Are Meetings Broken?

Have you ever thought that our meetings are broken? Meetings are definitely a time-suck if they haven’t been crisply run with a defined demarcation of time and needs. Inefficient and ineffective meetings have the potential to bleed into company politics and silos, further alienating team members and managers. Unfortunately, inefficient meetings undermine the effectiveness of the team leader. And ineffective meetings have the added onus of leading to more and more ineffective meetings as nothing gets done fast enough and team members don’t understand what they were supposed to do and when vs. the overall project. Team members may resort to having 1:1 meetings or “drop-by” meetings after the team meetings to clarify expectations and timelines.

There are so many things I like about this HBR article, “Why Your Meetings Stink and What to Do About It?,” by Steven Rogelberg! One of my favorite pieces was the part about Brainwriting (a new term to me – love that!). This is so effective for the collective effort of the group – any extrovert, introvert, or ambivert will be able to partake equally well in discussions with this method. I’ve also been enamored of Brainswarming lately too – the ability to start idea-generating where others can lend their help in thinking through scenarios to come up with better-vetted ideas – even before you have a meeting – and where NO WORDS ARE USED – what?! Using both top-down and bottom-up thinking, participants can come up with ideas that work better, while ditching things that might not, all via Post-It Notes.

It’s worthwhile for us to generate ideas in groups, but sometimes brainstorming gets too far afield, when either brainwriting or brainswarming might be better able to get more worthwhile ideas faster and vetted correctly before moving on.

And, unfortunately, it’s a hard fact that sometimes more vocal extroverts takeover a meeting when introverts/ambiverts don’t speak up – thereby eliminating many ideas and pushbacks that should have come to light from a risk standpoint much earlier on. Ambiverts are those people who exhibit tendencies of both types – they can appear extroverted to the average onlooker, but need to recharge or engage in discussions in introverted ways – I’ll own it – I am one. 

Back to the meeting needs though: We need the ability to vet ideas and for that, we need ALL the brains in the room, not just the most vocal ones. Brainwriting or brainswarming can eliminate potential problems with our meetings. But in the absence of these methods, how can we ensure that we are getting everyone to contribute to the discussion?

In meetings where brainwriting or brainswarming aren’t used, team leaders should practice helping take the temperature of the complete room. To do this, team leaders need to do something called “mining for conflict.” If you suspect that there are items that haven’t come to the forefront of the discussion, the meeting’s leader needs to think about playing a bit of devil’s advocate a bit to get everyone’s thoughts out – including all three groups of people. 

Get people talking about the problem and its solutions. Once you have some great debates going on, you’ll spot some people who seem to be holding their breath, hoping they won’t get called on by the meeting leader. Then, time to put the question to the group, but address it to someone you know who might be holding back (most times an introvert/ambivert): “Lynn, do you think this might be the way to go? Is that how you feel?” And of course, maybe you choose the opposite of how you suspect Lynn may be feeling. Unfortunately, the very first time with this method, Lynn will be feeling put on the spot. Expect that they will be and then add, “I’d really like to hear what YOU think.” Then, let the room get quiet. Eventually, after what seems like 5 minutes, Lynn will voice her true thoughts – the exact ones you’ve been waiting to hear. Then use the next portion of time to tease out her other thoughts, asking clarifying questions until the complete thought has been revealed. Thank Lynn – you know this was hard for her, but you value her thoughts precisely because they may not be things that anyone else had thought about before. Let others ask clarifying questions of Lynn too but don’t let them become critical, we’re only here to think, postulate, and then co-create. As you get to a place where everyone seems to have clarity, then start to co-create the possible solution. Using all the thinking that everyone has contributed, see if you can come up with a few short sentences outlining the different possible solutions to test. 

Ask if everyone is in agreement with what has been written. Make revisions if necessary to the solutions to clarify them, and then have the team rank them in order of how they should test the solutions. 

After an initial meeting like this one, tell participants that you value every person’s input on what we are to do – sometimes the best solutions are held by the quietest people, and very often, we need to think about collective solutions. Collective solutions are those that are hybrid and come out of all the differences of other people’s thoughts – these are the ones that are the most valuable. Tell them that you will be asking everyone from now on about how they feel or think about our problems – because you know that the best solutions are ones that have been co-created together. From now on, everyone needs to be ready to discuss their thinking and if they remain quiet, you will call on them to contribute their thinking. 

This may take a couple of meetings to get used to:

  • For the team leader to remember to ask everyone’s thoughts – at every meeting,
  • For the extroverts to realize that their quieter coworkers have very meaningful contributions to add to every discussion and they will no longer hold sway with the leader or group just because they’re the loudest,
  • For the introverts and ambiverts to understand that they will get called on, even if they stay quiet during initial debate – the team leader will ask their opinion and they will have to provide it as well as provide clarifying question answers before the team, as a whole, can make a decision,
  • For everyone to understand that they each need each other to find the best resolutions to problems and that sometimes the first solution they come up with might not work, so be prepared to have more than one solution to fall back on.

It will get easier as the team works together, but mining for conflict is something that the team leader may need to do consistently until everyone is comfortable with each other and comfortable in sharing their thoughts together. Knowing the that collective solution is the one you’re after, will help everyone be conscious of the vital part that they play in moving the team and the solutions forward. Also, for Teal self-managed teams, think about rotating leadership. This gets both extroverts and introverts used to asking for and obtaining all the brains in the room.