(a near-transcript of Episode 14 of The Uplift podcast)
Since it’s still back to school season I thought we could spend some time thinking about creating “the best first day ever” not just for our students and for our teams, but for our committees and task forces. Whether you’re planning or have already held your first meeting this fall, and even if you’re picking up where you left off last year, there are some things you can do to make your meetings matter.
I’ve been low-key obsessed about running good meetings for about a decade, but I’ve been super focused on meetings over the last year especially. My obsession started back in 2010 when I was running a consortium of colleges and my role involved convening groups of campus leaders, including college presidents and vice presidents, for ongoing monthly meetings as well as board meetings. Each different group had their own vibe – their own sense of purpose for their meetings and how they felt about spending time together – but most campus leaders were very clear with me that they didn’t have time to meet just for the sake of meeting. I found myself during those years experimenting with new strategies and structures, all designed to bring purpose and clarity to our time together.
Even so, these were very clearly meetings in the traditional sense, with traditional structures and rhythms. We had an annual schedule, and we typically met at the same time each month. We had standing, structured agendas, an excellent note-taker, and we reviewed our decisions and next steps at the end of each meeting. Most of our meetings were very organized and agenda-driven. They were good, and usually productive – and also pretty traditional.
The last two years have really changed me, though. I’m not sure I ever would have started thinking differently about meetings in fundamental ways if not for the pandemic. There was something about the intensified workload, the accelerated pace at which we were all adjusting and learning and making decisions and then changing our minds and making new decisions…all of that left me kind of raw and impatient. Which is saying something, because, if you know me, you already know that patience is NOT one of my superpowers.
So there I was, Zooming and Teamsing and GoogleMeetsing my way through the pandemic, when I had the really good fortune of being in a virtual meeting where the facilitator mentioned Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering. He opened our meeting by referring to us as a gathering, and he talked about some of Parker’s principles for gathering and described how he was applying them. His meta-commentary about purpose and intentions caught my attention and I ordered a copy of Parker’s book that day. I’ve re-read and recommended it many times since.
Parker’s book transformed how I think about meetings, in part by helping me think of them not as meetings but as gatherings of people who have intrinsic value as whole and complex human beings and who deserve to have their time and talents respected. It’s not that before I read the book I didn’t think people were important. It’s that before I read the book I thought the meeting itself was the thing to focus on. Now I think differently. I think when we plan meetings, people are what deserve our attention.
When I’ve taken the time to incorporate Parker’s ideas into my meetings, not only have the meetings been better but the relationships among the participants are stronger. And, as a predictable side effect, I now have even LESS patience than usual for mundane meetings.
And I know I’m not alone. First of all, I know I’m not really that special, so if I’m experiencing something it’s a good bet that lots of you are, too. But I also see this message everywhere – not just in meetings, and it’s not just in regards to meetings on college campuses. I see this message in networking meetings, in virtual and hybrid conferences, even in professional development workshops with attendees from around the country. If you read virtually any news source you know that as a country – perhaps as a world – we are suffering from meeting malaise. This seems to be a piece of human collective suffering that we’re all experiencing together.
So I’ve been thinking A LOT about what I can do to help bring more purpose and meaning to my meetings, and how leadership can be used to spark some of those changes.
Which is a long-winded way of describing how I came to today’s episode, and why I think it’s useful to dissect a typical organizational meeting and then compare it to an atypical, Priya-Parker-style gathering. And I decided to cap off that analysis with a list of things you can actually do to put these ideas into practice. So – and this is for all the faculty out there – today’s episode is basically a compare/contrast essay and my big “so what” is a straightforward checklist of steps you can take to make meetings better.
All right – let’s go!
Since I’m writing a compare/contrast essay, I decided to channel all the first-year students I’ve taught since the rise of Google and do both what they DO and what they say their high school teachers tell them not to do: I asked the internet. And wouldn’t you know it, the internet came through.
Let’s start where most compare/contrast essays start: with a definition.
Oxford Languages defines the noun “meeting” as “an assembly of people, especially the members of a society or committee, for discussion or entertainment,” OR “a coming together of two or more people, by chance or arrangement.” For our purposes, we’ll disregard the coming together by chance, since that doesn’t really fit the experience of a work meeting.
