Avoid the meeting takeover -part 4

I hope you have enjoyed this little vignette about meeting preparation.  I have spent lots of time in meetings.  I work in an organization that has a highly collaborative culture, and that leads to lots of in-person face-to-face meetings.

Over the years I’ve learned that in order to have effective meetings, there needs to be some preparation done.

I want to add this resource:  The Modern Meeting Standard Al Pittampalli has a ton of resources around this and it has been his focus.  His view is slightly different than mine, but we agree on many, many things.

There are only two basic types of meetings:

Information sharing meetings And Decision making meetings

Everything else can be boiled down to some variant or combination of these two.

The key to a successful meeting is to spend as little time as possible to share the information or make the decision.  That is the goal. That is always the goal. There is never a different goal.

To that end, there are a couple of things to consider:

  1. The amount of time you plan to spend says a lot about the pace of the meeting. If you want the meeting to take less time, plan to accomplish the meeting objective in less time.
  2. That assumes you have a clear objective for your meeting.  Right?
  3. That you have a plan to accomplish that objective.  This plan is usually called an agenda, which is Latin for “to do list” – seriously, look it up.
  4. The necessary people are present.  Which implies that no unnecessary people are present.  The more people in the room, the more time it will take, and the more (of everyone’s) time you will spend.

Remember the key to a successful meeting – starts with spending as little time as possible.

Information sharing meetings

The key to information sharing is knowing what information, to which audience, for what purpose. So start with purpose.

  • Why does this audience need to know this information?
  • What actions is this information going to inform?
  • How does knowing this stuff help them?
  • What response are you looking for?
    • Feedback?
    • Acknowledgement?

The sad part of information meetings is that often, we could simply share the information and let people consume it on their own.  The problem is that often, left up to their own devices, people simply will not read or watch or listen.  Thus, the meeting is as much about holding them accountable for information that was presented as it was about informing.

Decision Making Meetings

The key to decision making meetings is first knowing what decisions are required, who can / should make those decisions, and how they will make them.  But people don’t really like to make decisions, so decision meetings are really about urgency.  What is the impact of not making this decision? This is known as the cost of delay.

  • Why does this decision need to be made?
  • What work is “queued up” waiting for this decision to be made?
  • When does it need to be made?
  • Who needs to contribute to the decision?
    • What is their contribution?
  • Who needs to be communicated to, once the decision has been made?
    • Why do they need to know, what actions will it inform?

If you are coordinating or facilitating decision making meetings, the priority of the meeting and the urgency of preparing for the meeting as all related to the cost of delay.  This information is always important to the decision maker and all of the contributors.

I have read articles that talk about 4 or 6 types of meetings, but I think they are all back to these two or some combination of the two.  See if this mapping resonates with you:

  1. Training or Skill Building – I think these are largely information sharing meetings, often with a retention or comprehension diagnostic at the end.
  2. Innovation or Brain Storming – These are decision making meetings, where the decision directly informs the output/outcome of the meeting.  Often the decision maker appears to be the whole group, because they feel very collaborative. Often, one participant can be deemed the decision maker for the purpose of the meeting and she can break a tie vote or keep the pace of the meeting going.
  3. Problem Solving – Problem solving meetings are also collaborative, but they have a large information sharing component and a decision that is often a sequence of proposed solutions (what to try in what order).
  4. Workshops – These are almost all decision making meetings, but the decision is largely – [when] is the work product “good enough” for some other activity to take place.  These often are product, plan, or presentation development sessions.  They are often held with some regularity.
  5. Client or Sales Meetings – These are always decision meetings – your client is always the decision maker. And there are almost always some information sharing components – but the pace and depth of that content must be focused on enabling the decision.  If you don’t know what decision you want your client to make, start with keeping you as a supplier.
  6. Team Building – Team building meetings are often more of an event than a meeting.  There are information sharing components, and maybe some collaborative, cooperative, or competitive activities.

On Meeting Agendas

Since every meeting has a slightly different objective or goal, and the key to success is to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible, then the plan to do that will be determined by the objective.  Like any other planning exercise, it is often helpful to work backward from the goal to get the steps or information required.

Also remember that all of the work doesn’t have to be done with everyone together in the meeting. In fact, the meeting will go a lot smoother, if as much work as possible is done before the meeting.  Part 3 of this series has an example or explanation of this for a decision making meeting.  So go ahead and create the agenda, then go back and decide which of those things can get done before the meeting.  Move those from the agenda to the meeting prep, and everyone will have a better meeting experience.


Avoid The Meeting Takeover – Part 3

“That was a really great meeting!”, I told Carolyn as we walked toward the lunch room. “I already see the benefits of your mentor relationship with Jack. In fact, I’m kinda jealous.”

