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Meetings: Decide what matters and who cares

5 min read


This post is an excerpt from “MEETINGS MATTER: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations,” (Jackson Creek Press, January 2015) by Paul Axtell.

There is a difference in life between acting out of obligation or out of inspiration. Inspiration is shaped by having some possibility in mind — seeing the connection between how you are spending your time and a desirable future that doesn’t exist right now.

There is a story about golf pro Byron Nelson, who experienced a lull in his career after being the very best in the game. Then his enthusiasm returned, and once again he was on the circuit playing tournaments.

When asked about his comeback, Nelson replied that he’d always had a dream to build a wonderful ranch. And one evening, he realized that golf was his path to that possibility — each tournament he won allowed him to buy more cattle or build more fencing.

Compelling futures are like that — they inspire action. Effective people, groups, and organizations work hard to make sure they are spending their time on things that matter.

Consider the time in meetings to be precious. Ensure that anyone who requests time on the agenda is respectful of the group’s time. There are so many demands on our time and energy. Imagine how differently we might spend our time if we asked ourselves these questions each day:

What am I creating with how I am spending my time?

What set of possibilities is associated with this activity?

As a supervisor or manager, ask similar questions about what you are putting on the agenda for your meetings. There should be a connection between what you talk about in meetings and what the organization is trying to accomplish. The richer the possibility you can link to your group’s work, the more fulfilling that work will be.

Talk about the right things

One view of leadership says it is about creating clarity, future, and focus. Usually people think about this statement in terms of setting strategic direction and goals for the organization. Tactically, it means keeping meetings focused on the right things.

A worldwide manufacturing engineering group with thirty members asked me to observe their conversations and suggest how they might improve their meetings. This group met eight hours a month with the goal to improve worldwide manufacturing excellence. Before I went to observe, I asked to see their agendas from the previous six meetings. In those meetings, they had spent only 10 percent of their time discussing manufacturing excellence. They had spent four hours deciding whether one unit could reward people for perfect attendance. They had spent another two hours deciding what to do about an employee who kept parking in a no-parking zone.

As so often happens, this group of talented managers got pulled into short-term problem solving or low-level distractions rather than spending the time to go deeper into topics that have long-term leverage. They’d also slipped into a pattern of going lightly over ten to twelve agenda items rather than doing meaningful work on a few.

It doesn’t help to work on improving your meetings if you are talking about the wrong things.

What merits time on the agenda?

The overarching questions are:

What are the conversations we as a group need to have?

Given what this group is expected to accomplish and given what we think we might produce by working together in a remarkable way, what should we be discussing?

For example, the following conversations are likely candidates:

Discussing progress on the team’s most critical goals and initiatives should be first choice, especially if progress is in jeopardy.

Making decisions that require the best thinking and full ownership of the group should also be high on the priority list.

Providing input to a manager or colleague who has a significant issue and has asked for suggestions is another area where the experience of the group adds value.

Gaining clarity on an organizational problem so it can be handed off to a smaller working group is part of the work of larger groups.

Discussing strategic topics such as talent reviews, organizational restructuring, or hiring decisions keeps the organization positioned for the future.

Discussing complex issues generates shared understanding within the group. Organizational values and the culture itself arehonedbydiscussing fundamental topics such as transparency, inclusion, integrity, and ethics.

Training in short, powerful segments on topics the team needs to embrace are also worthy of a group’s time.

Don’t meet just because you are a group and you’ve “always had a weekly staff meeting.” Ask this question: In your regular meetings, are you honoring the time of group members by discussing things that matter? It’s an important question, and in my experience, few groups could answer in the affirmative. If you want to meet on a regular basis, fine. Just make sure you are thoughtful about the agenda for each and every meeting.

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