That definition of “people assembling for discussion or entertainment” doesn’t indicate a problem though, so once again I asked the internet what it thought about meetings. This is how I learned that “65% of employees agree that meetings prevent them from completing their own work, and 45% of employees feel overwhelmed by the number of meetings they attend.” It appears that the US alone hosts approximately “55 million meetings […] every single week, and organizations dedicate 15% of their time to them. However, 71% of the meetings are considered unproductive” by attendees, leading to a potential combined annual loss of $37 billion dollars. (https://www.zippia.com/advice/meeting-statistics/)
So: we host a lot of meetings, and we seem to find them generally, or at least frequently, to waste human time and potential, and to waste organization’s money and resources. I’m especially struck by the fact that attending meetings prevents us from doing our work. When I had my own epiphany about my calendar last January, I was literally facing the problem that I was double- and triple-booked in back-to-back meetings all day long, meaning that I needed to put in a full day of work once I got home. It was the only way I could get anything done. Don’t get me wrong – I love working hard. But that was freakin’ insane.
I’m guessing lots of folks feel like me, though, because the internet also tells me that we’re pretty interested in solving our collective problem with meetings. The search query “how to run a meeting” produces nearly 1.5 billion results. The top headlines include “How to Run a Meeting” from the Harvard Business Review; “How to Run a More Effective Meeting” from the New York Times; “How to Run an Effective Meeting” from Chestnut Hill College; “Six Tips to Run an Effective Meeting, Backed by Science,” and “How to Run a Meeting: 10 Tips to Ease Your Anxiety.” The broad range of these sources and their intended audiences is part of why I believe we’re all suffering from meeting malaise.
In general, the advice about how to run an effective meeting is similar, although to be clear I did not read all 1.5 billion search results. Here’s my not-very-scientific summary of the general advice:
I don’t know about you, but I can totally imagine following that advice and still running a meeting where participants felt that the meeting was not a good use of their time.
Since the problem of a good meeting is so pervasive, since we’re clearly invested in solving this problem, and since the general advice appears not that helpful, let’s explore an entirely different way of thinking about meetings.
To do this, let’s shift from thinking about a meeting’s business purpose to thinking about its social purpose.
Now, I’m not dissing business purposes. There are lots of valid, useful business purposes for meetings. For example, some meetings are actually work sessions: people get together to work on a project and make real progress on it. They’re on the path to producing a final deliverable and are achieving milestones along the way.
Some meetings are designed to share useful information. A full team-check-in might not produce results, but it can give everybody a chance to learn how different projects are advancing so that the whole team has the whole picture of the whole unit – what Brene Brown refers to as connective tissue. (And she talks about this in her Dare to Lead podcast episode with Priya Parker – I’ve linked to that in the shownotes if you’d like to listen to it.)
Both of those business purposes, as different as they are, do practical things to advance work.
Meetings can also have social purposes. They can serve as identity builders: consistent meetings with consistent participants creates a sense of group identity for the participants, as well as the appearance of cohesion for outsiders. For example, when we’re new to an institution, one way we learn who is who on campus is learning who is in what groups, who sits on which committees and task forces, and so on.
Meetings can also be used to build inclusion. Even if a group’s identity is partly formed by virtue of their standing meeting, that group can invite alternate perspectives – by encouraging cognitive diversity and disagreement within group membership, and by inviting new voices to the table to share alternative perspectives.
So as I’ve been pondering this for the last year or so I’ve been wondering if we could solve the problem of meetings better by focusing less on their business purposes, and instead combining their social and business purposes. Could this kind of creative recombination give us a new frame for rethinking how and why we gather at work?
I say YES! And this is where Priya Parker’s advice is invaluable to us.
So let’s back up now to definitions again. What’s a gathering? In this case Oxford Languages is not particularly helpful: it defines a gathering as “an assembly or meeting, especially a social or festive one or one held for a specific purpose.” This is barely different from the definition for meeting.
Parker, however, uses a more precise definition. She identifies a gathering as occuring when “a group of three or more people come together for a purpose during an event with a clear beginning, middle, and end.”
She also identifies very clear guidelines and procedures for planning and hosting a meaningful gathering. And here is where the difference between a Parker-esque gathering and a standard work meeting really start to emerge.
Parker’s rules for creating meaningful gatherings are:
1: Identify your purpose
2: Let purpose be your bouncer
3: Design your invitation to persuade
4: Create an alternative world
5: Close with intention
(A quick aside here: these five tips come from a short and easy guide to planning gatherings that you can grab for free from Parker’s website.)
OK – back to the definition. If you recall the internet’s general advice for running good meetings, you’ll see there is only one item on both lists: have a purpose. For the “running an effective meeting” list, having a purpose is pretty much equal to the other things. On Parker’s list, it’s the top of a funnel: it’s the essential opening through which all other planning flows.
