Why Meeting Culture is Paralysing Your Business Success, and What to do About it!
Most companies are wasting precious time investing in meeting culture, instead of maximising their time to be more productive. Who is tired of meetings? Who feels that their attendance at meetings is irrelevant, and the meeting itself is more like a social event or a parallel universe to Mean Girls? Who feels informed, yet no wiser? Do you feel it's just an opportunity to break open the excuse matrix and to look in the review mirror to justify your actions?
It doesn't need to be that way, don't miss the best opportunity you have to align your team and set yourself up for success for the week to come.
For the past 18 months, I have been working with groups ranging from SME’s with six employees to billion-dollar enterprises, employing 150,000 + staff. The one consistent piece of feedback from EVERY SINGLE ONE is:
“Most of our meetings are a waste of time”
I mean every time! 100%. I’ve never heard the phrase, or something similar to, “I love our meetings! I feel informed, motivated, appreciated and our meetings integral to reaching our goals”. Never…Never ever..
The evidence is not just anecdotal. For example, in the US most professionals attend a total of 61.8 meetings per month and research indicates that over 50% of this meeting time is wasted.
I was also becoming acutely aware that perhaps the meetings I ran were getting a little rudderless too. OK, “perhaps” may not be strong enough an adjective….So I had a bit of a think, read a few books, and enquired with some of the more effective people I know, to figure out why is this so?
Go Back to the Village!
Human beings are, at their core, social animals. We need to be together in small groups in order to share information, socialise and if we’re lucky, walk away feeling useful, engaged, and part of the team. Remember things called villages? Deep down we all crave village life. Our inclusion in a group or community and our ability to contribute form a building block to contentment, dare I say happiness. This theory has been further proven by new research where psychologists have shown individuals that are in strongly bonded and safe teams, have higher levels of serotonin, a key “drug” produced by your own body that makes you feel happy!
The problem in business, or in most endeavors, be it sporting, charity or government, is that we mix our personal, subconscious personal needs, with the needs of our organisation into one event, the “meeting”. In meetings, being either 30 minutes or an hour, we spend as much time establishing the pecking order, sharing personal stories and information on largely irrelevant topics as we do providing productive feedback on how we are contributing to the team and the broader organisation. Commonly, it's an “update” of what we've done rather than a “Call to action”.
This isn’t my opinion by the way. This is from the feedback from 1000’s of companies globally on their (in)effective communication and approach to “meetings”.
Imagine if instead of spending the same amount of time as we do currently immersed in ‘meeting culture’, we do something else, that materially increases our performance? What about using that time to create a culture and environment where we change our mindset from just concepts, ideas, and intangibles to results, outcomes, and actions.
“How?”, I hear you ask…Break your meeting into three parts to maximise productivity and break the boring and ineffective meeting culture.
Part 1 – A chat (for the mindful company)
Part 2 – The Debrief (looking back on our performance learning about what’s happened and developing actionable lessons learned)
Part 3 – The Planning Session (looking forward to how we apply these new lessons)
Banish the term ‘meeting’!! (Go on, I dare you!) Just as we have with other previously useful words used through history such as ‘switchboard’, ‘town crier’ or ‘nubivagant’ (we call it flying these days), replacing them with more meaningful names such as chatting, debriefing, and planning.
Part 1 – A Chat
This is the obvious part of the meeting. I’m sure you all know how to have a chat, so in this piece, I’ll skip over it and we’ll focus on debriefing.
However, you should adhere to one rule of thumb…. The chat should make up no more than 20% of the meeting, or 10 minutes, whichever is shorter. Remember credibility takes years to earn and seconds to lose. So don’t overshare here, leave it for the cooler or after-work drinks!
Now is a good time to mention that it’s pivotal to the effectiveness of the meeting to have a clearly visible clock in the room, not your phone! We can monitor late arrivals, commence proceedings on time and keep to schedule and if you have millennials on the team, make it digital!
Part 2 – Debriefing
It happens time and time again. A project or endeavour comes to an end, be it successful or otherwise, and the team…does what? Of course, the “what’s next” is sometimes determined by the outcome of the mission. Celebratory teams may head to the bar for example. However for most of us, regardless of the outcome, we’re heads-down and straight into the next task.
“What next” can be any number of things, but it rarely includes looking back on what we’ve just completed in an honest and meaningful way. We need to debrief our performance and identify the gap between what we set out to do and what we actually achieved. Now, when I say debrief it doesn’t mean a discussion about our feelings about the mission or its outcome, or a conceptual analysis or breakdown of the history of the mission.
What I mean is a structured and disciplined post-execution analysis, where we hash out what worked, what didn’t, what we’ll do again, what we won’t do again. We discuss the deeper reasons for what created the specific outcome. We seek the root cause in order to develop and take away two, maybe three actions (or what fighter pilots like to call “Lessons Learned”) and we share them with the organisation to improve everyone’s performance. This is what I’m referring to when I say “Debrief”.
There is Always Something to Learn!
Now some of you may be wondering “if our business objective or SMART goals were met, what more is there to learn?” Or the mission was a success so why not move on to the next task and continue the winning streak, right? Wrong.
