Contrast two teams/meetings
Meeting #1 - 60 minutes
Team brainstorms. There's a vague commitment to "synthesize feedback and return with next steps."
Meeting #2 - 180 minutes
Pre-reads completed. Data presented. Team brainstorms. Diverges. Then converges. Decides on next steps, spheres of ownership, etc. Calendars blocked. Roadmaps adjusted (because every commitment involves saying no to something else).
Two weeks later...
The Meeting #1 team is wondering what they talked about two weeks ago. Where is that Miro board anyway? Oh here it is. Wait, this doesn’t make sense. The next steps have been trickling into 1:1s, but no one is sure what is happening. What did we actually decide to do? People can't connect the brainstorm to the next steps. An executive had feedback, but what was it? There's a new initiative. It is all a blur. In theory something is happening. But what? Oh wait, there was ANOTHER meeting with half the people from the first meeting. And wait, did you see that message in Slack?
The Meeting #2 team is getting shit done. They've already tested something with customers, and figured out a flaw in their logic.
Now imagine an organization filled with hundreds of Meeting #1s weekly vs. a an organization filled with hundreds of Meeting #2s.
It is mind boggling to think about how much wasted creative energy exists in M1 orgs. Meetings talking about meetings talking about meetings talking about meetings. "We'll come back with next step"s that never happen. "Great conversations" that slip away into the ether. 1:1s to "explore ideas", because nothing can move forward as a group (or without a group). Oh, and the yearly big-bang "new process" meant to fix everything.
This isn't a "better meetings" post. Let's consider why Meeting #1's meeting turned out the way it did. Yes, they could have run a better meeting, but it is more than that. Some ideas:
"Too busy to meet for 3hrs"
Lot's of dependencies (“woah, that is making my head hurt!”)
A reliance on big-batch planning ("ugh, we'll be jumping into annual planning soon, should we wait?")
Roadmaps not up to date ("oh, the roadmap? I haven't had time to update it in months. I have to check with other stakeholders.")
Lots of planning already in progress. ("How does this new stuff compare to that existing stuff?")
Lots of committed work in progress ("It will be months before we start this, anyway")
Individuals competing for budget ("If we do THAT then I can't do THIS")
Concerns about promotions and career track ("If we do THAT, then I will not have an opportunity to shine!")
Middle-management needs to "road show" anything before they can decide on action items. Need executive blessing
Lack of data about what is actually working, which makes brainstorming a bit suspect. What IS a good idea? It is much easier to chase bad proxies.
Turns out half the people impacted weren't even in the meeting
Combined, these doomed Meeting #1 before it/they even walked into the meeting.
When hearing it this way, it is easy to point at Meeting #1 orgs and say "that's bad leadership", or "that's bad management." Yes, in some cases that is true. But in others, it isn't that simple.
These situations can emerge one tiny decision at a time, over quarters, years and decades. Tiny, pragmatic adjustments, compounded a million times. Even larger organizations that retain some of that M2 vibe, still experience this.
What used to take four people now takes six. Now ten. Now a committee.
Every third effort has challenging dependencies instead of every fourth effort.
Average tenure drops a tad, and with it drops institutional memory.
People feel a little less safe to speak up. Then a little less…
One more layer of well-meaning hierarchy.
Instead of just Slacking another team for help, you need to go through their (new) manager.
You know, maybe the engineers shouldn’t be in that meeting.
Teams that used to interact with customers regularly, now do so less often.
Instead of telling leaders “let’s chat in a couple months”, the new manager says “oh, I’ll look into that!”
Optics matter a tiny bit more, year after year.
Growth stalls a bit. A couple more “specials” to close deals.
Tiny, pragmatic adjustments, compounded a million times—punctuated by ineffective change efforts.
It is a classic case of Drift Into Failure. And even then, let’s be honest with ourselves, many companies are printing tons of money anyway, so it doesn’t really matter to investors. If Meeting #1 companies are competing against other Meeting #1 companies (for now), there may be no incentive to really change.
But here’s something I realized only recently. The only way to reverse this is to shift the flow of energy. It’s not like Meeting #1 works less. They probably work more. But most of their energy is wasted. It’s like a highly inefficient vehicle that gets terrible gas mileage. Something structurally NEEDS to change…some reallocation of energy, time, and behavior.
You can talk about empowerment all you want. You can debate problems vs. solutions, or outcomes vs. outputs. The proof is is actual changes in behavior, changes in the flow of information, and creating more Meeting #2 situations. That’s your metric. Meeting #2s :)
Last week I facilitated the kickoff of a team — the "usual" stuff: who's who (us, our neighbours, our stakeholders), what "a day in the life of" our team looks like, what's the mission, what are our goals, how we want to work together.
180 -organized, facilitated, structured- minutes (with a 15' pause in the middle, a soft start and a soft ending).
Energies were low, right off the bat. Mission and goals: vague, generic, unclear. The people in the team came really alive only when we spoke about working agreements ("How should we work as a team? Should we meet? When? How?").
I paraphrase just a bit: their feedback was "please no more useless meeting, including the 'agile' ones". Well, so we are kicking off a team that doesn't want to meet unless is necessary. I hear you.
We'll take a couple of weeks to find out what "necessary" means before stopping the entire team again.
When I asked them for feedback about the 180 minutes we spent together (I like using ROTI, return on time invested as a metric) the numbers were good, but the feedback about "how could we go from your vote to a +1" was along the lines of "3 hours are a bit too much" and "nice meeting, but I'm not sure what changes now".
I think that when people are immersed in a Meeting #1 environment, they struggle with Meeting #2 too, despite all the best intentions.
As coaches and facilitators we would like our work to be valued right off the bat, but we have to come to terms with the fact that, at least at the beginning, for most people it will be "just another meeting" — it's not the meeting itself, it's the environment around it ("If Meeting #1 companies are competing against other Meeting #1 companies (for now), there may be no incentive to really change." this one struck a chord with me).
Not only that, I think that in lots of Meeting #1 situations people are either in "extreme action mode" (that pile of ASAP requests coming through Slack) or "extreme passive mode" (being in a useless meeting) so much so that the middle ground (constructive, facilitated reflection) gets equated to being passive.
That's why for me the "more Meetings #2" wouldn't be a good metric either — my strategy so far has been doing lots of individual or three-people-max meeting to prepare the bigger, Meeting #2 ones. Yes, it takes longer to do anything, but you can't compress reflection.
I love the concept of #2 meetings and I've led / participated in what you're talking about at times. I'm curious if you could provide a bit of a framework around that kind of meeting. Like pre-reads, etc. What kind of pre-reads typically do you have in mind? Just a little bit more context to the content of that kind of meeting would be helpful. Thanks for your thoughts as always, John.