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“Can all of you see my brilliance?”

Status updates are supposed to quickly inform everyone about the status of a project.

Too often, though, these updates are much rather about the status of the people in the project and carry double meanings along the lines of “I’m not to blame for the delay.”, “This is my kingdom. Don’t you dare to invade it.”, “I’m smarter than her.” etc.

In many cases, this happens when the team can’t see how the project is about something bigger than themselves. And so, they lack a sense of belonging to a team that achieves more than anyone could achieve on their own.

Which means that, effectively, everyone’s on their own team.

Which is why they need to protect their status.

Great project leaders create that sense of belonging. They light the path by communicating with irresistible clarity where we’re going as a team, why we’re going there and why everyone belongs.

Clear communication is revelation work

Some things are hard to understand and even harder to explain. Which is a real problem when this thing is your idea and it has the potential to change something for the better.

Yet, you’re so deeply expert in that field that it’s hard to find simple language. The Curse of Knowledge has its mighty grip firmly wrapped around you: the more you know about a thing, the harder it gets to speak about it in simple terms.

Here’s what happens in many companies at that point:

Meetings are scheduled to figure it out. Long meetings, in fact. Also, PowerPoints are produced. Whiteboards are filled. Heated discussions about the implications of saying “X” vs “Y” erupt. Opinions clash … until … finally … they settle with a compromise that everyone can (only) kind of live with.

The one thing that they didn’t do was speak with their audience. Start a conversation. Figure out what language the audience uses. Check how they really understand what you say. Validate your assumptions. Cross-check them over many conversations.

Clear communication is much more revelation work than it is creative work. It starts with valid data.

What do you mean?

It’s a simple question that changes everything.

And yet, we often shy away from using it rigorously.

We notice that the team member uses a vague statement to gloss over their lack of preparation. But we’re polite and let them get away with it.

Another team member might be struck by The Curse of Knowledge and uses language that most of the team don’t fully understand. But we let her get away with it because she’s the genius.

A third one might make a hand-wavy claim and we let him get away with it because “it’s just a thought”.

This helps no-one. It might feel easier in the moment but it slows everything down in the long run.

“What do you mean?” is a really simple question. When you use it rigorously (as opposed to ruthlessly) it benefits the whole team. When you use it to clarify (as opposed to finger-pointing) it removes misunderstanding.

Clarity is your responsibility.

If the meeting isn’t working, change the meeting.

The default way of dealing with bad meetings is to pick up the phone and check social media, Slack, or mail. This has become an even bigger problem in times of online meetings.

And it’s not even specific to meetings. People watch movies while surfing Instagram. Attend conference talks while replying to mail. Meet with their friends in the park while at the same time meeting with other friends on Snapchat.

Here’s a rule of thumb that has proven very useful for me: If an activity doesn’t feel worth my full attention, I change the activity – rather than add another activity.

If the meeting isn’t working, change the meeting.

If the conference is a waste of time, leave (which is especially easy with online conferences).

If the movie is boring, turn it off (or watch a different one).

If the conversation with your friends is leading nowhere, give it a direction.

Justifying a meeting

If you want to be responsible with people’s times, you need to justify the need for a meeting from quite a number of angles, each of which can be summarized with a simple question:

Why do we need the meeting?

Including: Is it really required that we have that meeting? Or might there be more effective ways of dealing with the matter?

Who needs to be in the meeting?

Is the purpose of the meeting important enough to justify asking for these people’s presence? But also: Will their contribution be large enough to justify their presence at the meeting?

How long does the meeting need to be?

Can we ask this much time from the people who need to be there?

When do we need to have the meeting?

Is everyone who needs to be there available at the time of the meeting? And would it be the best use of their time?

Where do we need to have the meeting?

Is it required for everyone to be in the same room (adding to their time budget if it’s a physical space)?

Doings often make it much easier to find answers to these questions than meetings. When it’s clear what needs to be done, it’s much easier to identify the people who can and cannot contribute, whether we need to gather in the same physical space and whether the product of the doing is worth spending the time.

Rewarding meetings

Meetings are madness. We all know better. But still, most of us don’t do better. Because we’ve accustomed ourselves to the way that meetings are run. We’ve let inefficient meetings turn into a habit basically from the very first meeting we joined (we were the juniors, after all).

It’s just the way it is. They’ve always been like that. Get over it.

Or not.

Let’s revisit this statement: We have allowed inefficient meetings to become a habit.

The thing with habits is that they are automatic behavior. Once you experience the trigger for the habit, the habit takes over. The trigger in meetings is the meeting room. The habit is to drift away in your mind doing things like planning your next vacation, thinking about new career opportunities, or just catching up with mail.

