6 Reasons Most Efforts to Fix a Bad Meeting Culture Fail and How You Can Beat the Odds

Mar 14, 2019 by Elise Keith in leadership & facilitation, training (13 minute read)

Earlier this week we announced the opening of Meeting School, the world's only online educational marketplace dedicated to meeting skills education. Meeting School offers courses taught by the team at Lucid and by meeting specialists, scientists, and experts from around the globe.

At Lucid Meetings, our mission is to make it easy for teams to run successful meetings every day. Teaching teams the skills they need to run successful meetings seems like an obvious way for us to fulfill this mission, and yet we're just now opening our first courses to students.

For years, when I shared the Lucid mission with new people they would say "Oh, so you do training? Workshops and things?" They assumed that a group looking to run better meetings would need workshops.

But we'd seen too many organizations invest in failed quick-fix meeting improvement programs, and we weren't interested in creating yet another well-meaning but doomed-to-fail batch of meeting training.

We opened Meeting School now because, after over a decade of research and work with high-performing organizations, we know what works.

Want to learn more about Meeting School?
Try this FREE introductory course!Know Why You're Meeting & What You'll Get: Enroll in our Free Video Course
We also know why most initiatives that start with "Hey, we've got to get a grip on this meetings problem!" never make a dent in that problem.

Today I want to share what we've learned. Read on to see:

  • Why most meeting skills training fails.
  • What high-performing organizations do to make sure their meeting skills training works.
  • How (and who) Meeting School can help.

The 6 Most Common Reasons Meeting Improvement Programs Fail

I'm at a conference talking to the Chief Operating Officer at a large company about Lucid, when she says:

"Oh, we have awful meetings. It's a huge problem, everyone knows it, and every few years we decide we're going fix our meetings once and for all. Last time, we brought in a trainer and we all talked about the problem with the 'moose on the table' - how we never really address our issues in meetings.
The whole senior leadership team spent a full day learning about agendas, and tracking time, and using a parking lot, and talking about this moose. Then, we went back to work and nothing changed, except everyone now talked about the moose in the hallway after the meeting.
If I hear about that damn moose one more time, I'm going to scream!"

Colorful and typical. The COO who told me this story sounded like dozens of others who recognized they had a "meetings problem" and staged an intervention to fix it.

Which failed, as all one-hit interventions do.

Reason for Failure 1: Worse than lip service training.

**Scene**

BOSS

"You have to do something about these meetings!"

NOT BOSS

(Sighing)
"Fine. I've sent 4 project managers to a half-day training on meetings."
Or
"We've added an 8-minute unit on meetings to our leadership development course."

See? We're doing something!

**End Scene**

You cannot fix a chronic meeting problem with a small one-time intervention.

A change in meeting culture requires changing meetings in practice and mastery of skills that are developed over time.

This scenario also reveals another common reason these programs fail.

Reason for Failure 2: Training the wrong people.

The meetings most people feel safe complaining about are led by those lower down the chain. Project status meetings led by project managers. Team meetings led by a brand-new manager recently promoted from the front lines. The dead-end meeting with the retired-in-place lifers from accounting.

These meetings lead to complaints, so the program targets training for the people who lead these meetings. The project managers and the new junior manager go to the half-day workshop, and then they try really hard. They bring an agenda and they set up a flip chart to use for their parking lot, and they try.

Their teams may or may not play along nicely, but ultimately it doesn't matter, because the minute any of them meet with someone further up the ladder, they see what's truly expected.

An organization's meetings reflect the expectations of the organization's dominant culture, and that comes from the top. If the boss doesn't use a flip chart to track parking lot items in her meetings, that project manager isn't going to either.

You cannot fix a chronic meeting problem from the bottom up.

A change in meeting culture must be modeled and led.

Reason for Failure 3: Not training enough people.

That poor project manager. The beleaguered junior manager. They learned all about how run a decent meeting in that workshop, but their team isn't buying it. Sure, send out an agenda if you want, but it's not like anyone is going to read it or take it seriously in the meeting. That's all just a bunch of formal manager garbage anyway, right?

Sometimes the organization brings in truly excellent meeting skills training, but due to logistical or cost factors, only a handful of people get this training.

The research suggests that fewer than 25% of managers get any kind of meeting skills training at all. Think about that. Fewer than one in four of the people charged with leading meetings day-in and day-out are trained to do their jobs!

Then, that educated minority goes to work with everyone else and their training gets dropped like a hot rock. Because no one meets alone.

Meetings are not an individual performance event. Meetings do not consistently succeed through the heroic efforts of a few skilled people. Think football, not the 100-yard dash. Think symphony, not Yo Yo Ma. Think Queen, not Freddie Mercury. Individual brilliance helps, but it can't carry the show on it's own.

Meetings are a team sport, which means the whole team needs to know how to play.

You cannot fix a chronic meeting problem by educating only a fraction of the people who meet.

A change in meeting culture must be supported with education for everyone involved.

Reason for Failure 4:
Providing skills training without accountability to results.

**Scene**

BOSS

"Ok, I'm sending you to this class so you can learn to create web pages."

