depends on the company culture, how the group is generated, and who is involved in a particular group. This is called “group dynamics” and it’s a simple fact of life.
In his book, Moving Mountains Every Day: Lessons for Business Leaders, Dan Steininger notes that neuroscientist Gregory Berns found dissension from the group activates a “fear of rejection” reaction at the core of the dissenter’s brain (in the amygdala). Berns refers to this reaction as “the pain of independence.” Steininger goes on to illustrate the benefits of solitude using Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein as benchmarks for individual creativity.
Now, it doesn’t mean you should avoid meetings altogether, but it does mean lowering your expectations for immediate meeting outcomes (and shortening the meetings themselves). Keep meetings moving along steadily and focus on the topic at hand.
Don’t let your meeting time encroach on your employees’ think time, either. Offering employees space and freedom to troubleshoot and problem solve will often result in a better outcome than an endless strategy session or two-hour team meeting going nowhere.
Leading Better Team Meetings: How to Keep the Meeting Productive
Now, there are plenty of times when a meeting is necessary and even important. It’s the onus of the leader to ensure meetings are worthwhile. As with most situations in business (and in life), the secret to success is making a plan. Leading better team meetings is no exception. It’s vital to go into each meeting with a plan and stick to it. Always determine the reason for the meeting—if it isn’t important, don’t hold it. Period.
Remember, the head of the company need not lead in every meeting (or attend) but every meeting should follow the company standards and best practices. Here are the important steps meeting leaders (whether yourself or a team/department leader) should adopt to make each necessary meeting more productive.
1. Set the Standard and Expectation of Preparedness
Well before your team meeting, provide each attendee with a list of meeting goals (aligned to your company goals). Whenever possible, assign goals to a point person to lead the charge. When given the time to think and formulate ideas individually and beforehand, you’ll find your team members will bring a lot more to the table.
Request each person bring at least three approaches/initiatives that contribute to accomplishing their assigned goal, plus any other ideas for the other goals on the list. Each person must contribute, right brain and left brain, and add depth to the initiatives.
Don’t attempt to save time by combining meetings with different goals or agendas (i.e., combining an organizational meeting and a creative meeting). We’ve all been in meetings where half the agenda didn’t apply to our area of expertise. What happens? We zone out. Keep the meeting singularly focused.
2. Keep Time
Set the ground rules and timeframe for each topic on the agenda and stick to the plan. You may even wish to set a timer or ask someone to keep time.
Always start on time, end on time, and if someone is late, let them catch what they missed on their own after the meeting (and without disruption). This ground rule should be established well before the meeting happens. Don’t stall the meeting to bring people up to speed as they wander in.
On the same note, keep meetings short and sweet. As leadership, you set the tone. If you believe time is money, don’t pull people away from their work needlessly. Remember, the less time spent away from their desks, the more they get accomplished.
3. Keep the Conversation Rolling
Avoid rehashing info during the meeting and stay on task. If people get bogged down in a discussion, don’t hesitate to table it. Assign the appropriate team members to work the issue out later and bring the conclusion back to the next meeting. Set the resolution as an action item.
For big meetings, you may even consider bringing in a facilitator or mediator. A good facilitator creates a productive meeting environment, drawing out ALL ideas and encouraging equal input and participation. As an “outsider,” a professional facilitator is inherently more aware of the pitfalls of group dynamics, so he or she will better regulate the tempo and pace of the meeting to benefit everyone present. Require the meeting facilitator to present you with a summary (aligned with those predetermined expectations) after the meeting is over.
4. Shorten the Invite List
Invite the fewest number of people possible to your meetings. While some “team meetings” are necessary, there’s an even greater impetus to keep full staff meetings short and sweet. Depending on the size of your company, it may be very rare to hold a full staff meeting.
For most team meetings, only those involved need to attend. This means those who are directly related to the input/output. Everyone not directly involved will get all the information they need from the meeting minutes. Research suggests the most efficient number of attendees for a meeting is about five. Whenever possible, aim for an odd number of attendees to limit bickering over majority-rule decisions. Greater numbers will result in lengthier (and nitpicky) discussions over even the most minor issues.
5. Give Everyone a Voice
If you’ve followed steps 1-4, your meeting will already be focused, short, and direct. All attendees are vital to the meeting and thus, will offer important contributions. This means it’s imperative to ensure each person has the floor when needed. Assuming each agenda item is assigned to a point person, it makes sense to yield the floor to the key person during their timeframe.
