April 16, 2011


The No. 1 Killer of Meetings: And what you can do about it, according to Harvard blogger Peter Bregman (Peter Bregman, April 14, 2011, Harvard Business Review)

"That was dreadful. Not only was I bored, everyone else was bored too. Disengaged. I'm terrible at facilitating these kinds of meetings. But they're so important. I've got to get better at it. I need to find a better way."

I wrote that in a journal entry about seven years ago. I still remember the meeting that finally drove me to change how I run meetings. There were about 10 people involved—the CEO and his direct reports—and we met for two days offsite, in a hotel, so we wouldn't be distracted. The goal was to discuss and agree on our plans for the next year. A strategy offsite.

I had prepared meticulously. I met one on one with each person on the team and collected their thoughts about the strategy of the company and what might get in the way of its successful execution. Using their input, I designed the flow of the two days and asked each person to prepare a PowerPoint presentation of the strategy for their area.

The result? When each person stood up to present his strategy, everyone else did one of two things: tune out or poke holes.

Most presentations elicit those reactions because most presentations are polished and thorough and designed to satisfy their audience, as well as to build confidence that the speaker knows what he's talking about. People tune out because nothing is required of them. Or they poke holes because, if they don't tune out, it's the most interesting thing to do when someone is trying to prove there are no holes.

So over the following seven years, I experimented with designing offsites. I did team-building activities, I stayed at the front of the room throughout the meeting, I took myself out of the meeting completely, I taught skills critical to the meeting like communication and team dynamics, I had the CEO run the meeting, I took the CEO out of the meeting completely, and dozens of other tweaks.

Over time, I identified a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don't go near it.

PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues. They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I've found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.

Meetings are exorbitantly expensive when you add up the number of highly paid people in the room at the same time. They should be used as a time to engage deeply in issues, not to update each other on progress.

Except that most of us recognize that isn't what meetings are for. Meetings are called by bureaucrats in order to create the illusion that others are involved in their decisions. We don't pay any attention because we are not so deluded. Power Point has nothing to do with the basic facts. It is just busy work for said bureaucrats. The message is the message. The medium is trivial.

Posted by at April 16, 2011 6:14 AM

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