EMPLOYEE

"Great!" (time passes)
"Ok, I'm back and I know everything I need to know to make great web pages."

BOSS

"Fabulous. Go for it."

EMPLOYEE

"Ok. What do you want on the web pages? When do you want to see what I've done?"

BOSS

"Oh, I'm not going to look at them! Just, you know, web pages. Go. I'll never check them. I trust you because you've got skillz."

**End Scene**

Craziness, right?

No one ever expects a person who just learned how to build a web page to then apply that skill without further instruction or supervision. We know that learning how to make a web page in general doesn't tell you anything about what the organization wants to see on its web pages. Instead, we provide direction and then check. We'd expect that these new skills aren't fully developed, and we'd expect to provide lots of feedback.

There is absolutely nothing about knowing a basic skill that tells you how to best apply it without context. Just learning a skill does not make someone any good at it without practice and feedback.

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

You cannot fix a chronic meeting problem by teaching skills that you do not require people to use.

A change in meeting culture requires setting an expectation that the skills will be used and regular feedback regarding meeting performance.

Reason for Failure 5:
Providing skills training but not defining the system where the skills get used or which goals they need to achieve.

**Scene**

BOSS

"Run better meetings!"

NOT BOSS

"Why?"

BOSS

"Because our meetings are taking too much time and frustrating everyone."

NOT BOSS

"Why not cancel them?"

BOSS

"Obviously we need to meet, but we have to do it better."

NOT BOSS

"Why?"

BOSS

"Just figure it out! Get on board or get off the bus!"

**End Scene**

Many meeting improvement programs target the improvement of meetings in general, but don't allow for changes to the many related business processes or services that everyone is meeting about.

Fix meetings, not the project management process. Fix meetings, not hiring. Fix meetings, not strategic planning, or development, or internal communications, or… anything else.

Stay in your lane and fix the meetings!

Meetings, however, are a tool used by teams as they work to accomplish their goals. You would not say that the project status meeting is better just because it now has an agenda. The project status meeting is better when it helps the team do better work on the project.

A better meeting is one that better achieves the goal, and for that improvement to happen, you have to understand the larger goal and be willing to address how the meeting is working alongside all the other tools the team uses. Better meetings often mean changes to the technology, the physical workspace, and the way work gets scheduled.

You cannot fix a chronic meeting problem by only authorizing changes to the meetings themselves.

A change in meeting culture must anticipate and authorize the ripples.

Reason for Failure 6: Not training enough skills to get the job done.

There are 16 distinct types of business meetings, and thousands of variations on these 16 types.

For example, nearly every team holds a regular team meeting—that's the Team Cadence meeting type—but how they run that meeting can look very different. The Team Cadence meeting for a church looks different than the Agile stand up run by a software development team. A sales team's weekly meeting works differently than the regular meeting held by the finance department. And while each of these teams meets differently, all of their regular team meetings bear more resemblance to each other than they do to any hostage negotiation or jury deliberation or marketing webinar.

There are many ways to meet, and many skills to master. Here are just a few of the major categories of meeting education someone might need.

Examples of Meeting Skills Training Offered in High-Performing Organizations

  Generalized Job and Business Specific
Designing and Managing Large Group Process Facilitation or Specialist Training
(e.g., training for large group facilitators, mediators, parliamentarians, workshop designers, event planning)
How To Design the Organization's Meeting Operating System
Leading Teams and Departments How To Lead Effective Meetings
(e.g., meeting planning, remote meetings, meetings across cultures, meeting technology, basic facilitation)

How to Lead Meetings that Achieve Role-Specific Business Goals

(e.g., the sales team meeting sequence, the Lean development meetings for a manufacturer, the design thinking workshops and critiques at an agency)

Individual Skills Conversation Skills
(e.g., negotiation skills, conflict management skills, networking skills)
How To Participate in Your Team's Meetings
(e.g., how to prepare for your weekly meeting or one-on-one)

You cannot fix a chronic meeting problem by only addressing one kind of skill.

A change in meeting culture must include education for both general and business-specific skills at multiple levels.

What Actually Works 

Believe it or not, there are organizations where most of the meetings run really well. The people participating in these meetings feel like their time is well spent, and they regularly leave meetings knowing they've achieved a useful business result.

In world-class organizations, employees will brag about their meetings when asked. No joke. It stuns and delights me every time.

Organizations operating at a high level of meeting performance maturity absolutely provide meeting skills training. The difference is that this formal training is just one kind of meeting education that they provide as part of their larger meeting operating system.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. R Buckminster Fuller
Yes. This.

These organizations achieve meeting excellence by:

1. Providing Mentorship In Excellent Meetings

We learn how to meet and what our leaders expect from meetings by attending meetings with those leaders. That's the first and most important form of meeting education in every organization.

High-performance organizations provide basic meeting education to every employee by:

  • Discussing meeting expectations and practices during the onboarding process
  • Modeling expected meeting practice in every day meetings
  • Making meeting skills education available to everyone

Often the basic meeting skills training doesn't look that different from the interventionist training used by other organizations. High-performing organizations teach people about using agendas, and managing time, and all those core skills. The difference is that when they teach employees how to use an agenda, for example, they provide examples of the specific agendas used in the organization and in their department, and then the people leave the classroom and see those agendas in action. 

