Five tips for a perfect meeting

Good operational meetings, whether co-located or virtual, are the engine of organisational and project governance. However often their success is left totally to chance. Here are my five key tips for making them more effective:

1. Sterile Cockpit – Maintain Focus!

Sterile Cockpit is an aviation term which means that during critical phases of flight, such as takeoff and landings, nothing else should be discussed by the flight crew apart from the takeoff or landing. Even if it is important the crew must keep it for later. In operational meetings this means stick to the agenda. No matter how interesting a new topic suddenly appears don’t get distracted if it is not directly pertinent to the main reason you are meeting.
The FAA Sterile Cockpit rule goes on to say the cockpit team should avoid “Activities such as eating meals, engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit and nonessential communications between the cabin and cockpit crews, and reading publications not related to the proper conduct of the flight are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft“. So reading your blackberry email during an important meeting violates Sterile Cockpit.

2. Jackanory – No Story-telling i.e. reasons, explanations, justifications, causes….

Jackanory is Cockney rhyming slang for ‘Telling A Story’. When we tell a story about why something has happened we usually, without realising it, begin to defend and justify. This wastes time and energy. We only need to give the absolute minimum facts to allow the meeting to determine the correct action. The time for stories is after the meeting in the bar.

3. Sherlock Holmes – Reveal rather than conceal!

Sherlock Holmes was a famous but fictitious detective who had a fantastic ability to uncover the truth in difficult circumstances. A team should not expect their team leader to have the same level of investigative and deductive skills as Sherlock. Make it easy for the leader of the meeting to find the information they need – put it right there without being asked!
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, 1859-1930

4. Only Four Task States – Done, On Plan, At Risk and Missed

Ultimately there are only four states a particular task or activity may be in. The sooner you can allocate the state to the task the sooner you can decide what actions, if any, need to be taken.

  • Done or On Plan – Say ” well done” – no further discussion is necessary in the meeting. Of course you and the rest of the team can challenge this statement if you disagree or need more evidence!
  • At Risk or Missed – A new commitment is needed, help may be required from the rest of the team. The team need to be happy that the new commitment is one they can rely on.

5. Five Key Meeting Roles – Customer, Facilitator, Timekeeper, Scribe and Sensor

Meetings tend to be much more successful if the following roles are allocated to participants before the meeting starts. Normally the customer and facilitator will allocate these roles as appropriate:

  1. Customer. The person who given their role has the biggest need for the meeting to produce a successful outcome. Being the meeting customer they decide if they are satisfied with the meeting
  2. Facilitator. Generally oils the meeting and makes sure it follows these 5 tips – also makes sure the customer gets what they need (sometimes in spite of themselves)
  3. Timekeeper. Ensures that the meeting knows where it stands with respect to time and so that it allocates/reallocates appropriate time to items in a sensible way
  4. Scribe. Takes notes during the meeting and produces actions/minutes afterwards
  5. Sensor. The objective is having somebody ‘sense’ the temperature of the meeting and to spot unhelpful group moods. For example, resignation – ie. going through the motions.(This role is sometimes played by the facilitator)