Call a Meeting or Get to Work? Try Both.

Meetings needn't exclusively be check-ins and chit-chat. Working meetings can emphasize results and help teams better collaborate.

Did the last meeting you called address something truly important?

Oh, of course it did—I’m not going to be counterintuitive here and tell you it didn’t. For years we’ve been absorbing so many mantras about how to avoid wasteful meetings—keep them short, have clear agendas, do them standing up, fiddle with the thermostat—that we all know better than to send out a group invite for a meeting that’s doomed to be a time-sink.

But though we’ve gotten in the habit of discussing important things at meetings, we’re perhaps less used to the idea of doing important things during them. And because we’re so busy in so many important meetings, there’s less time for employees to get things done. So Katie Smith Milway, a consultant at the Bridgespan Group, has a simple but useful proposal: Make more meetings working meetings.

Open discussions tend to privilege the extroverts in the room.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled “Don’t Wait Until After the Meeting to Start Your Action Items,” Milway asks, “What if meetings with one to a few employees became work sessions in which we could review memos together, Google up facts to suss out an idea, call colleagues with insight on relevant issues, or bring in those who could benefit from the discussion?” The virtue of this approach, Milway says, is that it lets the relevant people leave a meeting with some specific accomplishments, and forces meeting agendas to be more accomplishment-focused—what are we going to have done by the time the meeting is over?

I think there’s an added benefit to what Milway calls the “just do it” mentality that she doesn’t address in her article—such meetings can help bond employees with their colleagues and supervisors in ways that check-ins and discussions don’t. After all, though your last meeting was unquestionably important, open discussions tend to privilege the extroverts in the room. A meeting that’s oriented toward completing a task can accommodate different work styles—it’s not about who spoke the most, or most eloquently, just about what’s taken care of. And it can allow people to see that work style in action in ways that aren’t visible when everybody’s isolated in their various cubicles and offices.

Milway’s article reminded me of a conversation I had with staffers at NAFSA: Association of International Educators at the Great Ideas Conference in March. Corrinne Fisher, NAFSA’s senior learning designer, faced the challenge of preparing new volunteers for their roles in the association. The key stumbling block was the fact that the initial in-person gathering was so overstuffed with orientation lectures that getting down to business often had to wait until after the event was over. That was a lost opportunity for volunteers to work directly with each other.

So Fisher, along with former NAFSA senior director, program and service development Carol Hamilton, devised a “flipped leadership” model, in which volunteers are given the freedom to absorb the nuts-and-bolts orientation material on their own time, freeing up the in-person conference to focus on defining work plans and getting things done. (You can learn more about the “flipped leadership” model in the handout from the Great Ideas presentation [PDF], and in the Associations Now Plus article, “How to Help Volunteer Leaders Hit the Ground Running” [ASAE member login required].)

“When we talk about strategic skills, instead of saying, ‘Here’s our strategic plan,’ that’s pushed online,” Fisher says. “Now we’re saying, ‘here are the strategic goals that your community has identified. Now you’re going to talk to somebody who’s in a different leadership role, and you’re going to look for alignments.’”

Not every meeting can run this way—or should. Sometimes high-level strategic discussions get gunked up when you focus too much on “outputs.” But it’s worth the extra step to see if what you need to have done can be taken care of on the spot. Milway points out that the “just do it” meeting is particularly useful “when all that stands between you and your report making a decision is a piece of knowledge—e.g. a peer’s input or publicly available data.” That ensures you’re walking out the meeting with something, and avoiding the hasty fact-finding that happens five minutes before the meeting begins.

We’re already well-trained to value our colleagues’ time when it comes to meetings. Extra attention might allow leaders to better value their accomplishments in real time as well.

What do you do to make your meetings more productive and results-oriented? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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