They also don't just train one group of employees one time. Meeting skills training is a fundamental part of job skills training and available on an ongoing basis.

Then, when it's that employee's turn to lead, they're doing so with team members who understands the process and with the supervision of more skilled meeting leaders who can assist.

Education + Practice + Mentorship = Success

2. Establishing Consistent Performance Criteria

Most organizations leave it up to every leader to figure out how they want to meet. In these organizations, some leaders run great meetings, some run little dictatorships, and some show up grudgingly hoping someone else will take charge.

High-performance organizations define "The Way". The Way outlines how to run each of the most important meetings in the organization, creating a standard every leader can use. The Way is not rigid, but it also doesn't tolerate dysfunction. The Way makes success obvious, and failure unlikely.

In addition to The Way, these organizations establish overarching performance criteria—or rules—that apply to all meetings. Every employee learns the meeting rules. The rules provide guardrails for the many meetings where the organization doesn't have A Way. The leaders of these non-standardized meetings have to figure out how to run them, but with the performance criteria to guide them and a grounding in essential skills, they never start with a blank slate.

3. Supporting Levels of Mastery

Finally, high-performance organizations recognize that there are different areas and levels of mastery for meeting skills, and they provide training across the spectrum. The best (and biggest) educate an internal core of professional facilitators who can design and run the most complex meetings, in addition to supporting Agile coaches, design thinking experts, negotiators, trainers, or other methodology experts on staff.

For organizations who struggle to hold even one decent meeting, the idea of having trained facilitators on staff may seem like a ridiculous luxury.

This confuses employees in high-performing organizations. They know that as our world grows increasingly complex and the rate of change continues to accelerate, the chances of getting any group of people to understand and make a quality decision about the emerging challenge of the day is almost insurmountable without applying some facilitation skills. Making decisions quickly enough to stay relevant and competitive at scale isn't possible without some solid meeting frameworks in place. Getting those decisions implemented is even harder.

This is one of the reasons the typical lifespan of companies in the S&P 500 has dropped from an average of 60 years to under 20 years in the past few decades. Past performance does not predict future performance, except when it comes to an organization's ability to quickly make quality decisions and communicate those throughout.

I know. Holy chicken and eggs, Batman.

OK, I've just shared what works and if you're paying attention, you noticed that the best meeting education happens in organizations that already run really good meetings.

If your organization doesn't run great meetings, what can you do with that? Are you doomed to decades of drudgery?

Of course not. High-performing organizations didn't start out awesome. They developed that capability over time. The difference is that when they began, they didn't set out to "fix meetings" in isolation. They embraced the larger challenge that bad meetings represent. They invested in fixing their processes and nurturing a healthy culture, all of which was enabled by and required the development of a successful meeting practice.

Knowing without doing is not knowing. But not knowing at all - well, that makes success pretty darn impossible. You have to start from where you are. It's important that when you do,  you understand that the effort (and the opportunity) goes way beyond teaching folks how to whip up an agenda.

Where Meeting School Fits In

We've opened Meeting School with full awareness of all of the above. Meeting School courses teach a variety of meeting skills, and over time, will include courses for people operating at a variety of skill levels.

Taking a course in Meeting School will not fix your bad meetings problem (see above), but it will prove a critical resource for supporting your organization's meeting improvement efforts.

Independent Professionals and Team Leaders

If your business meetings aren't working, Meeting School courses give you a way to get started.

Meeting School courses will teach you the skills you need to:

  • Succeed with the meetings you lead, and improve the meetings in which you participate.
  • Model the meeting practices you want your employees to adopt.
  • Design the meeting operating system for your team and organization.

Business Leaders and Talent Development Managers

For organizations that recognize the importance of successful meetings and want to increase these skills in their employees, Meeting School provides a cost-effective way to spread meeting training to more people.

Meeting School courses make it possible for you to:

  • Train everyone, not just the lucky few who can make it to a one-time workshop.
  • Provide meeting skills training in support of your meeting improvement program.
  • Ensure new employees and people moving into management or leadership roles learn the meeting skills required for the job.
  • Supplement your internal training programs with advanced and specialized meeting skills training.

Meeting School is not the only way you can achieve these goals. There are many excellent courses available online from a wide variety of experts. One course here, another there, each offering masterful instruction in one of the many areas of meeting education.

Our goal with Meeting School is to provide as many different kinds of meeting skills training as possible in one place, making it easier for leaders to find the training they need and easier for experts to be found. If you are a meeting expert with skills to share, please learn about becoming a Meeting School instructor. We'd love to support your quality work.

For everyone: to learn more about Meeting School, check out this free course and, while you're there, explore some of the other great offerings! You can also contact us by email if you'd like to learn more about Meeting School and our vision for it.

Know Why You're Meeting & What You'll Get: Enroll in our Free Video Course

Together, let's make it easy for teams to run successful meetings every day.



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