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Best Practices for Building a Better Meeting

Law360
April 19, 2018

By Nicholas S. Cheolas
To read this article in PDF format, please click here.

It’s the “chicken or the egg” conundrum of the working world: Are meetings awful because we hate them, or do we hate meetings because they are awful?

When Harvard Business Review surveyed 182 managers in a range of industries, 65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their own work, 71 percent said meetings are unproductive and inefficient, and 62 percent said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.[1] Another survey of 1,000 office workers identified unnecessary and off-topic meetings as primary pet peeves.[2] Management literature is littered with references to “soul-crushing meetings”[3] that are “complete failures”[4] and cost businesses time (300,000 hours a year to support a single weekly executive committee meeting at one company)[5] and money (more than $37 billion a year among U.S. companies).[6]

But, as it turns out, we actually have a love-hate relationship with meetings. “Those who resent and dread meetings the most also defend them as a ‘necessary evil’ — sometimes with great passion,” wrote Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow and colleagues in a Harvard Business Review article.[7] Other studies find that even those who complain about meetings defend them privately.[8] One pharmaceutical company executive described meetings as a “cultural tax” for an inclusive, learning environment.[9] And despite widespread criticism, meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past few decades.[10] Behold: the meeting paradox.

The legal industry is rife with meetings, including firm meetings, client meetings, weekly conference calls, case team meetings, and so on. These meetings are critical to effective collaboration and productivity, particularly in complex, multijurisdictional litigation and transactions involving remotely located teams.

But meetings are also costly, in both time and money. Meetings pull participants away from individual projects, can divert attorneys away from billable work, and can rapidly increase costs for clients.

Meetings are necessary. But they don’t need to be a necessary evil.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our love-hate relationship with meetings boils down to this: We love effective and well-run meetings, and we hate unproductive, purposeless meetings. And too many of our meetings fall into the latter category.

This distinction has enormous implications. “In three different studies, the single most powerful factor in job satisfaction was how one feels about the effectiveness of the meetings he or she attends,” wrote Steven Rogelberg, a professor at Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte, and his colleagues in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Dysfunctional meeting behaviors are associated with lower levels of market share, innovation and employment stability.[11] On the other hand, better meetings improve team performance, collaboration, psychological safety, and both job satisfaction and work/life balance.[12]

Instinctively, we know this. Time is money. It’s a zero-sum game. Every moment spent in a meeting is a cost, either direct, as foregone revenue, or as time we could have spent doing something else. An hour-long meeting at 10 a.m., for example, breaks up the morning for every participant. We know the energizing nature of a productive, efficient meeting with purpose, direction and results, and the draining frustration of a wandering, fruitless discussion.

Meetings are not going away. We thus owe it to our clients, our colleagues, and ourselves to make meetings count.

So how can we improve meetings in the legal industry, which tends to evolve with the speed of a tranquilized water buffalo mired in quicksand? First, we should think of each meeting as three phases: (1) design and preparation, (2) execution, and (3) follow-up. Second, we should focus on incremental improvements to each phase. The good news: Because so many meetings suffer from inattention to these phases, simply considering and improving our approach can yield significant benefits.

Phase 1: Design and Preparation

How many times have you left a meeting only to realize you failed to raise a key issue, concern or thought? Or withheld a valuable contribution because the meeting was too large, or ran too long, or veered off track? Effective meetings require effective design and preparation. What does this entail?

First, focus on the purpose of each meeting. This requires thinking about several basic questions:

  • Who should attend the meeting? There are rapidly diminishing returns as the size of a group grows. Think about the topics you want to discuss, and who should be present for an effective discussion.
  • What is the meeting intended to accomplish? Are you meeting to share information? To make decisions? Is there a specific problem to resolve? How will each discussion proceed? What needs to happen in advance for the discussion to be productive?
  • What are the desired outcomes? Is your goal to reach a decision on an issue? Or to develop a strategy to guide work going forward? Do you want to collect input from team members before making a decision, or solicit feedback on a prior decision? What steps should the group take to accomplish these objectives?