Get clear with your meaningful purpose
In Parker’s world, purpose is not the same as category. At work, categories are things like “weekly one-on-one check-ins,” “annual performance reviews,” or even the “standing meeting” that your committee holds weekly by virtue of being a committee. For Parker, “purpose” is the deeper meaning and benefit that drives you to ask this particular group of people to gather and share their time.
Let purpose be your bouncer
Once you are very clear on your purpose, then you let that purpose guide your invitation list. This may possibly have the effect of excluding folks, and in this case that’s OK. If you only invite folks who are crucial to the purpose, you’ll have a better chance of achieving it. If you water down the attendance, you risk also diluting your purpose.
Design your invitation to persuade
Now that you know who you’re inviting and why, tell folks the story behind the gathering when you invite them. Focus less on the logistics (time, place, modality), and much more on the why: why this gathering matters, why the invitee list is so crucial to the success of the gathering, how you want people to prepare and show up, what you hope they’ll bring to and get from the meeting, and so on. I have personally found that these narrative invitations cut through a lot of uncertainty and help a group jump into their work faster once we’re all together.
Create an alternative world
Parker talks about creating pop-up rules – fun and playful rules for the gathering that shake people out of their habits. So if you’re hosting a networking event, you might have a pop-up rule that nobody can mention where they work. That kind of thing. I once hosted a planning meeting over tacos and margaritas, since “fiesta” and “planning” seem about as unlikely a pairing as you might find at work.
Close with intention
Parker wants you to think about how you can wrap up your gathering in a way that marks closure and creates connection. A small thank you gift as folks leave, or a moment for everyone to acknowledge each other – there are as many ways to close a gathering as there are gatherings.
Many of Parker’s examples are social events – weddings, dinner parties, that sort of thing. And many are professional events that are facilitated. But I think the principles translate pretty well to work meetings, and that’s the challenge I’m offering up to you.
So here’s the challenge I’m hoping you’ll take on: choose a meeting you’re responsible for, one that is both a work meeting and a gathering (ie, it must include at least three people). I’ve modified Parker’s guidelines into four simplified steps for you to follow that blend some of what makes for a good work meeting and some of what makes for a good gathering. Your task is to plan your next meeting using each of these four steps.
Step 1: Commit to purpose.
Step away from the meeting “category” and explore and reimagine the Parker-esque purpose of this meeting. Think about having human beings gathered in time and space as a unique and special opportunity to strengthen relationships by doing something that brings unique value to the people involved. Articulate that purpose. Write it down.
Here are a few examples to spark your thinking:
Weekly full-team meeting → Power Hour.
If you hold a weekly meeting that is just a time to discuss whatever is on people’s minds, try shifting it to a problem-solving meeting where the team commits to tackling one big issue and resolving it in 60 minutes. When there is no big issue at hand, there is no power hour.
Monthly full-team meeting → Coaching Conversations
For a while I was part of a team that met every few weeks. At the start we spent a few minutes together and then broke into small groups for coaching sessions. We’d all gone through the same training with a professional coach and had a list of powerful questions to ask each other. In groups of three, we had 20 minutes each to name something we wanted to be coached on, and to have our colleagues ask us questions to help us move toward solutions. Not everybody in the group loved those meetings but I found them very powerful. I always ended those hours knowing a bit more about my colleagues, and usually having had an epiphany about something I was struggling to solve on my own.
Step 2: Collaborate with your colleagues.
Share your new purpose with participants before and during the meeting, and make sure to integrate their feedback into your planning in an ongoing way. For example: when you invite folks to the meeting, tell them what you’re trying to accomplish – not by posting an agenda, but by describing the name and purpose of the meeting. Once you’re together in the meeting, return to your purpose and talk with the group about it. Solicit feedback in an honest conversation, and use folks’ ideas as a starting point and let the full group shape the contours.
This is how my team’s weekly Bacon Benders came into being back in 2013: As a team, we wanted to meet weekly, we thought Mondays gave us the best chance to organize, strategize, and integrate our workweek, some of us (ummm, me!) dreaded a Monday morning meeting, we shared a love for bacon, and voila: the Bacon Benders became a time for us to share food and new bacon recipes, spend time together as a kind of easy entry into our week, and warm up into strategizing and planning the work ahead of us. Bacon Benders remain some of my favorite meetings ever. We conceived of them as a team and they evolved over time. Allow some room for experimentation and growth.
