I recently gave a talk on the chemistry of strategy to the CEO Club of Boston. The talk was scheduled to start at 10 a.m. and to finish no later than 11 a.m. I’ve devoted the last forty years to this topic, so I could have talked for hours. But I didn’t. Why? Because I knew the people in the audience had planned their day around the meeting finishing on time. Many attendees had made commitments for later in the day — follow-up telephone calls, other meetings, and delivery of projects they had committed to finish that day. It would have disrupted their entire day had the talk gone on for more than the allotted time, trapping them in the meeting.
I knew my time was limited and I wanted to create the most value in the hour we spent together. To that end, I started the presentation covering some “standard agenda” items – topics I felt would provide useful information for all the attendees. I then devoted the rest of the presentation to answering questions from the audience. (My staff had solicited and organized these audience-supplied agenda items a few hours before the presentation. This way I knew which issues were most important to the audience.)
A couple of people decided to skip my presentation. Strategic planning was not currently a high priority for them, so attending my talk wouldn’t be a good use of their time. When the meeting was over, a few attendees stayed and talked with me in more depth about the topics they were particularly interested in. One attendee scheduled a personal visit to delve into his topic with more depth.
None of this behavior should strike you as strange or unusual, unless you substitute the words operational meeting for presentation. You’d agree that presentations that start late, run over their allotted time and have no meaningful interaction with the audience would be unacceptable. Yet every day, there are literally thousands of operational meetings that do just that! They are “acceptable” only because the meeting manager and attendees expect and accept it.
Productive, recurring, operational meetings follow these rules:
- Decide on the length of the meeting — 15, 30 or 60 minutes.
- Set the agenda at the start of the meeting. Take five minutes or less for this. Prioritize the items and run through the agenda in priority order. (Many academics and consultants suggest setting the agenda days or weeks in advance, but I’ve found this to be nonsense. Because an operational meeting is a tactical meeting, the major issues are established by recent history. The agenda must reflect this. Specific agenda items established days before a tactical, operational meeting seldom hold up.)
- Always end the meeting on time even if it starts late. (If the meeting is scheduled for every Monday morning between 8 and 9, it always ends at 9 a.m., no matter where you are in the agenda or how late the meeting started. (Think of the agenda as the meeting attendees’ prioritized “to-do” list. Do you ever go home with every item on your to-do list finished? Why should you assume that every item on the agenda has to be covered before the meeting ends?)
- Stop when less than half of the members find the discussion relevant. The subgroup concerned with this issue should schedule a separate meeting to cover the topic.
- End every discussion with a call to action. What’s going to get done? Who is personally responsible for making sure it gets done? When does it have to be done by? (We call this the W3 approach to action steps – What, Who, When.)
- Discuss the relative productivity and relevance of the meeting periodically. As required, change the length, frequency, and/or attendance.
- Email a brief summary of key points and agreed-upon actions immediately following the meeting. Do not waste time wordsmithing the email. It is not a transcript or replacement for attendance. (I find that designating an attendee to create the email during the meeting works well. When the meeting ends, they press “send” and the task is done. Tactical information is no longer useful when it’s communicated days after the fact.)
The purpose of operational meetings is to obtain and share information, communicate decisions, and coordinate action. Attendees should spend half their time pushing out the key information they think will enable the other attendees to be more effective. The other half of their time should be spent pulling in the specific informational and/or clarifying questions required by the other attendees. At all costs, avoid the ritual of reading aloud memos that have already been sent to the attendees.
Strategic meetings have a different format. They need to be scheduled with an open-ended finish time. There has to be sufficient time to work through the strategic issues and develop a strategic response. The annual strategic planning meeting, for example, needs to have a day or two blocked out, with attendees accepting that the team may be required to work into the evening in order to work through this year’s strategy. Strategic meetings have their own set of rules, but that’s another article.
Properly structured and executed meetings are the most powerful tools we have for creating and implementing a company’s strategy. The only way to stop holding unacceptable meetings is for the attendees to stop accepting them.
John Myrna is the author of The Chemistry of Strategy: Strategic Planning for the Not-Yet-Fortune 500 (Global Professional Publishers, 2014), available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and bookstores everywhere. He is a management consultant, coach, and facilitator. John cofounded Myrna Associates Inc., which helps organizations thrive by facilitating the development and execution of strategic plans, formulating actionable tactics, and evaluating workforce performance against those plans. His team helps clients turn their vision into reality by using proven, effective methodologies as part of intense, one- and two-day off-site sessions. Contact Myrna Associates via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.myrna.com.