Tag Archives: Meetings

Meetings, Influence, and the Bonsai Tree

An Amazon.com search for books on “meetings” returns 59,664 results. This is a pretty good indication of how we’re trying to get work done in organizations today. Some of the more colorful titles include Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting, Boring Meetings Suck by Jon Petz and Don Snyder, and Stop the Meeting I Want to Get Off! by Scott Snair. Although meetings can serve many valuable purposes in business, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Petz, they suck as a forum for influencing groups.

The inherent flaw in trying to use meetings as an arena for influencing groups is the notion that a group can be influenced. A group is made up of individuals. Though they may operate under a common moniker, these individuals do not share a singular consciousness. Each person comes to the group with his/her own agenda. Sometimes the agendas of meeting participants clash and at other times they will overlap ven diagram style. It is highly unlikely that a group of individuals will come to the table with a single perfectly synchronized objective.

No matter how efficient, engaging, or energetic, a meeting is one of the least effective ways to influence people. Motivating a group to cooperate toward the achievement of a particular objective can only be accomplished by earning trust, demonstrating what’s in it for him/her and inspiring each person within the group to commit to the cause.

It seems obvious that categorizing people under a particular label, such as “staff” or “marketing department” won’t turn them into a single-minded Borg. Yet, time and again leaders make the mistake of treating groups as if they are an independent entity not a collection of separate personalities.

For example:

Attendees are rarely given the time and opportunity to review and contribute to a meeting agenda. Without regard for variances in learning and information processing styles, important issues are often initially raised during the very same meeting in which they are to be resolved. This is just right for the “driver” running the meeting at the same time that it is highly frustrating for the more analytical methodical participants in the room.

Sound Familiar?

During our Influence without Authority program, my business partner and I describe a typical meeting situation and ask people if the story sounds familiar. Inevitably, our participants smile and nod. We get comments such as, “Were you a fly on the wall last week or something?”

What do you think, does this story sound familiar to you?

Here you are opening up what you hope will be a productive meeting. Adhering to good meeting etiquette, you review the agenda with the group. As you look up from your notes expecting to see smiling faces and nodding heads, you are confronted instead with blank stares and furrowed brows. Rallying your courage you plow forward confident that by the end of the meeting the group will see that what you are proposing is really the only logical way to address the challenge at hand. As the meeting draws to a close, your participants scuttle out heads bowed over Blackberries trying to avoid your disappointed gaze.

Moments later, the meetings after the meeting begin. Small clusters of meeting attendees congregate throughout the office to debrief your meeting. A palpable nervous tension fills the break-room as you walk-in on one such post mortem pow-wow.

The reality that your message did not come across well and that your objective is no closer to being achieved sinks in. In hindsight, the meeting seems to have been a colossal waste of time. You invest hours speaking privately with each participant in a valiant effort to influence their opinions and earn their buy-in. Thinking all the while, there’s got to be a better way to get results!

Mr. Miyagi Can Help

Despite the reincarnation of the Karate Kid by the adorable progeny of Will and Jada, for Gen X, the Karate Kid is and will always be Ralph Macchio and his infamous crane stance. Though Jackie Chan will inevitably bring humor and pathos to the role of the wise mentor, it will be difficult to unseat Pat Morita’s sage words “wax on, wax off” from their 26 year reign in the echo chambers of our minds. I bring this up not to open an argument over the pros and cons of movie remakes (and don’t even get me started on sequels), but rather to use a scene from the original movie to make a point about influencing groups of people.

In the 1984 version of The Karate Kid, Daniel Russo finds Mr. Miyagi trimming a Bonsai tree. After a philosophical lesson on tree trimming, Miyagi leaves Daniel to sculpt his own Bonsai. If Miyagi caught Daniel trying to move the tree into a new planter by cutting a large swath of dirt around the base, he would scold Daniel. Unlike other trees, a Bonsai cannot be yanked out of one place and plopped into another. When changing the Bonsai’s location the roots are carefully separated from one another and smoothed out one by one. Once each root has been individually cleaned off, the whole tree can then be lifted out and transferred into the new location. This process is called Nemawashi. It is an ancient practice that holds the secret to influencing groups.

Smoothing the Roots

Influencing people is the organizational equivalent of transplanting a Bonsai tree. Like the delicate flora, people don’t adapt well when they are yanked from one belief system and forced to adapt to the unfamiliar ground of new views. Changing minds and winning hearts requires carefully separating deeply rooted beliefs from the comfortable soil in which they are currently embedded.

