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Ah, meetings, how do I hate thee?

With apologies to Elizabeth Browning, let me count the ways they go wrong, assisted by Steven Sinofsky, who tackled the issue of reaching peak efficiency at Medium.

  • Failing to hear from all present: In many recurring meetings, the same people talk and the same people don’t talk. Mr. Sinofsky’s solution is to use your floor time to seek contributions from those who have just been listening, asking a very specific question that seeks their expertise rather than just saying, “Do you have something to add?” You don’t have to be the meeting’s chair to manage this.
  • Mostly talking and little listening: Mr. Sinofsky says just as common are meetings where everybody is too busy talking – and preparing to talk – that there is no listening occurring. He suggests adopting three meeting rules to counter that tendency. First, if you take the floor, your comments must build on what the previous person said. Second, before stating opposition to a point, the speaker needs to offer their interpretation of that point. Third, if someone wants to take the discussion to a different direction, the room must grant permission.
  • Reading data off slides: Everyone falls asleep when the leader is showing slides and reciting everything that people are reading more quickly. Instead, summarize what the data says in words and percentages, but be prepared to back that up with comments on the data.
  • Fake data: Sometimes, in order to refute a comment, another participant will produce a data point or customer anecdote, leaving everyone to wonder what is the truth. “Don’t try to counter someone’s point of view with ‘customers are saying’ or make up a number unless you can back it up,” he says.
  • Taking over the whiteboard: Some people take over a meeting by going to the whiteboard, picking up a pen, and assuming control. His solution: Don’t let someone run to the whiteboard unless they are truly drawing a picture that everyone needs to see and they sit down quickly afterward. If you want to track action items or notes on a board, then the person volunteering to do it shall continue to participate normally.
  • Meeting notes: Early in his career, Mr. Sinofsky was taught to “own the notes” as a way of managing a meeting. You need to be wary of people in that role, because they can editorialize and foist their agenda and interpretation upon others. If you want team notes, he suggests the group be clear on the point of view and use of the minutes, particularly if they are distributed beyond the participants.
  • Surprises: Meetings shouldn’t be a time to spring news on the rest of the group – particulathe news is that somebody is falling short on performance. Let participants know in advance what will be discussed, particularly those with special insight. Even if you can only give 15 minutes notice of an issue, that’s better than a meeting surprise.
  • Hijacking agendas: Meetings do wander on occasion but don’t contribute to that problem. Submit your agenda items before the meeting, and if something arises during the session, wait until the first priorities are covered before suggesting another direction.
  • Slow check-ins: It’s fine to go around the room and have people offer updates. It builds collaboration. But discuss the rhythm you want – how much detail and whether accompanying stories are enchanting or a waste of time. “With just 10 people in the room, the bulk of an hour can be taken up inadvertently by this process,” Mr. Sinofsky warns.
  • Does what happen in a meeting stay in a meeting?: Even in very open companies, some meeting discussions can be highly sensitive. Be clear about your meeting rules.
  • Not all functional areas represented: We’re told to keep meetings down to only critically needed people. But Mr. Sinofsky argues that in any meeting attempting to be a step towards a consensus about a major company event, all functional areas must be represented.
  • Presumptive close: Sometimes in a discussion the person responsible for the area being talked about will suddenly declare “sounds like we got an answer” and announce that it seems time to move on. This may be well-intentioned, but it also could be intended to cut off further discussion. To be sure, ask if everyone has been heard and then seek permission to close the discussion.

Five steps to productivity

Productivity guru David Allen is often asked, “What’s the one thing that we do that gets in the way of us being productive?”

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His answer is that it’s not one thing but five, all wrapped together:

  • People keep stuff in their head.
  • They don’t decide what they need to do about stuff they know they need to do something about.
  • They don’t organize reminders of actions they need to take and of appropriate support materials in proper categories that fit the function.
  • They don’t maintain and review a complete and objective inventory of their commitments.
  • As a result, they waste energy and burn out; their busy lives are driven by what’s latest and loudest. They hope they are tackling the right things but never feel the relief that it is.

So what do you need to do instead? You need to view those five issues as pointing to best practices to follow. “Get everything out of your head. Make decisions about actions required on stuff when it shows up, not when it blows up. Organize reminders of your projects and the next actions on them in appropriate categories. Keep your system current, complete, and reviewed sufficiently to trust your intuitive choices about what you’re doing and what you’re not doing at any point in time,” he writes in his e-newsletter.

More simply: Focus on positive outcomes and continually take the next action of the most important thing. It requires consistent implementation. And, he adds, it’s “easier than you’re afraid it is, but not as easy as it sounds.”

The seven traits of super-productive people

Here are seven traits of super-productive people that consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman gleaned from data on the top-rated 10 per cent of a sample of 7,000 people, reported in Harvard Business Review:

  • They set stretch goals.
  • They show consistency.
  • They have knowledge and technical expertise.
  • They drive for results.
  • They anticipate and solve problems.
  • They take initiative.
  • They are highly collaborative, working well with others.

Quick Hits

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  • How you exit a conversation is critical. Chris Fralic, a partner of First Round Capital, says you should end every meeting or conversation with the feeling and optimism you would like to have at the start of your next conversation with the person.
  • People who get things done make lists, says trainer Dan Rockwell. Divide your list into three columns: Must do today; tomorrow; beyond.
  • Online ads cut use of theathe service. A study of an online streaming site found increased advertising caused a 2.8-per-cent drop in usage.
  • Strategy and effort are not enough to achieve your goals. You must pay attention to the constraints preventing success, advises consultant Anthony Iannarino.
  • Today’s quote (and every day’s quote for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has it on his fridge door), usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

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