Let’s Have a Meeting about Having Better Meetings

Oct. 2, 2018
Perfectly competent leaders can run terrible meetings when their skills don’t translate.

There are over 55 million meetings in the U.S. alone each day. They don’t all go well.

Bad meetings can often be blamed on a bad process or a lack of skills, but not always. Sometimes perfectly competent leaders run terrible meetings because the skills they’ve learned don’t translate to the meeting they’re in.

“I get the best work from companies that work with the big consulting firms,” a facilitator once confided. “The executive team works with leadership consultants, and the factory managers work with the lean consultants. Then, when the executives and regional managers get together, it’s like they’re speaking foreign languages. It’s a mess. They hire me to just get a basic conversation going. ”

Clear meeting practices, like an agile daily scrum or a lean group’s kaizen event, ensure those meetings deliver value. But there are no name-brand meeting practices your company can adopt that fit the needs of all your functional groups. So how do you ensure meetings work when cross-functional groups need to come together?

Establishing Structure

Relying on each employee’s skills and personal discretion to run meetings can work—if you happen to be lucky enough to have talented people and small enough that a few meeting magicians can carry the day.

For the rest of us, a meetings operating system (MOS)—like a larger business operating system—establishes a standardized approach to meetings across the company, instead of assuming people “just know” how to run effective meetings and make quality decisions.

A company’s MOS transcends the individual skills of the people working within the system to deliver meeting performance organization-wide.

There are three main components to every MOS: performance criteria, meeting operating models, and meeting support.

You’ll find these components go by many names, as each company develops its own special-sauce approach.

Performance criteria establish common expectations for all meetings within the business, and may include:

  • Behavioral norms
  • Documentation requirements
  • Expected participation by role
  • Rules concerning scheduling and use of time
  • The role of meetings in the overall communication architecture

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, strongly advocated for operational excellence and high-performing meeting systems. Intel’s performance criteria are spelled out in their “Meetings at Intel” documentation.

Meeting operating models describe the specific meeting processes used in the business, spelling out:

The types of meetings in use by name (e.g., the huddle or the quarterly meeting)
The process and people involved in each meeting
When each meeting is held
Small organizations use a simplified operating model describing a single set of meetings.

Larger organizations develop meeting models for each business unit, a central meeting flow for ensuring strategic alignment across business units, and a library of ad-hoc meeting practices for special occasions.

For example, ING Bank recently adopted an agile-based operating model company-wide. ING Bank’s central meeting model defines the meetings teams use to make decisions, coordinate with other teams, and re-align their work with the bank’s strategy each quarter (the QBR). These meetings are a key feature of ING Bank’s “WoW” transformation—Way of Working.

Once the performance criteria and meeting operating models are established, employees then need meeting support to work that system, including:

Training: in the skills needed to achieve the performance criteria and on relevant meeting processes
Technology that supports meeting execution and system administration
Meeting facilities and supplies
Performance monitoring and system maintenance

Bridgewater Associates, a successful investment firm, designed their MOS to encourage an idea meritocracy and drive better decisions. Employees get coaching in the skills they need, and they’ve invested in supporting technology. Their specialized technology includes custom software that makes it easier to collect decision-making data from employees in meetings.

SRC Holdings Corporation, originally a single engine remanufacturing plant, now manages 14 business lines including a training group. The Huddle, a weekly business update meeting, is one of several meetings defined in their MOS.

To ensure Huddles work well, SRC trains every employee how to huddle. Each business unit has dedicated space and supplies for Huddles. And because every employee knows the value a Huddle is supposed to deliver, they can all contribute ideas for continuous improvement.

The decisions made in meetings determine a company’s fate. In successful companies, this fate doesn’t depend solely on the leader of the moment, but on a meeting system that brings out the best in every employee.

J. Elise Keith is the co-founder of Lucid Meetings and the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization.

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