All you ever learned about meetings is wrong

I have been piloting a radically different approach to meetings which I am calling “Egoless Meetings” which addresses three popular unwritten rules about good meeting practices which are unfortunately totally wrong. RULE 1 is that everybody gets to speak. RULE 2 is that discussions in themselves can be useful. RULE 3 is that when you meet you must work as a team not as individuals.

Let’s look at each of these so-called rules in turn:

Old Rule 1: Everybody gets to speak
People come to meetings with an “expectation of airtime”. This is often related to their grade or their perception of their role in the meeting. This means that everybody gets to speak even when they have nothing to say or are merely repeating what others have already said. This wastes time and saps the energy of the other participants. Political correctness means we feel we are being rude if we don’t allow everyone to have their say ….. and waste the meeting.

New Rule 1: It only needs said once – eliminate “ego-speak”
Leaders often go to one of two extremes in dealing with ego in meetings. Some ignore it. Others placate it. Others flip between trying to ignore and trying to placate it. I suggest a third approach to ego in meetings – eliminate it through process and practice. Take the ego out of the meeting by introducing mechanisms to discourage repetition and reward brevity and silence. You can easily do this is a fun way where nobody gets offended but with the desired effect.

Old Rule 2: Discussions in themselves are useful meeting outputs
Many people come to meetings in a kind of “standby mode” or in a mood where the meeting is a break from “normal work”. This can drive the meeting into a general discussion/ conversation mode in the name of “understanding each other better”. These conversations are often “speak much – listen little” and usually only succeed in diverging and hardening the group member positions rather than converging them. The unfortunate scribe or facilitator then writes the meeting up but the notes are of little value and probably never referenced again.

New Rule 2: If all else fails then discuss it.
When you feel a discussion starting up ask yourself these 7 questions:

  1. What is the objective and is it crystal clear?
  2. Are people in the right frame of mind?
  3. Are people really focused on the same topic?
  4. What is the decision or action we must take and are we certain we can’t make that decision without discussion?
  5. Is this the first time we have discussed this matter?
  6. If this discussion was all the meeting did would it be worth it?
  7. Is this the minimum (not the maximum) set of people to have the discussion?

If you can’t answer “Yes” to all 7 of these don’t have a discussion – address the issue in another way (See Below)

Old Rule 3: When you meet as a team you work as a team
Teams don’t need to do everything as a team, even if they are in the one room. They need to do individual work as a team as well. I call this kind of team work “solo” work where all the people in the room are doing a different thing at the same time rather than doing the same thing at the same time. In any creative or production process solo work is generally the best way to get the heavy lifting done – not group work!

New Rule 3: Include non-whole-group work in all your meetings.
When you convene a meeting you create the possibility of a number of “brains”. The most obvious one is the collective brain of the whole group. But you also still have the individual brains of its members (solo work). In addition there are other “brains” available to you – the brains of people when they pair up or work in groups of three – I call this pair work and triangle work. You can also create bigger group brains such as groups of 4 or splitting the group in two. The key point is that you should pick the most appropriate group brain for the task at hand and this is often not the whole group brain!
So, for example, instead of one person writing something and the whole team reviewing it how about each team member writes a paragraph, reviews it with a partner to see how it if it is “good enough” to be included in a collective first draft to be circulated after the meeting to the whole team.
Another example is ideas generation. In the old model we do this as a group – in this model we might generate our ideas totally individually by ourselves and present them to the group as seeds to a high-energy group innovation session. Incidently this resonates with Edward De Bono’s thinking on effective brain-storming and research which shows that the best ideas in brainstorms generally come near the end once all the obvious ideas have been exhausted and are often clever variants of earlier ideas.

Introducing Egoless Meetings
So what keeps these rules in place if they are really so bad? Simple: politeness, political correctness, laziness, fear, organizational inertia and groupthink.
Now I am not saying that egoless meetings fully applies in all cases. For example, in meetings which are specifically about conflict resolution and trust-building, rather than action, then there clearly is a need for good discussions. However the other aspects of egoless meetings still apply.
However, in my experience. most meetings are about action and here egoless meetings can really help. If however most of our meetings are about conflict resolution and trust-building then we are really working in a truly awful place and good meeting practices are the least of our worries!