How to make your meetings magic

Graham Allcott — №14 with Augusto Pinaud

Take a moment right now to think about your experience of meetings. Chances are, a little part of you is groaning inside at the mere thought of meetings. What a fantastic way to waste time, lose focus, fan some egos and talk about getting things done rather than just getting on doing things! The truth is that we have far too many meetings.

In a 2007 study by Bert van der Zwan (of internet company WebEx) 28% of middle managers said that reducing their number of face-to-face meetings would improve overall productivity at work, with a further 21% saying they would feel less stressed and 18% felt they would have a better work-life balance. So many meetings are held without agendas, without a clear purpose and without consideration to who really needs to be there — or not.

But sometimes, a great meeting can change the world.

Some of the great meetings I’ve attended over the years were conducted by my colleague Martin Farrell, Think Productive’s “Meetings Magician”. Martin is a professional meetings facilitator, brought in by organizations like the United Nations, the UK Government and the Fairtrade Foundation.

With a great facilitator, it’s like handing over your car keys and sitting in the backseat to enjoy the ride: you still own the car and get to influence where it goes, but you have a great driver ensuring everyone reaches their destination safely. This leaves you able to be on the lookout for the really interesting things you notice along the way. Watching these meetings unfold, I am always struck by the clarity of thinking, focussed discussion and clear outcomes that develop. It seems like Martin is doing magic and it feels very natural.

In reality of course, what he is doing isn’t magic at all — he’s applying a methodical set of principles to every meeting, and can do this whether he knows a lot about its subject matter or not. It was Martin that introduced me to the most powerful meetings principle I have come across. This was developed by Lois Graessle and George Gawlinski, who worked with Martin on the book “Meeting Together”. The principle is the ‘40-20-40’ continuum.

The 40-20-40 Continuum: before, during & after

If you ever need to hold a meeting and you want to make it a success, use the 40-20-40 Continuum: focus 40% of your attention for each meeting on preparation and getting everything right before you meet, then 20% of your attention on the meeting itself — the time you’re all together – and then spend 40% of your attention on the follow through.

Like all golden rules, it appears to be simple and even a little obvious on first view, but in reality it’s rarely practiced and can be difficult to stick to. Our temptation is to spend all our attention on the meeting itself: what the agenda will be, how it will be structured, and so on. In actual fact, more important than these are getting the venue, personnel and ‘framing’ right. Crucial to the meeting having any impact is, of course, following up to ensure that things actually happen afterwards.

Here are a few tips - based around this 40-20-40 principle – that I hope will help you question the need for certain meetings and transform the meetings you have.

40% before

Purpose — are you AND all other attendees clear on what the intended outcome of the meeting should be and how you’ll know if you’ve achieved it? Make sure your agenda includes a simple statement of purpose (“By the end of this meeting we will…”)

Practicalities — does it need to be a ‘physical’ meeting at all? Would Skype, phone, webinar or something else be a better option? Are we presuming it should be an hour long because that’s what we’ve always done here? What would it look like if we changed it to 15 minutes?!

Place — the room, the cakes, the comfort-level… these things matter if you’re serious about giving people an environment in which to think, appreciate, contribute and decide. Great creative and strategic decisions are rarely made in dimly lit basements!

Pace — you can only go as fast as the slowest person in the room, so what can you do by way of preparation to get people up to speed and ready to fully participate? Use the meeting itself for discussion and decision, not information-sharing that can be done more productively by people in their own time.

Plan — Ever thought about writing the minutes of a meeting BEFORE the meeting happens?! Of course things will change on the day, but doing this will give you the time to fully prepare and anticipate the consequences or nuances of the discussion. Or write them collaboratively during the meeting!

20% during

Participation — create an environment where people’s contributions are valued. Meetings where only the loudest are heard don’t suit everyone’s learning style and sometimes the quietest of contributions are the ones you most need to hear.

Pace and Pauses — try to take a ‘step back’ from the discussions to notice body language and be conscious of whether people’s attention or enthusiasm may be flagging. And remember, no matter how fascinating the discussion, it’s never as memorable or attention-grabbing as a full bladder!

Practicalities — ensure that you or one of your team looks after the practicalities so that you leave participants to focus on the thinking, learning or decision-making.

40% after

Productive Follow-through — there’s no point everyone signing up to actions or committing to further work if none of those people are going to be held accountable after the meeting has ended. Ensure during the meeting that every action has a SINGLE owner and a clear deadline. During the meeting, talk about how and when people will be held accountable and when progress will be reviewed. Follow up quickly after the meeting to confirm the details of who’s doing what – the day after a meeting is the crucial time to either capitalize on the momentum gained, or lose it completely.

It’s amazing that we obsess so much on that middle 20% (the participation), without really optimizing the 40% preparation or the 40% follow-through. So next time you have to organize a meeting, practice using 40-20-40 and watch your meetings go from pointless drain to productive gain.

Photo: Flickr / vladeb CC BY-ND 2.0

Graham allcott

Graham Allcott

Graham Allcott is the founder of productivity training specialists Think Productive and author “How to be a Productivity Ninja” and runs a range of productivity workshops, including “Making Meetings Magic”.

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