The bad news is that habits, even if you’ve uncovered them, never go away, as Charles Duhigg argues in his fabulous book “The Power of Habit”. Bad habits can only be replaced by new habits.

One possibility to replace a habit is via what Duhigg calls the “reward”. For example, for some of you a reward of the inefficient meetings habit might be that you feel like you’ve managed to catch up with mail (finally!). Much better than to waste your time listening to a boring PowerPoint presentation.

So, the question becomes: How can you make the reward of paying attention more desirable than the reward of catching up with mail?

Let’s look at what causes meetings to feel so inefficient. Some of the more important ones are:

  • Too many participants who don’t have anything meaningful to contribute.
  • Too many topics that don’t impact us.
  • Nobody’s prepared.
  • Statements (especially when they’re conveyed via PowerPoint) are vague, abstract and inconcise.
  • Nothing comes out of it. People make great promises that they never keep.

Making meetings worthwhile means eliminating these causes. If you’ve got something to contribute, if you can articulate your thoughts with clarity because you’ve prepared well (and don’t rely on your teammates to figure out what you mean), if what gets agreed upon gets actually done because people take responsibility, people will pay attention because they will feel like they can affect change.

I believe that that’s the actual meeting problem: People feel that their contribution doesn’t matter (that much). So, if you manage to make every meeting member’s contribution matter a lot, your meeting problem will vanish. If their contributions matter and have an actual impact, then that’s potentially a much bigger reward for people than catching up with mail.

Here are a couple of steps you can take towards this:

  • Enforce a being prepared policy!
  • Insist on clarity (Say what you mean)!
  • Have people take on responsibility (Mean what you say)!
  • Include only the people who can contribute in a significant way or are directly impacted!
  • Exclude people who don’t contribute or aren’t paying attention!

In other words: switch to a doing!

I’m not going to miss that

What outcome would make your next meeting so valuable that you wouldn’t want to miss it at any cost?

How about your co-workers? Do they feel that the outcome of your next meeting is so valuable that they wouldn’t want to miss it at any cost?

If yes, bravo! You’re a rare breed.

If not, what would make it so? What can you change to make it more valuable? (Maybe switch to a doing instead?)

You better pay attention

Andy Miller, who after he’d sold his company to Apple reported directly to Steve Jobs, explains what it was like when he wasn’t paying attention for a brief moment. Jobs pulled him out:

“You weren’t paying attention. If I’ll ever notice that again, you’ll never again sit in one of these meetings.”

It sounds harsh but it makes sense when you turn it into a bidirectional deal: You must pay attention. But at the same time you get the right to demand that the content is worth paying attention to.

Essentially, as the leader you not only demand attention but you also demand to make good use of the attention, e.g. you guarantee everyone the right to point out when someone (including you) speaks a lot without saying much.

When you demand that everyone pays attention it means that there’s an incentive for everyone to prepare their material in a way that makes it worth paying attention to. (That’s, basically, how Amazon’s study hall approach to meetings works.)

If it absolutely has to be a meeting

A boring meeting is a great opportunity to catch up with unread mails. Sure.

But why not address the cause instead of the symptoms? Why not work to prevent boring meetings from happening rather than look for ways to re-use boring meeting time?

The best way is to turn it into a doing.

But if it absolutely has to be a meeting, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Cut the meeting time to one-third. And mean it. This is easy if everyone leaves out the boring two-thirds.
  • Take a vote 5 minutes into each presentation asking: “Do you want to learn more?” Only move on if the majority vote is “Yes.” (You will be amazed at how much relevance you can fit into 5 minutes.)
  • Use the Saari principle: anyone may ask “Who gives a damn?” at any time during the meeting. If the presenter or meeting leader doesn’t have an answer to that, the presentation is over.
  • Like Amazon, forgo presentations in favour of a study hall. Instead of presentations, employees prepare memos. Reserve (let’s say) 30 minutes at the beginning of each meeting exclusively to reading these memos.
  • Publicly rate the meeting as well as the organiser. This way you can quickly see who organises and leads meetings in a way that makes a difference.

Don’t give in to boring meetings, change them.
(And it always starts with ourselves).

Let’s meet for a doing

Meetings are corporate hell. Let’s switch to doings instead. What’s the difference?

Meetings have an agenda, doings have a goal.

Meetings are about conversations, doings about results.

In a meeting, we commit to what we want to do. In a doing we commit to what we do.

When a meeting is over, the work starts. When a doing is over, the work is done.

There is tremendous value in bringing people together in a room, on- or offline, and have them co-create solutions for our problems. Trouble starts when we stop short of creating something. When we meet just for the sake of it … because we always meet on that day … and it’s all words and no result.

When scheduling your next meeting, I suggest that rather than starting with “What will we talk about?” you start by asking “What will we do?”.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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