When thinking about meeting design, the process is as important as the substance. If you can’t articulate who needs to discuss what and why, it is often a sign that the meeting probably won’t be effective and probably shouldn’t occur.

Second, develop and circulate an agenda in advance of each meeting. Once you’ve considered the issues outlined above, distill them into an agenda. While the format can vary, the agenda is a critical tool that enables participants to prepare, guides discussions during a meeting, and helps team members recall what was discussed and decided. An effective agenda allows all participants to understand the purpose and goals of the meeting.

While there is no shortage of opinions and resources on designing better agendas, it helps to focus on a few key principles. First, gather input from participants in advance of the meeting and restrict topics to those that affect most meeting participants. Second, don’t just list a topic for discussion; explain the purpose of each agenda item, or identify a question for the group to answer. For example, instead of “discovery,” identify what about “discovery” you want to discuss and why. Third, identify who is responsible for leading or preparing to discuss each topic.

Phase 2: Running the Meeting

You’ve assembled the right group, and you’ve thought about what you want to accomplish and how. The group is prepared. Now it’s time to execute.

“Meetings are, in essence, a series of conversations,” writes Paul Axtell in his book "Meetings Matter." “Improving your meetings by improving your conversations is not mysterious, but the impact can be dramatic.”[13] Conversations are, in turn, how humans build relationships. And these relationships are essential for a team to excel. Effective conversations make effective meetings. So how can leaders and participants create effective conversations?

First, actively listen. This is not synonymous with “hearing.” Active listening means concentrating, making eye contact, understanding and clarifying if necessary, and responding as needed. The goal is to make the participants feel like their voices are heard and that their input matters.

Second, guide and encourage conversations. Guiding a conversation ensures conversations stay on topic and pushes the agenda forward. If a conversation veers off topic, steer it back on track. Encouraging conversation means identifying who hasn’t spoken, who wants to speak (often through nonverbal cues), and who should speak, and encouraging that participation. If somebody gets interrupted, come back to that participant and let him or her finish.

These tactics have two major benefits: First, they encourage proportional speaking and participation, a hallmark of effective teams. Second, just like active listening, they signal to participants that their opinions and input matter.

Third, eliminate distractions. This means taking each participant’s phone, smashing it into a thousand pieces, burning the pieces, and salting the ashes. Barring that, just put them away. Devices have two toxic effects on meetings. First, they distract us. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino explains, our ability to multitask is overstated.[14] We simply cannot respond to emails, peruse Twitter, and effectively participate in a meeting at the same time. Second, devices distract others and can have a chilling effect on the conversations critical to an effective meeting.

This is not to say that technology use has no place in meetings, only that its use should be considered, deliberate and infrequent.

Finally, ensure clarity, candor, commitment and completion. Think of this as “closing the loop” on each conversation that takes place during a meeting. For each conversation, a leader should ensure group members are clear about what was discussed and decided. Candor means that participants feel able to express their thoughts and (respectfully) disagree, while leaders feel confident to keep the meeting on-topic. Commitment means the group agrees on who will accomplish what, by when, following the meeting. And completion means that the group has had a full and complete discussion before moving on to the next topic — in other words, that no member walks away without expressing valuable information, opinions or concerns.

Focusing on these elements helps eliminate common post-meeting frustrations: uncertainty about what was discussed and decided; nagging concerns left unexpressed; and confusion over follow-up. While the means of ensuring clarity, candor, commitment and completion can vary, concentrating on these issues will quickly improve both the quality of your meetings and group morale.

Phase 3: Follow-Up

Without effective follow-up, even the best meeting is for naught. Successful meetings enhance a group’s performance between meetings and follow-up is essential to ensuring these objectives are met.

First, write and distribute a summary within 24 hours of a meeting. The leader or another designee can do this, but it’s critical to distribute something in writing summarizing the key points, decisions and tasks arising from a meeting, and to do it before memories and focus fade.[15] Effectively “closing the loop” on discussions during a meeting facilitates this task — one or two pages should suffice. This summary is also crucial to keeping team members who did not attend the meeting in the loop.

