How to Plan Without Suffering “Death by Meeting.”

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On December 10, 2013

As you wrap up another year and get ready to head into a new one, you’re probably thinking about your annual planning meeting—at least I hope you are. The thing is that many of us have this love/hate relationship with meetings. We know they’re necessary. We (leaders in particular) often have high expectations for what will come out of the meetings.

Too often, however, our meetings (even our strategic planning meetings) are deadly and boring. Instead of being energized and motivated, our team members feel like they’ve wasted their time. We laugh (sometimes) about “death by PowerPoint,” in which we sit through tedious presentations, but too often our meetings have the same impact.

In his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni weaves a leadership fable about a fictional company struggling with this very thing. It’s a very entertaining—and insightful read. In the course of the book, Lencioni reminds leaders that meetings themselves aren’t the culprits (despite the oft-repeated complaint from employees that they hate meetings). The real issue (and I don’t think I’m giving away much here) is how the meetings are handled. Lencioni then identifies two major problems many companies face with the way they run their meetings.

Problem 1: Lack of drama. Meetings are supposed to be interactive. People aren’t there just to be talked to. They’re not there just to listen. They are there to participate. When Lencioni talks about drama, he isn’t suggesting creating an atmosphere in which participants emote all over one another. He’s not talking about entertaining your team. But as a leader you’ve got to get your key people engaged. It’s about ownership. It’s about helping people see how what gets decided in these meetings will affect what they do on a daily basis. What are you doing to involve team members in the discussion? Where is the drama for them?

Problem 2: Lack of contextual structure. Too often, the agenda for the meeting ends up being what Lencioni calls “meeting stew:” a conglomeration of unrelated topics that bounce all over the place.  As a leader, your responsibility is to make sure that the agenda is clear and concise and results in specific action. If you’re meeting to lay out strategy for the coming year, don’t get bogged down in minutia that doesn’t support that goal. A strategy meeting should focus on strategy. Schedule specific tactical meetings to work out specific details. If an agenda item doesn’t fit the context of what you’re trying to do—eliminate it. It doesn’t mean the issue isn’t important, but you can’t cover everything in one meeting. Stay on task.

Strategic planning is essential to the success of your business. And that means meeting with your key people. But don’t buy into the fallacy that meetings will kill your company. Bad, boring, wandering, purposeless meetings can kill your company. But well-planned meetings that engage key players and result in specific action steps can actually energize your company and produce measurable results.

The way to avoid “death by meeting” isn’t to avoid meetings. It’s figuring out how to run meetings the right way. If you’d like to talk more about how to do that, give me a call and we can talk about how to make that happen.