Let’s return to our meeting story from earlier. This time, begin by smoothing the roots. Imagine that you schedule time to speak with as many of the attendees as possible in advance of the meeting. You focus your efforts on those who have the most to gain or lose relative to the situation at hand or those who have the most influence within the group involved. During your discussions, you present the agenda giving each person time to comment and give you input. Though you use the time to present the meeting’s agenda, you do not spoil it by pushing your personal agenda. You encourage each person to discuss their objectives and where they stand on the issues. Being a good listener helps earn their trust. It’s a collaborative time. At Starbucks, the process is called “Socializing Ideas.”

When meeting time comes, most if not all of the participants have had a hand in shaping the content and context for the session. Everyone has had time to absorb the issues, consider the possibilities, and determine how they can contribute to a successful resolution. As the meeting leader, your role is to shed light on the common themes shared by the majority, introduce novel ideas held by the minority, and facilitate a collaborative atmosphere. The meeting time is spent pulling together the concepts with the most promise; molding them into new ideas that represent the best solutions. Not everyone’s ideas will be used, but everyone can feel good about being heard and treated fairly.

The meeting ends with a summary of key points and review of the action items assigned to various participants. People leave the meeting with a clear mandate for next steps.

Nemawashi requires an upfront investment of effort for the meeting leader but the ROI in terms of time savings and productivity increases is dramatic.

Influence Is a 1 to 1 Proposition

 Influence is about connecting what’s important to the other person with the objective to be achieved. Whether or not that connection exists, and can be made, has to be determined through direct interaction with the individual. Talented motivational speakers, politicians, and charismatic leaders can strike a responsive chord with individuals in a group setting. Their means and message has enough magnetism to attract and inspire many different people. This one-to-many model is far less effective in business settings. Influence among people working within the same organization is best accomplished one-on-one.

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The Most Important Part of a Productive Meeting

For those of us working in organizations as employees, vendors, or consultants, the ebb and flow of our time is greatly affected by a schedule of daily meetings.   

Influential leaders recognize, accept, and capitalize on the significance of meetings in everyday work life.

They astutely leverage this valuable time to motivate others to collaborate on initiatives, expedite decision-making, and facilitate the production of needed deliverables. While it is true that influential leaders artfully employ efficient meetings, it is also true that running productive efficient meetings increases personal influence. The Catch-22 is that it is much easier to organize and conduct productive meetings if you have a lot of influence as a leader. That said, people in the process of growing their influence can follow certain protocols to improve the efficiency of the meetings they run in order to enhance their credibility, improve their reputation as someone who “gets things done”, and build trusting relationships with others throughout the organization.

Typically, successful meetings embody some or all of the following characteristics:

  • The “right” people attended
  • Everyone was properly prepared
  • There was a steady focus on the right topics
  • The meeting produced well informed decisions and/or tangible results
  • The meeting outcomes were supported by consistent relevant follow up

Leaders whose meetings consistently model these characteristics carefully attend to the three parts of every meeting:  Preparation, Facilitation, and Follow-thru.

Which part do you think has the greatest impact on the effectiveness and productivity of a meeting?

Anyone who’s had a meeting start late, get off track, fail to produce any tangible results, and then end late knows the price to be paid for inadequate meeting preparation.  It’s important to keep in mind the frustration that comes from attending a poorly planned meeting; especially when faced with the decision of how much time and effort to invest before the participants convene.

Though our tendency is to “borrow” time from meeting planning to be used elsewhere, just know that, more often than not, we end up paying back this time plus interest both during and after the meeting!

Starting with preparation, the posts will cover a set of guidelines for how to plan, facilitate, and follow-thru on productive meetings. For optimum results, these methods should be executed in an environment conducive to and supportive of their application. Though not impossible, it is certainly an uphill battle to implement efficiency strategies in a culture that has grown accustomed to or even promotes counter-productive meeting practices. For more information on the impact of organizational culture on meeting efficiency, you may want to first read Productive Meeting Is Not An Oxymoron and/or Culture: The Organizational 12th Man.

 “Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” ~A.A. Milne

FIVE PEAS IN A PEAPOD

This is a catchy little device for remembering all of the steps to take when preparing for meetings:

  1. Purpose
  2. Payoff (3 H’s)
  3. Ponder the purpose
  4. People
  5. Process

            Potential Pitfalls

The first step towards a productive meeting is to develop a brief Purpose statement for the meeting. Answer questions such as:

  • Why conduct this meeting?
  • What do we want to achieve?

