When my youngest son was in elementary school he was asked by his teacher what his dad did for a living and his response was, “He goes to a lot of meetings.” This was actually a very accurate answer.
This past year I have facilitated almost one hundred different meetings with group sizes from five to twenty-five people. One hour meetings to multi-day retreats. On-site and off-site meetings. Good meetings and not-so-good meetings.
At the end of each meeting, I try to complete a brief plus/delta. What went well in the meeting and what would I do differently? I try to be brutally honest with myself in this quick evaluation. My intent is to try to get better with each meeting.
As a result of this significant meeting experience and the critical judgement I conduct, I have assembled the following common mistakes I have made and I believe others have made in planning and facilitating business meetings. Judge for yourself.
1. No meeting agenda. Every meeting must have a meeting agenda developed prior to the meeting and shared with the meeting participants either before the meeting or at the very least at the beginning of the meeting.
Why is this so important? Two reasons. First, it forces the meeting leader to determine the intended outcome(s) of the meeting and the meeting structure. Second, the meeting agenda communicates to the attendees why this meeting is important. No agenda? It must not be an important meeting.
2. No meeting structure. A good meeting, like a good play, should have three distinct acts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The meeting agenda should clearly reflect each of these sections of the meeting.
Have you ever attended a meeting that just leaped right into the heart of the meeting without any introduction or set-up? Were you left wondering where this meeting is going? Or maybe, a meeting just suddenly ended? Were you left pondering what’s next or what did we just decide?
3. No empty seats. This one comes from Vistage speaker Boaz Rauchwerger. He preaches that there should never be an empty seat at a meeting of any size. Why? A full meeting suggests an important meeting. Empty seats suggest that some members of the group have decided not to attend the meeting. It must not have been important enough for them. As an attendee, I then begin to wonder why I am here? What else could I be doing instead?
Boaz even suggests that you should intentionally have a shortage of seats at the table. Then when you have to add extra chairs, meeting participants start to think that this meeting must really be important since it is now over-attended. Call this meeting psychology 101.
4. No toys on the table. Most adults are like kids when they attend meetings. They need something to play with while they are sitting. I will use stress balls, cushions, and now fidget spinners to help entertain my guests. Keep their hands busy. Toys on the meeting table also suggests a fun meeting environment.
5. The use of only one medium in the meeting. There is nothing worse than watching a two hour PowerPoint non-stop. Death by slide. We begin to pray for some type of media malfunction. A power shortage possibly. A fire alarm.
I try to use a variety of activities to prevent boredom in the meeting. Examples include breaking participants into pairs or triads for discussions, brief videos, games, and brainstorming exercises. The research on meetings suggests that we can only sit in one place for about 15-20 minutes before we need to move in some way both physically and mentally.
6. Failing to be empathetic with the group members. When I prepare for a meeting, one of the first questions that I will ask myself or a client is, “How do I want the participants to feel when they leave the meeting?” Possible answers might be: confident, happy, proud, or secure. Once I have identified these potential feelings, the planning for the meeting gets much easier. Now I can organize the meeting to try to achieve these feelings.
7. Failure to stay on time. Is there anything more frustrating than a meeting that starts late or runs way too long? The participants have all made great efforts to be there on time and then they sit and wait for the meeting to start. It’s disrespectful. Likewise, there is also an expectation that the meeting will end on time. Like the train conductor, part of my job is to keep the meeting on time and on track.
8. No icebreaker in the beginning of the meeting. One of the challenges that any meeting leader faces is engaging the participants as soon as possible. An engaged attendee is more likely to actively participate. I believe that every meeting should have some type of check-in by each of the members. The check-in can be very simple and brief. This may be a brief introduction if the participants do not know each other or a quick update if they do know each other. Make this check-in fun if possible, as well. This is a good time to exercise the smile muscles.
9. No meeting evaluation. I mentioned earlier that I do my own meeting evaluation after each event. I think it’s a good idea to engage your participants in this as well. It can be as easy as just having each person rate the meeting on a scale of 1-10 at the end of the session. I sometimes use a plus/delta to brainstorm with the group what went well during the meeting and what can we do better the next time.
Best-selling author Patrick Lencioni suggests that we ask the following two questions at the end of each meeting. (1) What have we agreed on in this meeting? (2) What will we communicate to the rest of the team about this meeting? I really like both of these questions. Too often we leave a meeting with too much uncertainty about what we have discussed or what our next course of action might be. Also, there may be a larger audience that did not attend the meeting and may be curious about what was discussed or agreed upon.
10. Not enough discomfort in the meeting. Healthy teams embrace some level of discomfort with each other in a meeting setting. Some amount of healthy conflict. A little drama. I have attended some team meetings that worked very hard to avoid the tough subjects. There was a fear of conflict. A lack of trust in the room. A reluctance to challenge ideas. I believe it is the job of the meeting leader to build the trust in the room which then allows a healthy dose of discomfort to take place.
I know that I am in a good meeting when at some point in the meeting there is a highly uncomfortable moment. A leader acknowledges a personal or team failure. A team member asks a question of a leader that has no good answer. Maybe a brutal fact facing the team is uncovered. As a meeting facilitator, these are golden moments in a meeting. This is where we earn our stripes.
Which of these mistakes have you made in your meetings in 2017? What will you do different and better in 2018?