It's no surprise that when you search Google for "improve meetings," you get 176 million hits. After all, we spend hours sitting at a conference table wondering why we're wasting time at yet another boring, frustrating and unproductive meeting. So we'll consider any suggestion (Hello, Google, can you help?) just to stop the pain.
That's why when I read this fresh perspective from consultant and author Peter Block, I thought it represented an important new way of approaching meetings--especially for leaders.
Writing the forward for Richard H. Axelrod's book Terms of Engagement, Block suggests that the way we approach almost every meeting is . . . well, all wrong.
"We live in a culture that believes that the way to plan a meeting to gain support for new ideas is to make a strong base, present it well, and ask for people's commitment," writes Block. "It is basically a selling strategy. If you look at the way we meet . . . you see a lot of presenters, a lot of podiums and a lot of passive audiences. That reflects our naiveté in how to bring people together."
Block makes the case that meetings actually represent one of the best ways to improve relationships and build commitment.
"Meetings have a deeper meaning than just to cover the content and decide something," he writes. "Meetings are an important place where commitments and relationships are either chosen or denied."
Block invites us to compare business meetings with gathering around the dinner table for a family meal.
"It is when all of us are at the dinner table together than we get a sense of the whole. It is the moment we are physically reminded that we are part of something larger . . . At the dinner table, we get a concrete, visceral picture of what the place is like and how it is doing. Whether the meal becomes a warm conversation or a food fight, we still get the picture. The family dynamics and culture become visible."
That's all well and good (especially if you're hungry), but you may wonder how you can use this philosophy to make meetings more meaningful. I've given this matter a lot of thought, and can offer three opening ideas. (Once you get warmed up, I'm sure you'll think of more.)
1. Set objectives for every meeting you manage.
Please don't walk into a meeting in a rush, thinking that you'll improvise and figure out what the meeting is for once it starts. That's how meetings become messy and pointless.
I always ask myself "What is the one thing (or possibly several things) I need this meeting to accomplish?" This, of course, is another way of determining outcomes or objectives. Here's another way of stating it: "What does success look like?"
Only by articulating a desired end-state can you build the elements of success. In fact, every decision you make--from where to hold the meeting to whom to invite to how to facilitate--should be based on how you answer this question.
2. Focus your meeting on building relationships and/or creating commitment.
Here I turn to Don Norman, the psychologist and industrial designer. In his book, The Design of Future Things, Norman writes that he learned from experience that "the process of making a decision is often more important than the decision itself. When a person makes decisions without explanation or consultation, people neither trust nor like the result, even if it is the identical course of action they would have taken after discussion or debate."
The best way to involve people? Invite them to a meeting. Mr. Norman writes, "Many business leaders ask, 'Why waste time with meetings when the end result will be the same?' But the end result is not the same, for although the decision itself is identical, the way it will be carried and executed and, perhaps most importantly, the way it will be handled if things do not go as planned will be very different with a collaborating, understanding team than with one that is just following orders."
3. Build comradery by creating an uplifting, enjoyable meeting experience.
If your organization's meetings are stiff, stuffy, airless experiences, you've got a bigger problem than boredom; constricting meetings are evidence of a stifling culture. Writes Block: An organization's culture "becomes visible and is open to influence when groups of people are gathered in the same room. The structure, aliveness, deadness, whisper or shout of the meeting teaches and persuades us more about the culture of our workplace than all the speeches about core values and the new culture we are striving for."
So if you're trying to create an innovative, flexible culture, start by running meetings differently. "Each time we come together, whether it is a conference, a training session . . . or a larger group meetings of employees, there is the opportunity to create a culture of openness, relationship and trust in leadership," Block writes. "If these meetings are done in a way that evokes people's optimism and trust in their environment, then whatever the content of the meeting, the participants will leave more committed and willing to invest when they arrived."
How do you do so? There's one three-letter word you can use that will dramatically improve every meeting. That word is FUN. In fact, just because your meeting has a critical purpose doesn't mean it has to be a downer. Lightening the mood releases energy, allowing participants to think more creatively and solve problems more effectively.
If that's the case, why don't more organizers use fun as a technique to improve meetings? I can't tell you. What I can share is that colleagues at my firm have worked hard to inject fun into almost every session we plan, from staff meetings to client town halls. Read this blog for 5 techniques you can easily use.
And here are some final words from Block: "The experience of the meeting carries the message of the culture and, most critically, it is the quality of this experience that determines whether people leave the meeting with optimism and a genuine desire to make something happen. What we call "meetings" are critical cultural passage that . . . create an opportunity for connection and . . . engagement."