Once the purpose is clear, determine the meeting’s  Payoff or tangible output:

  • What will participants have in their Hands (deliverables, materials, action plan, etc.)
  • What will they have in their Heads? (knowledge, information, awareness)
  • What will be in their Hearts? (Beliefs, commitments, values)

Based on what you want to achieve with the meeting and the Payoff for the participants, it’s now time to Ponder the purpose. Ask questions such as:

  • Is this meeting really necessary?
  • Is there an alternative way to achieve the Purpose and Payoff without the time, effort, and/or expense of a meeting?
  • Could we get the same results using an alternative method such as email “round robin”, electronic survey, or one-way dissemination of information?
  • If a meeting is required, does it have to occur face-to-face or can it be conducted via teleconference, or video-conference?
  • If the meeting does need to be face-to-face, what is the appropriate venue (specific room requirements, food, AV equipment, on-site, off-site, etc.)?
  • How much time is needed to cover each agenda item? Is the total time required to complete the agenda too much for a single meeting? Can some of the work be accomplished by participants before the meeting?

Once you’re certain that the meeting does in fact need to be held. Your next step is to assess the People part of the equation. Develop a list of people who must attend in order to achieve the meeting’s Purpose. In other words, if there is no way to fulfill the Purpose without the individual, then that person must be there. Create a separate list of people you’d like to have attend or think could benefit or add some value, but without whom the Purpose could still be accomplished.

Before contacting People on either list, take the time to outline the Process you will use to achieve the Purpose. This is a list of the topics that need to be covered starting with a Review of the Agenda and ending with a Summary of the meeting. When you send this out as part of your invitation to participants, include the Purpose, Payoff, and a complete list of People.

A strong influence building strategy is to give the Must Attend participants a preview of the agenda. Ask for their input and ideas. As much as possible, incorporate their suggestions into the final agenda you send out to the group. This will ensure that the individuals critical to the meeting’s success have ownership of the outcome. It’s also an excellent way to secure attendance.

 For the Nice-to-Have individuals on your second list, provide them with a copy of the agenda and take a few minutes to discuss your interest in having them attend and the benefits they can gain by participating. It is important to graciously accept a decline from any of the people on this secondary list. By asking them to the meeting, you are signaling that you recognize their value. Extending them the courtesy of opting out without negative consequence (guilt, griping, grudges), you are reinforcing your understanding of their worth and demonstrating a sincere respect for their time. The trust and rapport you establish with this practice will make it that much easier to obtain their commitment and cooperation regarding future meetings.

You’re not quite done yet; the last step in thorough meeting preparation is to anticipate the Potential Pitfalls. On the tactical side, confirm administrative items such as whether or not the venue selected can comfortably accommodate the attendees. For the more strategic aspects of the meeting, consider questions such as:

  • What questions or concerns could arise about the Purpose, Payoff, or Process? How can these be addressed efficiently either before or during the meeting?
  • What are the “Hot” items that need to be addressed but could end up taking too much time or creating tangential discussions? What can be done to handle these constructively?
  • What items could come up that really don’t have anything to do with the meeting purpose and should not be addressed?

What other strategies have you used to prepare for meetings?

Have you ever experienced an inefficient meeting run by an influential person? What went wrong?

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“Productive Meeting” is Not an Oxymoron

The Stake Out

“Hey,” said Alberts as he struggled to pull what looked like a football wrapped in butcher paper out of his coat pocket. “Anybody want a sandwich?”  Both men shook their heads. “Nah. I’ll just chew on my coffee” said Lewis swirling the dregs in his cup.

“You guys look beat. It’s after 7. What are you doing here so late? What’s the situation?” queried Alberts. Dawes tossed his magazine onto the van floor and stood up to stretch. “We’ve spent all day witnessing a colossal mess of meetings. I haven’t seen anything this bad since that boardroom debacle back in ’98. We thought it was going to be a slow day. According to the room scheduling program, there was a meeting at 8am, one at 10am, an 11am, and then nothing until 2pm with no other meetings after that.” Alberts looked over at the video feed streaming on the laptop screen. A group of distraught looking individuals were huddled at the far end of a conference room. Take-out containers, empty soda cans, and wadded up napkins were pushed into a disheveled mountain in the middle of the long oval table. “So what happened?” asked Alberts squinting at the screen.Meeting

