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People have different expectations on what a meeting outcome should be. Sometimes a thorough hashing of the issues is most needed, sometimes achieving consensus and aligning around one goal is most important, and sometimes you just need to act and create an action plan. Be clear on what is most important to your attendees before you plan the agenda. 

Meetings 2:Why are we here?

Posted  on 10/11/09

Puzzled person looking at empty chairsBefore you hold a meeting, figure out why you need everyone in a room

If you are about to schedule a meeting with people with whom you are unfamiliar, for instance foreign subsidiaries, a vendor, a  supplier, or a different business unit, keep in mind that people have different reasons for holding a meeting.

When I left one consulting company to join another, I was not aware of the meeting practices of my new place and ended up violating some sacrosanct behaviors. In this particular culture, pre-meetings, where you met individually with all the invitees before the meeting to get their opinions and build consensus, were the norm before meetings. The purpose of meetings in this culture was to agree on action plans with responsibilities and due dates. No one wanted to waste valuable meeting time discussing issues. Silly me, I came from a culture where the point of meetings was to hash out different points of view, and I violated this norm by holding a meeting without the pre-work. Everyone attending expected that all the issues would have been resolved beforehand, and the meeting became tense when different opinions surfaced.  Afterwards, I was taken aside and explained the “proper” way to conduct a meeting and chastised for not being prepared.

In a similar vein, many years later at a different company, when my division was acquired by another company, we acquirees complained about the numerous meetings we attended as part of the merger. My cohorts bitterly complained that the new company never developed any action plans out the meetings, just consensus on all the issues that needed to be addressed. We were constantly compiling lists of issues and never working to resolve them. When I brought this to the attention of employees of the takeover company, they didn’t understand why we were complaining. The point of the meetings was to gain understanding, not to develop plans. Action plans were developed off-line, usually by a few members of the leadership team, once they felt they understood the issues.  Neither of these misunderstandings had anything to do with mechanics of  meetings, like agendas, minutes, and time keeping, which you would expect to differ from culture to culture, but with the basic assumption of why people meet.

I have found working across functional areas and, especially, internationally, that people have different ideas on why people meet. In Japan, people meet to achieve consensus. Many R&D groups meet to thoroughly hash out and understand issues. Most Marketing meetings are about creating action plans. So before you create your agenda, really think about the outcome you need most. Do you need to get all your vendors aligned with the same understanding and objectives? (See mismatched objectives in Supply Chain.) Do you need to thoroughly discuss alternatives and get multiple points of view before making a decision? Or do you really need to make some progress and develop action items?

Figure out why you are meeting and what the end product should be. The end product should be something that adds value, not just an activity. Here are some good outcomes:

  • action plan
  • decision
  • set of alternatives
  • consensus
  • understanding
  • learning

Remember that meetings should require the involvement of everyone in the room. My pet peeve are meeting objectives that can easily be handled by other methods, like progress status reporting. There is nothing more frustrating than going one-by-one around the room to discuss the status of action items, leaving little time at the end to discuss the issues. Status should be handled virtually so that the meeting time can be used productively on issue resolution. The other type of meeting that annoys me is the communication or announcement meeting. Just send me an email, please. No need to gather everyone in a room to announce promotions or project assignments. If you have complicated or controversial information to share, then yes, you likely need a meeting, but put the boring stuff on the web.

Now onto the who, where, when, and how of meetings.

For more meeting tips, please see the presentation on Effective Meetings.

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Featured Neologisms

Undue diligence   –
the endless process of collecting more information in order to avoid making a decision
Team vynamics   -
Group behavior wherein individuals at a meeting vie for dominance