Second, follow up on commitments. We’re attorneys. We thrive in the face of deadlines.

It is thus critical to identify who will do what and when they will do it. In "Meetings Matter," Paul Axtell notes a helpful phrase: “X by Y, or call.” For each task arising from a meeting, agree on who will do what by when. And if that can’t or doesn’t happen, agree to pick up the phone. Note this agreement in the meeting summary. And then follow up. This isn’t micromanagement; it’s effective management.

Effective Meetings Require Focus

Lawyers don’t hate meetings, per se. Rather, they hate missed opportunities and wasted time. And, like most everyone else in the working world, lawyers want to feel like the things they do every day, often for long hours, matter.

The above suggestions can be tailored and adjusted as needed, but if they simply seem like “too much,” perhaps that is a sign you are having too many unnecessary meetings. And while these suggestions do require a certain level of effort, they are not difficult to implement. The good news is that focusing on the right principles can rapidly produce better meetings, and better meetings, in turn, result in better teams and more productive members.

And, if we’re lucky, fewer meetings.

Nicholas S. Cheolas is a senior associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Zelle LLP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio​​ Media Inc., or any of its​​ or their respective affiliates. This article is for general info​​rmation p​​urposes an​​d is​​ ​​not ​​intended to be and​​ should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] L. Perlow, C. Hadley, and E. Eun, Stop the Meeting Madness, Harvard Business Review (July-Aug. 2017 Issue), https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness.

[2] Biggest Meeting Pet Peeves, Igloo, https://www.igloosoftware.com/campaigns/meetings_pet_peeves/ (last visited Apr. 16. 2018).

[3] R. Carucci, How to Fix the Most Soul-Crushing Meetings, Harvard Business Review (Feb. 16, 2018), https://hbr.org/2018/02/how-to-fix-the-most-soul-crushing-meetings.

[4] C. Perman, Hate Meetings? Why Most Are Complete Failures, CNBC, (Nov. 28, 2012, 4:59 PM), https://www.cnbc.com/id/48898453.

[5] M. Mankins, This Weekly Meeting Took Up 300,000 Hours a Year, Harvard Business Review (Apr. 29, 2014), https://hbr.org/2014/04/how-a-weekly-meeting-took-up-300000-hours-a-year.

[6] R. Carucci, How to Fix the Most Soul-Crushing Meetings, supra note iii.

[7] L. Perlow, C. Hadley, and E. Eun, Stop the Meeting Madness, supra note i.

[8] S. Rogelberg, C. Scott, and J. Kello, The Science and Fiction of Meetings, MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 48 No. 2 (Winter 2007), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Cliff_Scott/publication/265508855_The_Science_and_Fiction_of_Meetings/links/54107b050cf2df04e75d5eaa/The-Science-and-Fiction-of-Meetings.pdf?origin=publication_detail.

[9] L. Perlow, C. Hadley, and E. Eun, Stop the Meeting Madness, supra note i.

[10] L. Perlow, C. Hadley, and E. Eun, Stop the Meeting Madness, supra note i.

[11] S. Kauffel and N. Lehmann-Willenbrock, Meetings Matter: Effects of Team Meetings on Team and Organizational Success, Small Group Research, Vol. 43 No.2 (2012), https://research.vu.nl/en/publications/meetings-matter-effects-of-team-meeting-communication-on-team-and.

[12] L. Perlow, C. Hadley, and E. Eun, Stop the Meeting Madness, supra note i

[13] P. Axtell, Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Jackson Creek Press (2015), https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00S1SMX4Y/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1.

[14] A. Gallo, The Condensed Guide to Running Meetings, Harvard Business Review (July 6, 2015), https://hbr.org/2015/07/the-condensed-guide-to-running-meetings.

[15] P. Axtell, Two Things to Do After Every Meeting, Harvard Business Review (Nov. 26, 2015), https://hbr.org/2015/11/two-things-to-do-after-every-meeting.

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