Regardless of the outcome of a mission, there is always something to learn. This is of course true for, dare we say, failed objectives. That dirty, forbidden word can make entire teams cringe and individuals despair from the perception that failing to achieve a goal is a personal failure.
Reflecting on mistakes isn't fun, nor will it change the circumstances of that particular endeavour, but it will put you and your team in a better position to avoid failure next time. Identify the root causes that led to setbacks and transfer those ‘Lessons Learned’ to your next plan for your next mission. Even when you've successfully completed a project, there will always be some sort of takeaway, that when integrated into the next planning session, can accelerate learning and ensure actions that led to success, are repeated. Sounds like an obvious addition to your current operations, right? I agree, and here’s why:
Closing the loop
Debriefing allows you to formally conclude a task or project, drawing a line in the sand between one project and the next. It provides an appropriate means to put the past behind you, while drawing on Lessons Learned to foster growth and improvement even if the outcome wasn’t great. I am sure, just like me, you’ve learned some enduring lessons from failure. The fighter pilots' approach to debriefing assists us with identifying the causal links to big failures, which hopefully means we’ll still make mistakes and fail, without repeating the same ones and identifying them when they’re small (and reversible!)
Fills the need for effective learning
When done promptly, the cause and effect analysis of an effective and properly conducted debrief allows your team to capitalise on meaningful learning. How long can one mistake be repeated before it's formally integrated into planning? How does your organisation benefit from the experiences of its members if there is no method of aggregating the learning outcomes of missions?
The catalyst for change
It goes without saying that unmet business objectives are part of business culture and it’s something we accept as ‘business as usual'. Recently I was chatting with a performance coach for a professional football team. He was frustrated that the ‘tough luck mate, move on, forget about it’ approach to mistakes on the field was eroding performance. Repeating the same mistakes were acceptable because the focus was ‘move on and keep your chin up’ rather than ‘keep you chin up mate, we’ll talk about that later and see what we can learn'. As we know, insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result!
Missed numbers and deadlines can be the result of a number of small setbacks or one major misstep. Regardless of what caused the missed objectives, there is a change to be made and an opportunity for improvement. This change might be one that is easily integrated into operations or one that can only be addressed in contingency planning. However, if you don't identify the root cause, how will you know what to change?
There's cause…then there's Root Cause
It isn't enough to recognise that you've won or lost the battle. Your team must look below the conceptual or superficial causes to guarantee it wasn't luck or some other force at work. Digging deeper to identify and define the actual reason for a result (the ‘Root Cause’) is an essential part of the Debrief because only then can we truly develop suitable future responses. Also, if misidentified or left unaddressed, prominent, recurring Root Causes can fester and grow, creating a barrier to performance improvement.
Specific and actionable Lessons Learned
Lessons Learned can result in a change or amendment to existing procedures, the creation of a new policy or procedure, improvement of a program, or training standards, or simply an action or actions for use in future planning. Regardless of how you integrate your Lessons Learned, each lesson should have a corresponding clear, measurable, and achievable action to ensure actual implementation. Who will do what by when?
Provides a rapid, simple approach to continuous improvement
Debriefing should be performed after all activities that relate to a defined objective, no matter the size, length, or complexity. When a structured Debriefing framework is practiced, improvement is near-continuous because Lessons Learned are circulated throughout the entire organisation and applied to any relevant future objectives. The ability to learn from shared previous experiences before we start a mission means we aren’t repeating past mistakes on the job. This is how we accelerate learning and continuously improve – thanks to shared experiences.
Develops a culture of learning, openness, and honesty
Debriefing is a group learning process, a forum in which team members learn from their own actions and those of others. This environment can only truly be created through adopting a nameless and rankless culture, where the focus is on analysing what went wrong (or right) instead of who caused it to happen. The process encourages self-identification of areas of improvement, which must begin with the group leader. Only then will team members debrief openly, honestly and without fear, and see it as an opportunity for improvement rather than finger-pointing or blame assigning exercise.
Because the Debrief is leader-led, the success of the process is incumbent upon that leader's ability to demonstrate the qualities that he or she wants from the team. In other words, leaders must lead by example to gain the trust and respect of their people. It also nurtures leadership traits in individual team members who observe the explicit and implicit leadership qualities demonstrated by their current leadership.
Each of these benefits could be broken down and examined further, but for now, the one thing I can't emphasise enough is that these benefits only occur when the Debrief follows an effective framework and a culture of “nameless and rankless” is embraced by all. If conducted haphazardly or with little regard for the importance of a blameless review, a Debrief can easily do more harm than good. To avoid this, the process by which your team Debriefs should be structured and should establish an open, honest environment.
How’s that for reasons?!
If you’re interested in learning more, take a look here:
Part 3 – Planning
Keep in touch for next month’s post where I’ll explain why Debriefing is fundamental to planning and thus the successful achievement of your objectives.
Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs and attitudes toward business travel, teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity (Greenwich, CT: INFOCOMM, 1998
Robert B. Nelson and Peter Economy, Better Business Meetings (Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin Inc, 1995)
Trakulkongsmut, P. (2020). 8 Key factors behind the production of happiness hormones. Health Articles. https://www.samitivejhospitals.com/article/detail/happiness-hormones