There is an interesting TEDTalk “Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work” by Jason Fried (https://www.ted.com/talks/jason_fried_why_work_doesn_t_happen_at_work?language=en) and part of his main point is that meetings are a complete waste of time. It is a radical thought, one you may or may not agree with, but is worth considering. The way meetings are used today fulfill a variety of business needs; cascade of information, updating people to be transparent, reporting results against a plan, etc. In the majority of the meetings we attend today (business meetings or meetings we attend as volunteers or community participants) it is for the dissemination of information, not the furthering of our effectiveness or organizational pursuits. In these meetings we are often given information that is readily available to us in another format (on-line, in a published report or via verbal quick de-brief, etc.). Participation is passive, with attendees only able to directly engage in the “question and answer” period or through interrupting the speaker.
This is the traditional “all-staff meeting” or you may even want to call it a “presentation” as most meetings use some form of presentation software to provide handy reference points and key data. This is what most of us “grew up with” in our careers and is heavily practiced today. Even with the more intimate (and prevalent) team meetings where the point is usually information share and contextualizing, how often are you called upon to provide content in those meetings as a participant? Contribute, yes, but actual content? How many times have you missed a meeting, but were not concerned because you knew a slide deck with all the data would be shared? In fact the way we use presentation software has morphed; it was never originally meant to be a tool to document meeting content (only to provide interesting guiding points, keeping both speaker and audience on pace together), but that is how many organizations use it today. We’ve all seen (or been guilty of) putting generous amounts of information on each slide because this is no longer only a presentation tool, often this software is used as a capture tool, allowing data and content to be shared with no further effort (when was the last time you needed to read meeting minutes?). It can be difficult to sit patiently through all those verbose slides as a participant (especially if your meeting is being driven by someone reading them aloud). So here is a question for you; do you think the majority of the meetings you attend are a good use of time (and not just your time, anyone’s time)? To take this one step further, do you think the basic tenants of how we hold meetings today will be in practice when our children (think Millennials and beyond) are in the midst of their careers?
Not likely. Meetings hold a systemic bias that silences many important resources. Today there is a lot of emphasis on public speaking skills in meetings. Gifted meeting conveners and presenters stand out, making even the most mundane data sound scintillating, peppering their patter with anecdotes and juicy bits that are not on the slides or in the handouts. Even as participants, we often feel we are expected to speak well when we contribute. The skills required to hold a meeting participants’ attention are consider “leadership” skills; group meetings have always favoured extroverts, or those who can master traits of extroversion. For those who are comfortable speaking publically (either as the organizer/presenter or as a participant) this shows up early, and when cultivated, draws them into this type of work over their career. It can often feel as if introverts need not apply. It also supports another interesting meeting phenomenon; when there isn’t strong meeting “hygiene” in place, the loudest voice in the room flavours all the decisions (or makes them). We’ve all been in those meetings where the participants who are most comfortable with public participation take over. Sometimes it is expected that those most comfortable with this role will just do it, sometimes it’s more of a meeting “hijack” by a strong personality. Results vary. Group meetings that were meant to be a “democracy” become a “meritocracy”, enabling roughly 20% of the participants to contribute consistently. So, roughly 20% of your team, and ultimately your organization, are contributing 80% of the time. Think about the numbers, keep track in your meetings, this is not random. Nor is it utilizing the full potential of your team or organization; some of your most gifted employees are not extroverts, but when your meeting formats only provide space for the quick-responding and outgoing, you are not enabling everyone’s full potential. What “best practice” said we had to address the majority of our deepest business concerns in the time spent in rooms together? Is that where you do your best thinking? As an employee, how often have you gone back after a meeting to give voice to an idea or a thought? Most of us assume that someone has thought of it already, or that if the idea had merit it would have been brought forward. Most of us follow in the trench dug by leaders who use a traditional communication style structured by meetings.
It is not likely that the next generation is going to want to take that flawed blueprint with them into the most productive era of their careers. But not all meetings are like this. Sometimes, the goal of the meeting is the dissemination of information to provide context, enabling those with whom we are meeting to understand the direction of work to foster better understanding and alignment of next steps, enabling more autonomy, clearer decisions and stronger outcomes. Sometimes, with gifted leaders (and more often with those who have nothing to lose) meetings are held for the sole purpose of coming up with ideas. So what is the difference between a meeting where we are given information, and one where we are given information or the permission we need to empower our work? Only one makes you think. In fact the future of communicative leadership is likely going to be based less on how well you can make an argument or present, and more on how consistently you foster thinking.
Another concept that the next generation will make better use of then those of us in leadership today is diversity. It’s a long held leadership aspiration to include as many perspectives in decision making as possible. The more heads the better when trying to make well-rounded decisions that take into account layers and facets of complex concerns. Diversity has also been proven to be a game changer, capturing both salient facts and nuances, leading to stronger outcomes. But it is more than ensuring your workforce and teams are diverse, it is also about creating an environment where you can leverage everyone’s potential through contribution. How do you break through that persistent 20% of active participants, bringing it to a reliably consistent 80%? Conventional thinking would have you believe it is about how to run effective meetings and be a modern communicator. While that approach is valuable, and builds several aspects of important leadership skills, it does not acknowledge that you can’t get to that deeper leveraging of the skills and abilities on your team by doing the same thing, only more efficiently. In reality, to boost those numbers you need to do something different. You need to know when to stop talking and make space for conversations that allow everyone to think and provide content in a time span that is conducive to really soaking in what they are being asked to generate. You need to leverage all the voices at your disposal; introverts and extroverts, new staff and seasoned staff, people new to your culture and those who’ve grown up in it. In short, you need to learn how to drive conversations that are allowed to evolve over time (a few days, a week), enabling an iterative cycle of learning and application that provides real results.
As leaders this is quite a pivot – one that requires us to be prepared to shift some key aspects of how we make decisions to another paradigm…a paradigm where we as leaders are no longer accountable for solutions, but for outcomes. In North American business culture leaders are supposed to have answers. Yet it is this thinking that enables us to only leverage 20% of the brain trust in our organizations, and even then, mostly in service to validating or strengthening a pre-determined way forward, not helping us to fully explore what viable options are possible. Think about the types of solutions one or two brains produce. Now, how about 10 or 30? This isn’t a free-for-all generating chaos, this is asking people to think, taking into account salient factors, leveraging guiding principles like your organizations’ mission, vision and values, and to then generate ideas (contributing innovative thinking) in service to producing stronger options. You already know what the outcomes need to be (shrink margins, offer more/higher quality product, reduce time to market, etc.). Do you always take the route that will help you explore as many options as possible? Or do you see a potential path forward and explore only that instead?
What if we were to stop having meetings, and started having conversations? Conversations that provided key data, like desired outcomes and context, empowering all our employees to think about options and viable solutions that don’t begin with the narrow lens of one or two starting points (steering them in a particular direction) but giving them a green field to explore and the time to think. Future leadership will require strong communication skills, that is not in doubt. But it will also require a transformation in how we approach leveraging our workforces, trusting that the answers are always present when we start asking the right questions and engaging staff in conversations. When we enable collaboration, idea generation, innovative thinking and solutions we enable stronger outcomes. Future leadership will require the trust and ability to make our staff and organizations think and the intelligence to wisely use the content (and potential) they bring forward.