“I’ll tell you what happened” replied Lewis swiveling his chair around. “Our informant completely played down the severity of the situation. This copany is in far worse shape than we thought.” Without pausing to take a breath, Lewis barreled head long into a rant that would make Dennis Miller proud. “The 8am meeting was between Mr. Jenkins, the company President, and his executive team. Three of the eight people scheduled to meet actually showed up on time. Jenkins strolled in at 8:18am with the other four people hurrying in on his heels. It’s their weekly meeting, so no one thought it necessary to put together an agenda. McMichaels, the VP of Operations got hung up on a production issue. Jenkins started brainstorming on the flipchart and before you know it, the 10am group is gathered outside the meeting room watching the executive team through the glass walls. Stevens, a marketing manager leading the 10am meeting, was so intimidated he just stood there without saying a word. Fifteen minutes later, the execs vacate and Stevens finally gains access to the conference room. He had an agenda, which was good. But two people in the meeting never looked up from their BlackBerries. The domino effect of delayed meetings was well underway. The 11am meeting didn’t get into the room until noon. Instead of diving right into it, the group decided to get their lunches. This was no working lunch. We learned some interesting information about everybody’s kids and vacation plans as well as the plot of this week’s NCIS. By the time they started discussing issues, it was 1:05pm. One woman brought up the same production issue that came up in the executive meeting. She would not let it go. No one interrupted her. Halfway through, a guy walked out of the meeting stating that he had to go to another meeting. Having reached no significant conclusions by 2:15pm, the group decided to schedule another time to reconvene on the original points they were supposed to cover. The 2pm meeting participants settled into the room at 2:25p. At 2:26pm, Holt, an analyst, announces that he has a 2:30pm meeting so he can now only stay for a few minutes. Benson joins the meeting at 2:40pm. Despite his efforts at a covert entrance, the whole group stops talking. He explains that he had three meetings booked at 2pm so he decided to attend all three but only stay for twenty minutes in each.” Exhausted from his recount of the day, Lewis swiveled back to the computer screen.

“Wait a minute. Is this the 2pm group still?” Dawes smiled at the shocked look on Alberts’ face. “No man. They cut out at 4:30. This was a quick impromptu gathering that started at 5pm. One of the HR managers asked a few people to join her for a short conversation. She promised it would only take a minute.” “Wow, this company is going to need the full court press” said Alberts as he slumped into a seat. Lewis thought about the true meaning behind Alberts’ words, “the full court press.”

Like so many other companies the Meeting Squad was called in to help, this one was going to need a lot more than just an agenda template and a few meeting ground rules. The heart of the matter lay in the company’s culture. Emanating from the executive team, a host of attitudinal and behavioral miscues had permeated the whole organization. It’s a congenial place to work. Everybody likes each other and no one wants to jeopardize the positive rapport they all share. They’re under a misguided notion that holding each other accountable to meeting rules and etiquette would damage relationships and stagnate creativity. The entire staff has been complicit in allowing meetings to run amok like children at recess. The price is a dramatic loss of productivity and efficiency. However, after years on the Meeting Squad, Lewis knew that “productive meeting” did not have to be an oxymoron. His gaze shifted to the checklist taped to the wall of the van.

The list was titled, Starting with Company Culture. Here’s what it said:

Grassroots: locate people already conducting well-run meetings or find willing converts. Be sure to identify respected individuals with credibility. Designate these individuals as Meeting Champions. Equip the Champions with the tools and techniques to run productive meetings. Check in often to hold them accountable and encourage them through the challenging moments.

Coalition: build a network of influential managers willing to support the culture change initiative. Elicit their help in drafting a Meeting Manifesto outlining guidelines for redefining the company’s culture around meetings. Leverage the influence of the Coalition to gain access to senior management.

Top Down: present a business case to the executive team illustrating the tangible improvements to morale, productivity and output that can be achieved by implementing a company-wide strategy to improve the effectiveness of meetings. Encourage the executive team to edit and help finalize the Meeting Manifesto. Teach the executives the meeting leadership principles and tools needed to make the Manifesto a reality. Earn permission to hold them accountable to communicating the Manifesto and modeling the desired attitudes and behaviors.

Roll-out: when sufficient momentum has gathered around the idea that the meeting culture is changing, train the remaining staff on the tools and techniques required to run efficient meetings. Establish a recognition program to reinforce consistent application of new guidelines and methods. Help departments with their own sub-cultures tailor the meeting norms to fit the nuances of their environment. Continually assess progress and make modifications to incorporate best practices.

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