At the meeting, establish an environment of openness and collaboration. Be sure each team member attending the meeting has a voice and is allowed to speak. Move through initiatives per the agenda rather than brainstorming by yelling over each other. (However, sometimes shouting out ideas at random is really the best way to jump into a project.) Your meeting style depends upon your team and what you need to accomplish.
6. Listen More Than Talk
Entrepreneurs and business owners are often too committed to their own ideas, pushing the team in one direction without even realizing it. While this is great if you want to exist in an echo chamber of your own ideas, it doesn’t work for problem-solving (or generating creative approaches to tasks).
You know your approach (and comfort with yielding the floor). If you tend to talk over others, it may be best to assign an objective meeting facilitator, allowing you (the boss) to duck out of the meeting entirely. Your participation in the meeting comes as an outside influence. Before the meeting, be sure the facilitator and the team have clearly defined expectations as far as meeting structure, participation, and meeting outcomes are concerned (see step 1).
If your team is timid, allow individuals to submit additional ideas anonymously before and/or after the meeting. After all, the more ideas generated, the better. Why not present your team with as many idea-generating opportunities as possible?
7. Take Detailed Minutes
If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? If a meeting occurs without minutes, did it even matter? Meeting minutes are vital, especially to prevent circular conversations and arguments after the fact. Assign someone to take thorough notes for each meeting. Meeting minutes should include everything discussed and all decisions made. Document problems and resolutions discussed, including those tabled.
Set action items at the end of the minutes. Outline a list of tasks or solutions for each participant to prepare for the next meeting. As appropriate, distribute the minutes to the wider team or company. Someone who didn’t attend the meeting may have a great idea or a solution to a problem. You never know.
8. Ban Chairs
This is the one tip for better team meetings that strikes fear in the heart of every leader who loves to wax on. Why? Because it works. If people have to stand, they are less inclined to filibuster. (Disclaimer: does not apply to Congress.) One way to ensure no one (including management) pontificates during the meeting is to take away their chairs.
Stand-up meetings are popular in tech companies, and with good reason. Researchers at Washington University determined the benefits to standing meetings: Standing up is more physically dynamic and has a similar psychological effect. It leads to more enthusiasm, higher creativity, and facilitates better collaboration on ideas. As they say, a body in motion stays in motion. If you want your team members to leave the meeting ready to go, then a standing meeting is your answer.
9. Timing is Everything
Picking the right time for important meetings is critical. Typically, the least effective days are Monday and Friday, when some people are more invested in planning for or recovering from the weekend, and some are out on a long weekend. Avoid scheduling meetings right after lunch when everyone is half asleep. If you want honest answers on moral or ethical subjects, better stick to the morning. Harvard and the University of Utah researchers found people are significantly shadier in the afternoons. They called it the “morning morality effect.”
What’s expected of the participants is an important consideration when scheduling meetings as well. If you need sharp decision-making skills, the morning is best. Bear in mind, mornings are also the time when your people are most productive. Informational meetings that don’t require sharp analytic thinking can be scheduled in the afternoon when people are at their least busy and least productive. Oddly enough, this is also a better time for creative problem-solving.
10. Appreciate Different Perspectives
Each employee sees your organization from a different vantage point. In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott likens each team member to a different stripe on a beach ball. While everyone is part of the same ball, each person’s reality is different. Seeing as none of us know what we don’t know, it’s important not to underestimate the value in multiple perspectives.
Einstein suggested, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” And while you may feel your organization isn’t bursting with Einsteins—don’t sell your team short. You simply need to give each individual the opportunity to explore his or her own imagination and ideas. To give your people the opportunity to bring the BEST initiatives, always expect the best. Your team will generally perform to your level of expectation, assuming those expectations are clear. Remind each individual that everyone brings a unique perspective to the company.
The best team meetings always have several commonalities: they’re focused, interesting, and of interest to everyone in the room. They move along quickly because each attendee has vital insight to contribute and the facilitator keeps the conversation moving. When a great meeting is over, everyone walks out with more knowledge than they came in with, new tasks to accomplish, and ideas to consider.
While team meetings aren’t the solution to every problem, they are a necessary piece of a productive team. Lead your way to better team meetings and you’ll see increased productivity throughout your office.
Featured image and post images licensed via Pxhere.