“Yeah. Preparation really pays off. Now that I know how, it is so easy.”, Carolyn was smiling.

“So it is really easy?”, I asked.

“Well – initially it was kind of confusing. I didn’t understand that there were different kinds of meetings. I didn’t understand that the objectives determine the kind of meeting and the agenda.”, she shared as we got into line to pay at the cashier.

“Different kinds of meetings, I don’t quite get what you mean. Can you explain?”, I said.

“Well, every meeting has a purpose. Something that you want to accomplish. That has to drive how you organize your preparation. For example – This meeting’s objective was to make decisions, but even with that, there are different strategies.  Some are collaborative – that the team works together to arrive at the decision. Other times, we already have a recommendation that we are trying to get “approved”.  Both meetings have a decision as the “objective” but very different preparation plan.”, Carolyn seemed to really get this.

“Some times the decisions we need are financial, other times they are plan formation, still other times, they are selecting from options. Each has different information required, but the most important thing to prepare for a decision making meeting is to know up front who actually has the decision rights. To be honest, it is the most obvious thing, but until Jack had asked me about it when I was preparing for this meeting, I had never thought much about it.  It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had no idea who was allowed to make the decisions.” Carolyn said.

“So for this meeting, how did you figure that out?”, I asked.

“It turns out that the executive sponsor of the program had delegated the decisions that we needed to three different people within the program, but had not broadly shared that information. After sniffing around, I ended up having to confirm with her that I had the right people. It was actually trickier than I thought, but that allowed me to meet with each of them before the meeting to ensure that they had everything they needed to make and formalize the decision.  The meeting became more of a formality after that, because I already knew what kind of decision framework each of them wanted to use to inform their decisions.”

“Decision framework? What is that?”, I was now totally curious.

“Jack explained that every decision maker has to defend their decisions. Most of them use some form of pre-established logic or criteria that determines how they will react to the information that they use to make their decisions. Most of them will review the framework with their boss or the program sponsor, even before all the information is available to make sure they have thought through things sufficiently”.

“I supposed that I never really thought about how people make decisions. This is pretty interesting. I don’t make very many decisions, but I would love my boss to trust me more.” I was thinking about my own situation.

“You probably make lots of decisions, and you don’t even realize it. Just not the big, visible, potentially career limiting ones.  I learned from Jack that when executives delegate decisions, they want to hold the delegates accountable for results, that part is obvious. Since the results can lag behind the decisions by months or even years, they need some kind of lead measure that they can assess to make sure that decisions are not made arbitrarily or for the wrong reasons.  The decision framework is that lead measure”, Carolyn was on a roll. “So once I understood how the decision makers worked, I could just work backward from there to ensure I didn’t schedule the meeting until that all the information was gathered, and that they had seen at least a preview.” she sounded like an expert.

“So what happens when all the information isn’t available, or can’t be gathered before a decision must be made? Does your method allow for that?”, I inquired, curious to see if there was more that I was missing.

“Jack had that covered, too.  He said that sometimes it is not possible to have all the information available when decisions are required. Then decision makers have to be transparent about this – especially with sponsors and stakeholders. These decisions have more risks. Often contingency plans need to be made to adjust decisions when information is available, but it is still between the decision makers and the sponsor to figure that out.”, Carolyn seemed very sure of her answers.

“What about consensus, it always feels to me like we make decisions by committee. That doesn’t really align with what you are telling me. I’ve been told over and over that we can’t decide until there is agreement. Am I missing something important?”, I asked, still trying to figure out if she had it covered or not.

“Consensus is one part of a decision framework that some decision makers require, but it is really for their own benefit, when they feel they are missing some expertise or experience required to make the decision. They can decide that they want agreement on their chosen course of action from others as part of their framework.  Alternatively, they can have those same experts help them build a more robust framework that they can execute independently – it is totally their choice.  Jack also said that sometimes the executive who delegates the decision will make suggestions knowing the limitations in the expertise of the decision maker.”, Carolyn shared with confidence.

“It seems like you really have this figured out.”, I provided, “I am really happy for you!”

“Truth is, I feel more confident than I have ever felt, at least about meetings. Last week, the sponsor commented about how well run meetings on the program were. I couldn’t help smiling. Jack was right – doing all the prep work really pays off.”

As Carolyn left the lunch table, I couldn’t help feeling like I had learned from her at least some of what she had obviously learned from Jack. I was also curious about the other kinds of meetings and how to prepare for them.


Avoiding The Meeting Take Over – Part 2

“So did you talk to Jack?” I asked.

Carolyn was smiling, “I sure did. He was really helpful. I thought he might reject me.”

“And did he give you some useful suggestions?”

“He kept asking me questions. It was kind of weird. He wasn’t insulting, or condescending, it was like he expected me to ask myself lots of questions.” she shared.Continue Reading