It’s one thing to plan and execute a meeting that begins as a fresh start. The organizer has the most control over the outcome. With a clear goal, well-crafted agenda, engaged discussion, and action items defined, this meeting is most likely to succeed.
But what about meetings that have been around for a while? Like “update” meetings, those intended to break down silos and increase communication within a department or across an organization. Maybe you own this type of meeting, by having it passed on from your predecessor or possibly you initiated this meeting to get people in the department connected.
Either way, update meetings often look like this:
Representatives from multiple departments or members from the same team meet monthly to provide “updates”. The intention is to share information, brainstorm, or problem-solve but they also aim to prevent people from saying “Why didn’t I know about this?!” …referring to the impact projects in one area have on another.
Often, there is a tacit implication that attendance is mandatory. If you or your department are not present, it is noticed. This means, the meeting is well attended. Though, attendees are not engaged, especially after months (even years) of the meeting taking place.
Now, folks keep video off, and almost everyone plans to multi-task, because rarely does each topic have relevance to all. When feedback is requested, participants don’t speak up. There is little meaningful discussion.
Any chance this sounds familiar?
Despite the original good intentions, update meetings quickly become stale and can shift into becoming one of the 67% that are deemed a failure.
At many organizations, update meetings are really just bad habits.
So, how do you refresh a stale meeting after it’s been run the same way for a while?
Call It Out
If you think the meeting is stale, then plenty of others do too. Acknowledge it to the group and refresh everyone’s memory of the purpose of the meeting. State how important it is to you that the meeting is a valuable use of everyone’s time but if it's not, then it might be time to end it.
Ask for Feedback (and consider cancelling)
Invite input from the group on whether the meeting is necessary and if so, how to freshen it up. Use a survey so folks can be candid. If the meeting is not necessary, then cancel it. But if there is potential to provide value, then improving the execution of it is needed. So, also ask what would encourage participation, what would make the meeting content relevant and helpful, if having video on is important or whether the cadence or frequency of the meeting is right.
Identify New Expectations
You might learn from the survey that having video on is important to many but not all, or that attendees struggle to decipher what information to convey back to their teams. You might then expect video on for speakers and in break-out rooms (a compromise between all or nothing video). And all presentations must conclude with the 3 most important messages to be carried back to teams. Create new expectations based on the needs of the group.
Reset the Meeting
Begin anew. Introduce the new expectations and be upfront that they are based on the feedback provided. Break attendees into small groups (3-4 people each) to discuss their reactions to the expectations and report out questions, feedback, or concerns to the large group. Also ask the small groups to discuss what the best way is to hold each other accountable to the expectations. Then, that burden isn't solely on the meeting organizer, rather the group shares responsibility for meeting success.
Update meetings can be an excellent opportunity for learning, relationship building, and working cross-functionally. Consider these techniques to build and maintain an engaging discussion.
Give Advanced Notice. Rarely are spontaneous discussions the most fruitful. Rather, people engage more freely when prepared. Provide the agenda and the questions for discussion in advance of the meeting and set the expectation that people arrive prepared.
Use Small Group Discussion. The smaller the group, the more likely people will speak up. Consider reducing the volume of content covered in the meeting to afford time for breakouts rooms or in small groups.
Be Specific. Asking "Any questions?" or "What do you think?" often yields little feedback or discussion. Instead, ask open-ended, specific questions like “What questions do you have?” or “What processes or responsibilities need clarifying?” or “What is missing that we haven’t yet addressed?” Or ask about anticipated impacts to departments, workload, employees, customers, timelines, budgets, etc. The more specific the question the more likely someone will share an opinion.
Model and Coach
To confirm the new expectations, demonstrate them for the group. As the meeting owner, deliver an update and apply all the expectations that you set. If people see it done, they’re more likely to do it themselves. In fact, stack the next three meeting agendas with presenters who are most likely to follow the new expectations. The more consistency the better to make them stick. Also, offer coaching or guidance to guest presenters to ensure their updates are equally as valuable and meet expectations.
After a few months of the refreshed meeting, survey the group again and ask to see if the improvements have made a difference. Celebrate successes together and redesign where needed. Taking the time to discuss or debrief the effectiveness of an ongoing meeting instills productive behaviors. The last thing you want to do slide back into bad habits.
Update meetings are often an important part of work but if they aren’t necessary, cancel them. If they are, improve the execution and make it into something people look forward to attending. Start over by calling out that the meeting became stale, ask for feedback, establish new expectations, and emphasize fostering discussions. A refresh like this will be welcomed by all.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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