Step 3: Establish etiquette.
I think in some ways this is harder than finding your motivating purpose, because establishing etiquette involves maintaining it as well.
Here’s an example of what I mean by establishing and maintaining etiquette.
I was on a committee with CFOs and the chair of the committee wanted to establish meeting guidelines. So we did – the group came up with guiding principles for how it would behave, and those were listed at the bottom of every agenda.
Now, CFOs – I love you, CFOs out there listening – but CFOs are known for saying no. And this makes sense: they are changed with an organization’s financial health, so they honestly have to say “no” to a lot of things.
What our group was experiencing, though, was that saying “no” was becoming an automatic response to new ideas. So literally, our first guiding principle was “‘No’ can’t be the first word out of your mouth.” We all agreed this was an excellent guiding principle.
But for this guiding principle to hold, people had to break themselves of the habit of saying “no.” And breaking habits is hard, which meant that the committee chair had to regularly reinforce this guiding principle. He found lots of kind and funny ways to do this, and he was really consistent with it. And he didn’t let people off the hook if they tried to say “no” in other ways, like “I think that’s a really excellent idea, I just don’t think it’s going to work.” I mean, we could say that – but that had to be a conclusion to an honest discussion, not a way to shut the conversation down at the beginning.
So establish etiquette and then be ready and have a plan for enforcing your guidelines. You will lose a lot of credibility if you and the group do the work of establishing etiquette and then the group sees immediately that none of that work mattered because instead of enforcing the rules, you let the meeting proceed with people behaving however they want to behave. Not that they’d behave badly, but folks will resort to habitual behaviors – going off topic, getting too far into the weeds to be useful, talking over others, taking up more than their fair share of the conversational space, and so on. Any of those behaviors can be mitigated with the right guidelines or group etiquette put into place.
And then finally:
Step #4: Set up for a strong finish.
This one is a two-parter, as it’s planning for the beginning and for the end. Spend most of your personal planning time thinking about the frame – the opening and the closing. Devote your deepest attention to your gathering’s first five minutes (the set up) and last five minutes (the strong finish). What can you do to welcome folks? Think beyond the usual – plan for more than smiling and saying “welcome” or going around the table for introductions. What would be meaningful? And how can you use that opening to pull your gathering to a close?
Here a few thoughts to spark your thinking:
Opening thoughts. I love this idea in principle, but only when it’s done with intention. Open with a thought – at a faith-based institution it might be a prayer, but it could also be a poem, a passage from an essay, anything really – and then use that thought to draw people into the meeting’s purpose. Take a few minutes to talk about the connections folks are seeing, or the ways the opening thought prompts them to think differently about the purpose of the gathering.
Setting intentions. Have all participants spend 60 seconds writing down what they want from the meeting. The group can share by volunteering, or you could collect all the intentions and read a few anonymously…whatever makes sense for your group.
Making commitments. Ask everyone to write down their commitment to the gathering: what do they promise to do while they’re present?
And then, pull from whatever you do at the opening to draw the gathering to a close. So, for example, if you started with an opening thought, maybe return to it at the end, remind the group of a few key words or phrases, and ask folks to share how their thinking about those words shifted during the course of the meeting. If you opened by setting intentions, maybe check-in midway through the meeting – ask folks if they’re getting what they wanted and course-correct at that point, and then follow up again at the end. If you asked folks to make commitments, ce by asking them to reflect on how their commitments became meaningful contributions to the meeting.
That’s it. Four steps.
I know this may feel like a heavy lift. Don’t be intimidated! There’s no need to try it all at once, or to try it with a big, risky meeting with lots at stake. Instead, start small and local. Choose one meeting that you lead that’s important to you, then commit to improving that meeting this year. Kick it off in a fresh way by taking these four steps ahead of time, share what you’re doing with the group you gather, and iterate and improve as you go.
For all your other meetings? Cut yourself some slack. When you need to meet on a project to fix some issues, just do it. NBD. Want a one-on-one with your colleague to check in? Just go talk. Not every work meeting can or even should be a gathering, and not all gatherings need to be life-changing events. My challenge for you is simply to try making a change in one place. Make a difference one gathering at a time.
And hey – if you’d like to see some of these strategies in action, come join The Leadership Academy! The three-week course includes optional virtual office hours, and when we gather for office hours I’ll be taking Parker’s advice to heart. Learn more about The Leadership Academy and register soon — the doors close September 8, 2022.
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