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Corporate Enemy No. 1: Meetings

November 14, 2016 By: Vanessa Iarocci

Recently, a new Corporate Enemy No. 1 has been identified: meetings.

As this article suggests—and this one, too—meetings are responsible for everything from low productivity to a glacial pace of innovation.

Rather than reacting with quick, superficial fixes—like in this Dilbert cartoon—we should find better ways to solve the root drivers of unproductive meetings.

Here are three ideas to consider:

  1. Kill “pre-meeting” meetings

As I started gaining experience in corporate roles, I was introduced to a phenomenon known as the “pre-meeting”: a series of small discussions held prior to a scheduled meeting with the sole purpose of pre-engineering the outcomes of that meeting. The underlying assumption of the pre-meeting is that a meeting is successful when everyone involved arrives in full agreement, there is little critical discussion and no new information is presented.

Socializing ideas before presenting them to very senior leadership teams or socializing decisions that may be thorny are examples of productive pre-meetings. However, it’s time to end pre-meetings where the only thing discussed is the budget for muffins at the next meeting.

Instead, we should focus on improving our ability to reach consensus outcomes through open and critical discussion. One simple technique to help set the stage for richer discussion is the “pre-mail stamp,” which involves affixing a text box to a meeting agenda or pre-mails with the following categories populated.

  • Required pre-read: A specific directive of any information or data that attendees must read prior to the meeting and a reminder of where and how to access it.
  • Decision required: A clear statement about what specific decisions are required by whom—and by when—subsequent to the meeting.
  • FYI only: A subtle reminder about who is attending the meeting to “gain information” only (versus those who have to make a decision).

Populating these three categories may eliminate the need for a pre-meeting and will train employees to arrive at meetings both informed and prepared for their specific role.

As a meeting organizer, I have found that if I’m not able to fill in these three categories, I should probably reschedule the meeting to a later date—and there is nothing better than found time!

  1. Re-think the “one-pager” rule

Another common tactic to make a meeting more effective is instituting a pre-mail size restriction on the content of the meeting, often referred to as a “one-pager.” This well-intentioned guideline has resulted in all sorts of creative hacks, including increasing the paper size of the one-pager from a standard letter-size page to a legal or ledger-size page, or reducing the one-pager’s font size from 12 to 5.

Worst of all is when creating the one-pager requires scheduling a pre-meeting to decide what to keep and what to cut out of a 10-page deck to make it into a one-pager, thereby exacerbating the problem.

While I appreciate brevity and clarity, sometimes it’s simply impossible to include all the relevant information for a meeting on one page. Here are two techniques that help to address the root cause of pre-mail information overload.

  • Trade words for images by translating complex written content into simple visuals. These infographics, for example, convey complex scientific concepts in a compelling manner.
  • Develop a well-crafted reference document to help attendees absorb meaty content. Nancy Duarte’s Slidedocs, for example, are PowerPoint templates that help authors to make longer documents more palatable for readers. Slidedocs combine visual communications with short chunks of written copy.
  1. Be a facilitator, not a dictator

Another meeting tip I often hear is that meeting leaders should be more assertive and control the room to avoid “getting in the weeds” or “off track.”

While it’s true that every meeting leader should own their discussion, in my experience the most effective meeting leaders are actually facilitators, creating the conditions and an environment that enable rich, critical discussions.

I have worked on developing my meeting facilitation skills by leveraging design-thinking brainstorming techniques. This IDEO video offers great guidelines that have helped me to achieve better meeting outcomes, faster.

Some specific tips I’ve leveraged are:

  • to defer judgement by not immediately reacting or commenting, but by listening empathetically;
  • to build on the ideas of others by prompting the meeting’s attendees to augment their ideas;
  • to stay focused on the topic by guiding groups back on track; and
  • to use visual meetings when appropriate.

Instead of being caught up in corporate meeting culture fatigue, consider approaching your next meeting with energy, focus, intent and an open mind. Most importantly, continue to develop your meeting leadership skills, because iterating to land on the meeting style that works best for you and your team is key!

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Vanessa Iarocci is passionate about innovation, having spent close to two-decades working with both early-stage founders and at large established enterprises to design and execute novel growth and restructuring strategies.