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If all the world’s a stage then so is every meeting – and you are the playwright.

That’s a recent appeal by bestselling author Patrick Lencioni in Chief Executive magazine. But it’s not just CEOs who call and attend meetings. We all do, and can shape them.

He points out that if you were going to evaluate a surgeon’s skill you would want to observe her in the operating room or a teacher in the classroom. Similarly, managers should be judged in the meeting room.

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That’s a scary concept. Most people hate meetings, considering them a waste of time. And they blame others for calling those meetings and running them poorly. Meetings, however, are a key way we collaborate. And Mr. Lencioni is reminding us that we are being judged on those we call or facilitate.

To counter meeting boredom and make meetings more effective, he has been preaching since the publication of his 2004 book Death by Meeting for more conflict, which is of course the ingredient that keeps us excited at the theatre. By conflict, he means anxious situations that need to be resolved. The leader must search for conflict and when it breaks out, indicate that’s fine – colleagues should be challenging each other, to improve meetings and decisions. “Employees aren’t expecting Hamlet, but they’re certainly looking for a reason to care,” he said in that book. “Ironically, most leaders of meetings go out of their way to eliminate or minimize drama and avoid the healthy conflict that results from it.”

He also says you need to carefully define what kind of meetings you need to hold. For an organization – you would want to adjust this if you just head up a department or project team – there should be four: A daily check-in to exchange administrative details, preferably stand-up and held for five to 10 minutes; a weekly tactical session of 45 to 90 minutes to review progress and solve near-term problems, starting with a “lightning round” in which every participant indicates in no more than 60 seconds their two or three priorities for the week; a monthly strategic session to review a few critical issues; and a quarterly offsite review for a day or two.

That’s a useful schema but, of course, many of our meetings are called around a specific problem, ad hoc or a continuing series. I’ve seen advice that no meeting should be called if the decision can be made by a single decision maker; no need for that person to pass the buck to others. That makes sense, but there is a value to collaboration, done well.

Julia Austin, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School, says in a school publication that if a meeting is important enough to hold, it should have a time-boxed agenda and always be followed up with notes and action items. She recommends soliciting some hot agenda topics two days before the meeting – no earlier or no later to ensure ideas are timely – and assigning people to take the lead in the discussion on each, even if they aren’t the subject matter experts. The three consultants who wrote The Hamster Revolution for Meetings say if those objectives and agenda don’t fit with your priorities, you shouldn’t attend, something that would be radical in many work cultures but maybe needs more acceptance.

In Boring Meetings Suck, Jon Petz suggests letting team members take a stab at organizing and facilitating the group’s meetings so they know what it takes to make them effective. He also recommends “pass the pad” –the last person to arrive is handed responsibility for taking notes (until the next arrival, should there be one).

To keep meetings on track you need “parking lots.” I have always thought of the items consigned to it as being for discussion at a later meeting, but Sarah Gibbons, chief designer at Nielsen Norman Group, says that can insult people with a hot, if off-topic, idea. She recommends allotting a healthy amount of dedicated time at the end of the meeting for discussion, clustering items that are connected. If items aren’t able to be discussed in that session, still include them in the meeting minutes – so they aren’t lost – and try to hold a follow-up session in a day or two.

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None of that sounds like Shakespeare. But in a way, it is. He knew how to keep folks interested and you must hone your meeting craft to do the same.

Cannonballs

  • Don’t hire for culture fit, argues David Burkus, associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University, since that will give you people much the same as you have now. Look for people who make you uncomfortable because they challenge your assumptions – people who are not constantly negative but stretch your thinking.
  • Leadership coach Dan Rockwell says the core difference between remarkable leaders and lousy leaders is that the good ones realize the problem is “in here” – inside the organization or team – rather than “out there.”
  • A research study shows that when external pressure nudges boards to appoint female directors they are viewed as outsiders and thus appointment to the board more frequently comes from adding new seats than having them replace a male board member.

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