Don’t Just Meet, Make Meaningful Progress

| | Leading Organizations

Have you ever been on a committee?

You know the drill.  A group is formed to address an issue. Volunteers are requested.  Some individuals are “urged” to participate.  A leader is designated by someone in authority, based on position, or is declared by default to be the one who schedules the first meeting.

The kickoff meeting is held.  Conversations happen and tasks are identified.   There is even a bit of excitement in the air.  We all agree there is a problem and something needs to be done.  Maybe this time we are actually going to accomplish something!

Tasks are identified and subcommittees are formed.  There is lots of agreement about the issues and what needs to be done.  It feels really productive.

The next meeting is scheduled and off you go – back to your already very long list of things to do and to face the pressing issues at hand.

And then…

The excitement of that meeting quickly fades and is replaced by the pressure you feel to now get even more things done.  After all you are likely the one who will make sure it gets done.  You know you probably can’t rely on most of your subcommittee members to do much either.  That is just the way things seem to go.

Maybe you feel resentful because this isn’t the first time you have had to do all or most of the work yourself.  Perhaps you understand everyone is busy and this is more important to you than to them so you are willing to do more than your share.  You may even be really committed and hopeful about what could get accomplished, you just wish others were just as committed, too.

The result is the same – you feel alone and maybe even a bit burdened.  You don’t really have time for this either, but you are now obligated to follow through.  Some things may get done over the next few weeks or months, but more than often you are left less than satisfied with the outcome.  Enthusiasm for most is replaced with “checking the box” activity so each person can say “I did my part”.  It feels a bit like being on a treadmill.  You may be working hard, but you aren’t going anywhere.

When I work with a group as a coach or a facilitator I often ask how many people have been on a committee before.  Most people cringe a little.  Bad committee experiences seem to be right up there with lousy meetings as one of the most lamented time wasters.

It doesn’t have to be that way if you follow these 3 simple rules…

1. Get Clear About “What?” Before You Discuss “How?”

I find most people are anxious to get into action as soon as possible.  It takes discipline to step back and make sure (1) you have a clear goal and (2) everyone is on the same page about what that goal is.  Don’t short change this process and know that this is hard work.  But make no mistake about it – it is “real work” even though it may not feel that way for some.  Action lists generated before there is clarity and focus on a specific goal all too often result in little more than busy work.  This is often a source of working smarter rather than harder and likely to leave you with frustration rather than satisfaction.  Most of you are working hard enough already!

TIP: Before generating action plans makes sure you have a clear and simple answer to this question:  what does success look like?  Listen for responses that are measureable and/or observable.  Put actions and ideas that arise in the conversation in a “Parking “Lot” so you can come back to them later.  Whatever you do, resist the urge to delve into “how?” before you complete “what?”.

2. Make Meaningful Progress in Every Meeting/Interaction

Coming up with an action list does not equate to ”meaningful progress”.  It is only one of many conversations that can contribute to a sense of meaningful progress.  Clarity of purpose and goals, shared understanding of an issue, establishing the criteria for declaring success, creating a decision making framework, and working together to accomplish a substantive action on your list are all examples of meaningful progress.  This takes preparation and design.  Don’t just create an agenda of things to talk about, define an outcome you will produce so there is something actually completed before you leave.

TIP: Whatever you do, I suggest you do NOT waste people’s time with status updates.  That can easily be done via  e-mail prior to meeting.  Make sure you use the valuable time of meeting together to accomplish something that is valuable for everyone involved.  Whether it is a larger group meeting or a small group interaction make sure every gathering matters.

3.  Keep Your Action Lists Short

When it comes to an action plan more is not better.  It seems like the longer the task list the more productive a meeting is perceived to be.  Coming up with the long list is easy.  Refining it to the short list of the most impactful actions can be hard work.  Yet better to start with a short incomplete list of things you actually do that are meaningful and impactful than an exhaustive list that is overwhelming, likely to change, and/or overly ambitious.  The former sets you up to make progress while the latter more often than not sets you up for frustration, disappointment and even failure.

TIP: As the last conversation of every meeting/interaction answer this simple question “what is next?” Keep your list to no more than 5 things and you will significantly increase your odds of making meaningful progress between gatherings.

In the moment simply getting into action quickly can masquerade as meaningful progress.  Yet ultimately satisfaction comes from making meaningful progress toward a desired goal rather than from how much we do.   Whether you are leading a committee or a team following these 3 simple rules is a sure way to ensure satisfaction prevails.  And when it does you are much more likely to achieve your goals!

What are your strategies for ensuring satisfaction prevails and results are delivered?

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Enter A Comment

Jon Mertz   |   15 February 2012   |   Reply

Susan, I like your suggestions, which will help keep frustrations low. In meetings like these, keeping on topic is essential. It is so easy to stray in the discussions, but everyone will be much more satisfied when the meeting stays focused. Thanks for your suggestions! Jon

Susan Mazza   |   16 February 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Jon. Staying focused and in one conversation is indeed a challenge for any group. It takes everyone’s intention and attention to do so. One of the 3 ground rules I use for meetings is “speak to make a difference”. I ask people to consider whatever they are going to say in the context of the intended outcomes of the meeting and the purpose of the conversation we are in that moment. If it contributes say it. if it doesn’t write it down or let it go so you can bring your attention back to the conversation we are in. It is amazing how much of a difference this one ground rule makes.

Jon Mertz   |   16 February 2012   |  

That is a great ground rule! That is an excellent to keep it real and relevant. Thanks for all you so, Susan!

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™   |   15 February 2012   |   Reply

Hi Susan,
Absolutely wonderful reminders and we can never get enough of how to make meetings productive, effective, and memorable.

What before how is a much better way than saying “agenda” — because it establishes an order to something that is often out of control.

Here’s a very short post I wrote with one more idea:
Leave Meetings by the Wayside: Go to a Meeting of the Minds

Thx for the great tips Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   16 February 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Kate. We definitely cannot get enough of how to make meetings actually work! Appreciate you sharing your post on the topic too – love your shift from meeting to a meeting of the minds.

Marguerite Granat   |   16 February 2012   |   Reply

Susan, you’re so right about figuring out the why before the how. In business, I find so many people wanting to take action quickly before stepping back to look at the big picture. Asking the why/what before the how is critical in every situation. It takes work and patience. The results are well worth it. Thanks for bringing this up. Thanks for this great post! Marguerite

Susan Mazza   |   17 February 2012   |   Reply

Thank you Marguerite. Jumping into action is so common – it’s like an itch people have to scratch! yet as you point out the results are well worth it.