By: W. James Hadden IV, MBA, LEED AP
As the new Director of Operations at STG, it’s my job to find ways to make our company more efficient. When my work on a cloning machine stalled, I decided to tackle meeting culture instead. Here are some of my insights from that (ongoing) project and a lifetime of meetings.
Meetings are like snowflakes. In the moment, they are all unique; wait a day and you can’t tell them apart. From my experience, meetings can be broken into four main categories:
- Is anyone even taking notes?
- Why am I here again?
- Now I know what’s going on!
- Solved the problem, left early.
1. Is anyone even taking notes?
Unfortunately, we’ve all been in this meeting. Someone gets a big group of people together, ostensibly to discuss a specific topic. However, there's no agenda, the discussion doesn’t stay on topic, and eventually there are five different conversations going on. At some point, one or more people leave to go to another appointment. Everyone else decides that even working is better than another minute of this meeting. Nothing has been resolved, no one has any follow-up assignments, and the result is another meeting to rehash the first meeting. So now everyone’s frustrated and we just wasted $2,000 of billable time.
2. Why am I here again?
This is probably my least favorite meeting. You get invited to meetings even though you have little or no involvement or input on the topic. I understand the temptation – putting more minds on a problem means more potential solutions. But the reality is that it’s more likely to be a distraction for you and for the other people in the meeting. Frequently, your attention drifts to what you'd rather be working on. You stop thinking about the meeting topic, pull out your phone and start playing Candy Crush...I mean...checking email. Now, you're not only wasting your time, you're also being rude to the rest of the people in the meeting.
3. Now I know what’s going on!
This is probably the meeting we attend most frequently. The topic is important to you and, for the most part, the right people are in attendance. There’s an agenda and we all do our best to stay on topic. We talk a lot, but don’t necessarily have closure by the time the meeting ends. People who are on different sides of an issue aren’t convinced that it’s been resolved successfully. There has been progress, but no one walks out happy.
4. Solved the problem, left early.
This is the meeting we should all aspire to run (or attend). This is the (currently) rare meeting when you walk out feeling like you actually accomplished something. Everyone showed up prepared and on time, you stuck to the agenda, people presented their information succinctly, and decisions were made. The right people were in attendance and everyone is committed to support the decisions. All the attendees know what their next steps should be. The meeting minutes go out on time and include deadlines for action items.
So now you’re asking yourself, “If this guy can’t even make a functional cloning machine, how the heck can he know so much about meetings?” The answer is that I’ve sat in a lot of meetings - at least three meetings a week for the last 20 years. And here’s what I’ve seen work best:
- Figure out the minimum number of people necessary to have a successful meeting
- Send a statement of purpose and an agenda to attendees beforehand
- Tell attendees what you expect them to bring to/do in the meeting
- Turn off technology not related to presenting or note taking
- Go over the entire agenda at the beginning of the meeting
- Empower everyone at the meeting to keep the conversation on topic
- Take minutes and send them out within 48 hours
- Assign action items and deadlines
- Make decisions
- Come to consensus
- Everyone in the meeting has to commit to publicly supporting the decisions made
- Follow up
And ultimately, you have to hold people accountable. You have to create a culture that doesn’t accept tardiness, showing up unprepared, or not following through on action items. All the preparation for a meeting doesn’t matter if the people involved don’t do their part, too.
Getting better at organizing and running meetings takes effort and patience; it’s not going to happen overnight. Which is also true for my cloning machine. Look for more posts from one of me soon.
W. James Hadden IV, MBA, LEED AP is STG Design’s Director of Operations and author of our newest column, Productive Production. He has a BArch from MIT, an MBA from Duke University and 20 years of experience in the A/E/C world. His passion for improving processes led him to STG earlier this year to make the business of architecture more efficient.