How to Fix a Broken Meeting

When it comes to the usefulness of meetings, opinions are broad and controversial. The way meetings should be done or how useful they are in certain contexts are frequent subjects of discussion.

Most people see meetings as villains. Time suckers that don’t generate value at all. A quick search for this subject will bring you a myriad of interesting results such as:

Many meetings we have during our professional lives feels useless and oftentimes frustrating. However, I’m sure that you’ve experienced many meetings that really added value and helped to solve some hard problems you’ve faced. Personally, I attended many productive and value-adding meetings and I believe that they were like so due of the following characteristics:

  1. They used the right approach for that particular moment.
  2. The purpose of the meeting was clear and shared by all participants.
  3. All participants were genuinely interested parties on the meeting’s purpose.

Thus, this observation led me to think that to increase the odds of having a good meeting, you first have to make sure that your meeting is following the 3 principles above.

During my career as a coach, I was asked many times variations of the same question that usually comes into the following form:

We have this meeting that just feels waste of time. I’ve heard some people complaining that the meeting for them feels useless. People in the meeting aren’t getting any value out of it. How can I transform it into something valuable to everyone? I feel that the meeting is an opportunity for us, but how can we get more value from it?

There are many ways I can think of how to explore and help someone to find the answer to the question above. In this article, I’d like to share one of the approaches I use in such cases.

What follows is a description of a 3 steps approach designed to discover a meeting’s purpose and transform it into a more valuable moment to all its participants. Additionally, I’ll share some tips on how to facilitate the process. Just bear in mind that there’s much more than just process involved into successful meetings, but certainly finding a common way of working is already an improvement that could lead to other ones that will make your meetings even more successful.

So, without further ado, let’s get started!

How to Improve a meeting in 3 easy steps

The goal of this approach is to either decide to stop or continue the meeting in question. So, if a purpose is found then it’s likely that the meeting will continue, otherwise, it’s almost certain that the meeting will not happen anymore.

Step 1: Discover the meeting’s purpose

This is the first and most important step and the one where we’ll try to uncover the answer for the following key question.

Key question: What’s the reason of existence of this meeting?

When starting the workshop, I recommend you to inform people that they should not come to the meeting in questions just because it’s scheduled on their calendars or because someone told them to. They should come to the meeting because they feel that they get some value out of it. It’s this value that we’ll try to uncover and let clear to everyone on this first step.

Gathering individual perspectives

Ask each person in the room to write on a sticky note their perspective on what the purpose of the meeting should be. I also ask them to add a short explanation of why that is important for them. Give them some minutes to think and put their thoughts on paper.

Visualizing convergences and divergences

This is the moment where we can use visual tools to help us clearly define the convergences — collective needs — and divergences — individual needs — in the room. For that, I draw a big square with a circle inside of it. The area outside the circle but inside the square is the space where individual needs will stay and the area inside the circle is the space dedicated to the needs of the collective.

After we plot all the need on the board, we can visualize what the group converges and what they diverge. It’s surprising to notice at this point how different the individual needs are. Also, usually, there are more diverging needs than converging ones. During the exposure of the needs, the alignment starts to happen, even if just based on discussions at this point. This is the moment where people start to having a better understand of each other’s needs.

Following this step, I ask the following question:

Key question: Regarding the individual needs, the ones we diverge, is there any that you can get pro-actively without having to wait for this meeting? And how?

The answers for this questions usually eliminates from the board many individual needs and also is a way of showing to people that they can get most of the information they need at an individual level just by increasing a little bit their proactivity. Sometimes even some needs that converge are also eliminated, because the group agrees that such particular need can be addressed outside the meeting by using a different approach such as E-mail, chat, quick 1-on-1s, etc.

I understand, and use this understanding in this approach I’m sharing with you in this article, that for a need to be considered collective and require a meeting to address it, it’s required that at least 3 people share this need. This is an empirical definition and is based on the idea that if there are only 2 people that have that need, they can interact directly either personally or by other means such as e-mail, chat, or even an informal conversation during a coffee break.

At the end of this first step, if no common purpose was found, then the decision is pretty obvious, isn’t it?. Stop doing the meeting because it doesn’t make sense to anyone and there’s apparently no common purpose or problem that could be possibly solved by it. However, if a common purpose was found, then proceed to the next step.

Step 2: Define the correct approach

This is the moment to take a closer look onto the items inside the circle, the ones that converge and represent the needs of the collective.

Ask the following key questions:

  1. How can we approach this meeting based on this set of needs?
  2. What contribution to this meeting could you give in order to fulfill these needs?

During the discussions that will come from the answers, we usually reach an agreement on how to execute the meeting, who should attend it, who should bring what, etc.

You as a facilitator, will, of course, take notes of the decisions that will be made by the attendees. Use sticky notes to write the deliberations and review each of them before moving to the next and final step.

Step 3: Final check

Just to make sure that we did the process right, let’s see if the perspectives and mindset regarding the meeting become more positive by asking the following:

Key question: After the work we did, what value do you expect to get from this meeting?

If all or the great majority of the participants can answer this questions, I assume that the purpose was redefined and all participants see that they can get value out of the meeting resulting in increased chances of success for the meeting.

It’s usually a good idea to follow up sometime later with the participants to check if the meeting becomes something valuable. Usually after 2 or 3 meetings will be the right time for that in my opinion. I usually got good feedback and also some changes will likely happen during these 2 or 3 meetings that will adjust even more the purpose and the process of the meeting.

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Originally published at Agile Stash on July 18, 2018.