PERSON OF THE WEEK: Every life has some degree of unpleasantness: taxes, dental visits, political campaign promises and – last, but hardly least – business meetings. However, Mike Richardson believes that business meetings do not have to be exercises in torture. Richardson is president of Carlsbad, Calif.-based Sherpa Alliance Inc., a management support business, and author of ‘Wheel$pin: The Agile Executive's Manifesto.’ MortgageOrb spoke with Richardson to understand how the dreaded business meeting can be realigned into a genuinely positive experience.
Q: You've commented that meetings are the ‘backbone of an agile business.’ Then why is it that so many business meetings are anything but agile?
Richardson: Exactly! In my experience, the majority of businesses are not as agile as they need to be these days, because, at most companies, meetings are a mess. They start late, run long, don't achieve much in between and have poor follow-up. As a result, they don't add to our agility as a business; they subtract from it!Â
Chaos is the No. 1 problem in business today. The speed of business, pace of change and unprecedented uncertainty, turbulence and volatility – which are accelerating all the time – can easily default us into the chaos of overwhelming complexity.
Dialogue is the antidote to chaos. We need to talk as a team – communicating, collaborating and coordinating for creative and timely solutions to complex problems and issues. Much of the dialogue can occur asynchronously (as opposed to synchronously) and virtually (as opposed to face-to-face) as the spokes of our dialogue loop. But no amount of spokes make up for the lack of a hub – we need both hub and spokes.
Regular meetings are the hub, letting us proactively and preemptively drive the dialogue we need. A lack of regular meetings means we have to handle everything via ad-hoc meetings, emails and telephone calls/voice mails, which add to the sense of overwhelm and chaos.
It's actually this ad-hoc avalanche that leaves people feeling buried, leading them to believe meetings are ‘time-consuming’ efforts that should be minimized and that they are not worth continuous improvement efforts. Big mistake!Â
Q: At what point in time does a business office meeting become too much of a good thing (or bad thing, depending on the point of view)?
Richardson: That's a judgment call about your sense of wheel-spin or traction. Let's consider this on several dimensions:
The duration of a meeting. My default is 45 minutes (equals one ‘unit’ of meeting, and I am going to try very hard to figure out how to get any meeting done within that time). Maybe some meetings need more units (like a quarterly strategic review might need half a day – this equals four or five units). I would run meetings from five after the hour to 10 before the hour to create more precision about start/end times and reinforce timeliness.
Attendance. Not too many people and, also, not too few. I would rather pay the price of a few too many than a few too few (who weren't part of the big conversation they really needed to be part of).
Agenda. How focused is the agenda? Should this agenda be unbundled into different meetings with different focuses (it's hard to switch mental gears between too many subjects), and/or should other meetings/agenda items be bundled in?
Input, throughput and output. Is it clear who needs to be ready with what inputs (data, presentations, other preparation), what the throughput of the meeting is (i.e., discussions) and what the outputs are (i.e., recommendations, decisions)?
Participation. How actively are attendees participating? Are some over-participating (dominating) or under-participating (passive)?
Facilitation. How well is the meeting being facilitated? Are we managing focus, time and participation well, and staying on purpose, or are we drifting off track?
If we run a meeting too loosely, we risk wheel-spin and not traction – things are drifting all over the place. Likewise, if we run a meeting too tightly, we risk the same problem – there isn't enough opportunity for active participation, discussion and creative problem solving. Traction comes from finding the agile middle – not too loose and not too tight, not too structured and not too unstructured, not too hands-on and not too hands-off.Â
Q: Many people feel intimidated about offering new ideas or speaking their minds during a business meeting. How can they overcome their trepidation and learn to be more vocal?
Richardson: This really comes down to facilitation from whoever is chairing the meeting and creating the environment for people to speak up. Here are some key attributes:
Safety. Make it safe for people to speak their minds, be vulnerable and take other risks with the dialogue (confronting issues, digging deeper, challenging assumptions and beliefs). Show role-model leadership by going first when appropriate.Â
Energy. Make it fun, energizing and inspiring, so people are more likely to join in the flow of that.Â Start with a quotation, a video or reading a short passage from a book, to set the tone. Create a sense of urgency and importance. Get people focused on the future of possibilities.
Questions. Use open-ended questions, and let silence do the heavy lifting – hopefully, silence means you have got them thinking and they need a little time to process and let the mental cogs turn. When there is a silent pause, don't fill it yourself – yours is not the next voice you should hear.
Exercises. Sometimes, silence means they a drawing a blank, so facilitate exercises to get them thinking. Everyone taking a minute to write something down (creating the expectation that everyone should have something) or split them into pairs or triads to discuss and be ready to report out (reinforcing a little competitive spirit).
Accountability. Over time, help participants understand accountability as an ‘and’ proposition. I joke with my members of the roundtable peer groups I chair that they will have a ‘love/hate relationship’ with me! They will love me when I cut them some slack, let them off the hook and play softly with them. They will hate me when I make them face up to things, when I won't let go and when I play hard-nosed.Â
Q: What role does wall space play in successful meetings?
Richardson: The wall space is one of the most underutilized assets in business. Think about a control room of a nuclear power station, or the command center of an emergency response to a disaster situation or the cockpit of a commercial airliner – there isn't a square inch of wall-space not devoted to some kind or real-time information and management system.Â
Leverage the wall-space to help you run agile meetings. Have the standing agenda on the wall, creative problem-solving frameworks, your core values, key elements of your strategic plan, inspirational quotations, etc. – all in large enough format that you can stand up and point. Have a dashboard of key metrics, for both results and activities driving those results. Have other ideation resources in the room, such as a white-boards, flip-charts, blank paper, templates, mind-mapping software even (you can get basic versions free off the Web) which you can pull up on a screen.Â
All of this creates a container for an agile meeting and gives you a ‘heads-up’ ability to find information, inspiration and ideation you need, when you need it, to keep things moving.
Q: Ultimately, how many meetings per week or per month could be considered too many?
Richardson: Too much or too little is a judgment call. Minimizing meetings is a mistake. So is maximizing them. What is important is that you optimize them.