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When we complain about wasteful meetings, often we are talking about the weekly gatherings of key managers (or in smaller organizations, the full team) that have noble ambitions but end up being little more than status updates and repetitive debate that doesn’t produce solutions.

Consultant Kim Scott thinks we can easily change that. All it requires is taking debates and decision-making out of them. That may seem bizarre, but she argues it keeps the staff meeting from assuming a greater importance – and far bigger agenda – than is wise.

She argues an effective weekly meeting has three goals: It reviews how things have gone the previous week; it allows people to share important updates; and it forces the team to clarify the most important decisions and debates for the coming week.

“That’s it. It shouldn’t be the place to have debates or make decisions,” she tells managers. “Your job is to establish a consistent agenda, insist that people stick to it and corral people who go on for too long or who go off on tangents,” she writes on her blog.

That gives you the following agenda:

  • Review key metrics (20 minutes): Devise a dashboard of metrics that give you a sense of what went well and what went badly in the previous week, then discuss why. Ideally, the dashboard should be updated automatically, but if that’s not possible, make sure everyone updates their part the night before the staff meeting.
  • Provide updates in a shared document during the meeting (15 minutes): Status updates – details beyond the metrics of what everyone has been doing – can be the bane of staff meetings. When oral, they are wordy, often filled with fruitless tangents, and consume too much time. When written, many updates never actually get recorded and sent out, and even when that happens, people don’t necessarily read them. So she suggests what she calls a “study hall”: Have everybody take five to seven minutes to write in a shared document the three to five things they or their team accomplished that others need to know about, and five to seven minutes to read everybody else’s updates. “Don’t allow side conversations – require that follow-up questions be handled after the meeting. This simple rule will save enormous amounts of wasted time in your staff meeting. If you don’t do this, most of the meetings will consist of two or three people talking while the rest watch on, uninterested,” Ms. Scott says.
  • Identify key decisions and debates (30 minutes): What’s the big stuff that needs to be tackled this week – one or two decisions, or debates, you need to pursue?

In small organizations, she says you might decide them immediately. But if you have a large team, she recommends separate meetings – one for big debates and one for big decisions. That allows you an opportunity to bring in people who don’t attend the top managers’ meeting but have important insights.

“Delegating debates and decisions helps push them into the facts,” Ms. Scott says. Indeed, she recommends communicating the agenda for these meetings broadly. Initially you may get more attendees than you want but over time the number will be winnowed down.

She argues that debating separately from deciding reduces tension. “At least part of the friction and frustration in a lot of meetings results from the fact that half the room thinks they are there to make a decision, the other half to debate. The would-be deciders are furious that the debaters don’t seem to be driving toward an answer. The would-be debaters are furious that the deciders are refusing to think things through carefully enough, to consider every angle of the argument,” Ms. Scott writes.

Holding separate debate and decision meetings on non-urgent matters also slows down the process, allowing for more time to think things through. On complicated issues, there’s a chance to seek more input, and allow a breather for more reflective consideration. (I’m a master of second thoughts after the meeting.) Holding regular debates builds a culture of respectful, collaborative disagreement, preventing explosive fights.

“The goal of debate is to work together to come up with the best answer. There should be no ‘winners’ or ‘losers.’ A good norm is to ask participants to switch roles halfway through each debate. This makes sure that people are listening to each other and helps them keep focused on coming up with the best answer and letting go of egos/positions,” Ms. Scott writes.

Decision meetings typically, but not always, follow the debate meeting. Formalizing such meetings helps to figure out when to stop debating and start deciding. “The simple act of being explicit and conscious about when I’m deciding versus when I’m debating is the single most helpful way to figure out when a decision really needs to be made,” she says. In some cases, the decider is the person convening the meeting; in other situations it’s by consensus or a vote.

It’s an unusual approach but worth considering. Clearly we jam too much into these weekly meetings, some of it wastefully boring. There is a danger of meeting proliferation with the designated debate and decision sessions but this approach gets the proper people in each gathering, provides clarity of purpose and may help improve decisions.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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