The art of the meeting

A meeting isn’t just about turning up; it's about being productive and progressive

When I was based in the UK, someone asked my son what I did for a living. His response was, "he attends meetings for the NHS." He wasn’t wrong. I have often attended meetings and worked out in my head how much money was sitting in the room for that hour or more. In some cases, there was little intellectual return on the sizable investment made.

A model for a 15-minute operational meeting

As a leader in charge of my own meetings, I have refined the process down as much as possible. In COO roles in two continents, I established the daily organizational, “Operations Coordination Conference.” Lasting 15 minutes, each OCC had a standing agenda and, on completion, produced a one-page summary, which also doubled up as the daily NIMS ICS form 201 (as it was, in fact, a briefing covering an operational period). Everything was scribed on a laptop in the room and issued minutes after the meeting ended. It was always short, sharp, to-the-point, with actions identified and executed.

"Meeting attendees should be very much in the mindset that they are there to contribute and add value to the discussion or topic," writes Lawrence. (Photo/Getty Images)

How did it really work? Each leader or supervisor in the room had an area to report out on related to their part of the business relevant to the operation of the day. If things were going to plan, then that person was allowed to say nothing. In such operational meetings, where performance or response time compliance is at stake, people feel compelled to speak, but if all was in order, then it was perfectly acceptable to have no report. This is known in military circles as a “by exception process,” whereby the leader and staff have sufficient levels of trust, training and confidence between them that silence or no report is perfectly acceptable. Everyone had a role in the room and was highly competent in the discharge of their duties. They were invested in the success of the organization and all consummate professionals. The process became a very slick affair, which attracted many observers who usually noted that they could never get that much business done in such short a time.

Cashing in on the brainpower in the room, the meeting always ended with the designation of “main effort,” which was the one thing or problem that needed to be fixed either that day or by the end of the week. This focused the group into a collective task that all could contribute to. I’m delighted to say that over the years, those who I have mentored and who have moved on to their own systems have also taken OCC with them, and I get great pleasure when they send me a copy of their own meetings.

Having your ducks in a row

To add to meeting productivity, I also issued all my direct reports with a smart-looking notebook and encouraged its use. Additionally, I also required each manager to bring a ruler to any financial-based gathering to read spreadsheets. Both items improved efficiency, effectiveness and understanding.

In general, meeting attendees should be very much in the mindset that they are there to contribute and add value to the discussion or topic. Research, preparation and anticipation of how things will play out are important activities. I have always prescribed that one should attend a meeting with the staff work complete – in other words, have your ducks in a row and you are therefore both credible and prepared, and will give a good account of your department or organization.

I have very direct views on meetings as you may have already guessed. Time and people should not be wasted, and each gathering should have a purpose and desired outcome, concluding with either results or further actions. Meeting to kick a notional can down the road is unproductive and lowers morale. A meeting isn’t just about turning up; it's about being productive and progressive.

Bonus tip: When to end a meeting

My bonus tip on meetings centers on the psychology of the attendee. As a live and in-person meeting (remember them?) goes on, those that are tiring of the meeting or switching off will close their books and eventually stack them into a neat pile in front of them, followed by lining up their pens and pencils.

Advanced boredom will see them double-check their books are stacked perfectly. At this point, you have lost them, and it is a sign that the meeting has gone on for far too long. As we zoom into the world of virtual meetings, you can’t possibly see books being stacked, but I have realized that as time goes on, the mouse will hover over the end button and those who are ready to leave will leave within milliseconds of the closing salutation … even if they last that far.

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