In November, I was pleased to be invited to present our advice for running successful virtual meetings to the Government of Alberta as part of their Greening Government Speaker Series.
The series goal is to stimulate interest, discussion and action to help governments reduce their carbon footprint and support a sustainable approach to operation. (Learn more about the series on the MCCAC website.)
While our team cares about climate change deeply and we work to do what we can, it would be more than a stretch to say this is an area we're typically asked to speak on.
Behind every effort to improve an organization’s meetings, you’ll find a larger initiative focused on increasing productivity and improving culture.
Organizations that run effective meetings as a matter of course do so because it improves the productivity and cohesion of teams as a whole, in a way that individual productivity improvements can’t match.
To maximize the productivity of a meeting, and of meetings in general, it helps to understand exactly what you expect meetings to produce.
When we work in collaboration with other people, we have two things we have to take care of to be successful.
The work and the people.
In theory, the work should be something we can plan and manage logically. After each piece of work begins, there are a series of tasks to complete and problems to solve that continue on until the work is done.
Also in theory, the people doing the work should be able to coordinate their efforts through a simple exchange of factual information. When Fred completes task A, he marks it done, and Betty starts task B. When Alan runs into a problem with the work, he could write down the facts of the situation and send them to others for help – help they could then offer in any number of ways that do not involve a team meeting.
Clean, efficient, and logical. When the work is well understood and routine, this approach makes sense. The people doing the work click along like a "well-oiled machine".
One of the fabulous things about building online software is that it makes it possible to quickly make changes based on customer feedback. Here at Lucid, we strive to update the software each week with small changes and fixes, and to release at least one significant improvement every month or two. We’re pretty good about announcing the fancy new features, but we haven’t been as consistent about sharing all those smaller features, updates, and bug fixes that our customers care about.
Let’s fix that, shall we?
Below you’ll find details and screenshots about things that changed for the better in Lucid Meetings over the past few months. Finally, at the end, we’ll share a bit about what we have in the works. For those of you who use Lucid (or who plan to), consider this an invitation to collaborate!
Meetings bring a group together to quickly discover answers and ideas that no one person can find by themselves.
Whether we’re working to negotiate the details of a new project, finding a way to tackle a challenging problem, or seeking to define our strategic vision, the pattern is the same; someone poses a question, and the group starts brainstorming answers.
Effective brainstorming is essential to nearly every type of business meeting.
Unfortunately, not all questions are created equally.
Sometimes the questions asked in a meeting don’t invite meaningful answers. Asking “Everyone good with that?” after dictating a decision isn’t an effective way to surface real concerns or get real commitments.
Some questions are too vague, making it unclear what kind of answer to give. Questions like “Do you have any feedback?” result in either polite non-replies (e.g., “Nope, I’m good.”) or long-winded side discussions that don’t necessarily get to the answers the group needs.
Getting great ideas from a group during a meeting can be hard, and for many participants, traditional brainstorming can feel like a painful waste of time.
First, despite the popularity of brainstorming sessions, we have some evidence that meetings aren’t always the best place to birth new ideas. Ideal or not, however, sometimes a meeting is the only real opportunity we have to explore ideas as a group, so we’d better make it work.
Some people don’t seem to understand the difference between a group meeting and a personal consultation, taking it upon themselves to dominate the meeting by answering all the questions first, loudly, and in great detail.
Remarkable leaders understand that how they design and lead meetings determines how well their group functions.
Why Leaders Need to Master Meetings
Meetings serve a critical function in the workplace. The meeting's job is to lead a group from wherever they are individually to a new place where they can have a shared perspective.
We call this convergence; the merging of distinct perspectives into a unified whole.
Teams that fail to converge around a shared perspective don't work. They hold different visions of what they should be doing. They work at cross-purposes. Decisions aren't clear, projects meander, and progress comes slowly or not at all.
It is the job of the meeting to give everyone a shared perspective on their work, and the job of the leader to make sure meetings succeed.
Return Leverage, one of Lucid’s Enterprise clients, found our downloadable meeting notes to be less helpful than they’d hoped. Toby Lucich from Return Leverage asked if we could improve the exports to help make it easier for busy professionals to read the meeting notes. We’re thrilled to have had the opportunity to learn from his experience and improve the exports.
Since we made these changes in collaboration with Return Leverage, we asked Toby if he’d be willing to share more about why this format works, and how his company uses it to drive meeting results with clients. Happily, he agreed.
Toby Explains Why Formatting Can’t Suck
As an entrepreneur and management consultant, I’ve now worked with hundreds of business leaders in organizations big and small, for-profit and non-profit, both founder-led and professionally managed. I’ve worked with organizational leaders at all levels that have been charismatic, visionary, thought-provoking, strategic, detail-oriented; some have also been distracted, impatient, disengaged, incompetent, or simply apathetic. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes.
The common challenges I’ve seen all leaders face are the overly-packed calendar, shifting expectations, soft commitments, impending deadlines, and never enough time to get it all done.
Regardless of the client or their culture, our first obligation is fundamentally about effective communication. We believe that every single client deserves our best effort to capture and communicate the most critical ideas and actions that will efficiently and effectively turn ideas into actions, and actions into successful business results.
How this information is presented is a critical first step.
A clean, easy-to-read format is a powerful first impression in shifting the value from meeting notes toward meeting agreements or records for your stakeholders.You never know which meeting is going to change the course of the company.
We’ve recently collaborated with Lucid to redesign the exported report. Here's some of the design thinking that went into the new format.
We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.
These meetings go by many names - postmortems, retrospectives, after-action reviews, wrap-ups, project “success” meetings. Regardless of what you call them, they all have the same goal and follow the same basic pattern. The Project Retrospective dedicates time to reviewing a completed project and learning from both the successes and the failures so the team and organization can improve their processes going forward.
Formalized as the after-action review by the US Army, these meetings ensure a team quickly learns from each engagement.
There, the classic questions go something like:
What did we set out to do?
What actually happened?
Why did it happen?
What are we going to do next time?
The Core Process
The process for debriefing a project covers roughly the same topics as the quick after-action discussion. I’ll go into more detail below, but in brief, it looks like this.
1. Review the project.
Start by reviewing the project facts: goals, timeline, budget, major events, and success metrics.
In order to come up with useful ideas that everyone can agree on, the team needs a shared understanding of the facts and insight into the parts of the project in which they may not have been involved.
It’s important not to skip or rush through this step, especially for larger projects. People will arrive at the retrospective ready to discuss and solve problems, often assuming they know everything they need to know about what happened. This is rarely true.
If you are reviewing a project as a team, that means it took many people with unique experiences to get to that point. This step ensures everyone gets all the facts straight before they try to solve problems they may only partially understand.
2. Discuss what worked well and what didn’t.
This is the heart of the meeting. Everyone shares what they learned during the project: both the good and the bad.
In my opinion, this is the most fun and most challenging part of the meeting. As the meeting leader, you have an enormous impact on the success of your retrospective by deciding which questions you’ll ask and how the team shares their answers.
3. Action planning: identify specific ways to improve future work.
Have you ever worked with a group that talks about their aspirations, problems, and what needs to change, but never actually does anything about any of it?
That sucks. It’s de-motivating, discouraging, and a waste of time.
Real change is the ultimate measure of a retrospective’s success. To ensure that your retrospective results in something actually getting better, you’ll end the meeting by creating a specific action plan for improvements.