What Makes a Meeting Great?
I have a good friend, Shawn, who is a professional clown. I had just finished reading a book about The Corporate Jester and I thought of Shawn, and decided to try a little experiment.
The jester in a king’s court was an essential function of the kingdom. Kings knew that the pressure on their subjects could only get so high before a revolt. The function of the court jester was to relieve some of that pressure by saying things to the king in a way that no one else could say, thereby giving everyone a laugh at the jester’s expense, instead of the kings.
We invited Shawn and his wife to the hotel for a couple days. They enjoyed a little vacation while Shawn walked around the hotel looking for information on me from the employees and other leaders (we gave him a little dirt on ourselves, too).
We played this experiment out in a manager meeting. Shawn came in, juggled, did amazing physical feats and told the funny stories that he learned from his friendly chats with employees. All while tying it into a roast of me and a couple of other leaders.
That was a really fun meeting for all, probably the most amount of silliness and laughter in any meeting I’ve been in. It had an interesting side effect too—it actually produced empathy.
In the real world, we have to get things done.
No responsible manager would listen to a conversation about clowns at meetings without understanding this. In order to get any business done, we need to transact.
Transactions have experiential qualities like: fun, exciting, boring or frustrating. In so many organizations, and in our culture in general, the word “meeting” is synonymous with “frustrating waste of time where nothing really happens.”
There is another ancient, universal and often overlooked reason we meet…
When you were a kid, there were times when you got hurt, either your feelings got hurt, or you fell off your bike. The kind of hurt that happens all the time to kids.
When you were hurt, hopefully there was someone there to soothe you. Maybe not 100% of the time, but on occasion, when you were hurt, someone soothed you. If you can’t recall this experience as a kid, then look to your adult experience, the experience of being soothed.
Being soothed, really means: I am not alone. There’s someone here with me that knows me and sees me and is reassuring me. This kind of security is how we formed some of our first attachments to others. This sense of security is something we all long for no matter how old we are. A simple word to describe this is, connection.
Meetings are one of the biggest investments an organization makes, both in dollars and in time. Because the true cost of meetings is not itemized on a P&L, most of us don’t do a cost benefit analysis. But, what is the cost when people leave an unsatisfying and transactional meeting and then look for someone to connect with about the meeting they just came from?
Patrick Lencioni describes this as the parking lot meeting, the after the meeting, about the meeting. The person in charge of the unsatisfying transactional meeting is never invited to this meeting but they are definitely on the agenda.
Why not attend to both the transaction and the connection in every meeting?
Getting things done is always going to be a need. We can raise the quality of how that happens by making connection a focal point of our meetings. When gatherings provide a sense of connection, we love to come to them to find more of it.
You and your fellow employees are out there doing the adult version of falling off your bikes, and most often alone.
If you run a meeting, and you want to improve the transactional experience with some connection, here’s an experiment to try:
Open the meeting with a “Check-In”—go around the table and ask each person to share: “How are you doing today, and, is there anything in the way of you being present during this meeting?” This usually takes less than one minute per person.
You should go last and when it comes to your turn, you check-in too. You may want to add that you’re curious about how to make this a better meeting. That’s all, no need to elaborate, they will most likely be curious now too.
Then add two minutes per person as an agenda item at the end of each meeting called, “Meeting Evaluation.” Stop the meeting early enough to leave two minutes per person to evaluate.
Have each person respond to these two questions:
What was present for you in this meeting that made it a good meeting for you?
What was missing from this meeting that if we can get it, this will be a better meeting?
Then continuously adjust your meeting to build on what’s present, and look for ways to transform the missing into more of what you want.
One more thought about the evaluation. In our meetings, this check-in and evaluation time is sacred. Meaning, we don’t start meetings without checking everyone in and if we need ten minutes to evaluate, then we stop wherever we are and make checking out (evaluating) the priority. See if you can do this for a couple meetings and assess any difference it makes with your own experience.
Here are some more resources for meetings:
Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni, he makes the reading fun.
The Action/Decision Register. We believe the only information that’s important to document for everyone are the actions we have agreed to take, and any decisions that have been made. Each participant can take responsibility to document anything else they deem as important to them.
The Secret Life of the Corporate Jester This is the book referenced at the beginning of the article.
If we can support you with other tools and processes to develop more meaningful and productive meetings, let us know.