How to Ditch the Informational Meeting

By Julie Rains on 26 September 2011 0 comments
Photo: Yuri_Arcurs

In Read This Before Our Next Meeting from The Domino Project, author Al Pittampalli recommends ending what he calls the informational meeting in favor of the “Modern Meeting.”

In the meeting and organizational culture that he envisions, “bold decisions happen often and quickly, and those decisions are converted into movement that leads our organization forward—fearlessly.”

Pittampalli argues that traditional meetings are counterproductive for a couple of reasons:

  1. Too many of the wrong kind of meetings mean that we don’t have enough time for “our real work, the work we do that actually propels our organizations forward.”
  2. Ineffective meetings make us think that we are accomplishing something though they tend to perpetuate the process of dodging conflict, avoiding hard decisions, and diffusing accountability to the point of inaction.

A major step in transforming the culture is ditching the informational meeting in which employees and team members give status updates and report on their group’s activities. The alternative is simple: send information via email (or similar form of written message). Save meetings for discussions in which conflict is resolved and collaboration happens, driving firm decisions and commitments.

For several months, I have been running monthly sessions for a planning team and have largely dispensed with the informational meeting. This approach is downright hard and time-consuming for the person in charge (e.g., company owner, senior executive, or team leader). But as far as moving forward, it totally works.

The process of moving from informational meetings to modern meetings requires tackling many challenges.

1. Getting everyone to read written communications

Pittampalli: “we’ll cancel the informational meetings, but you must commit to reading the memos.”

To limit time in my group’s face-to-face meetings, I decided to provide information via email (similar to the guidance offered in the book, which had not been published when I started my sessions). This approach was welcomed but not understood by everyone. Early on, I conceded to the non-readers (those who had clearly not read the emails, based on their comments and questions) and devoted an entire session to elaborating and explaining content previously covered in written form. I was taken aback when one of these folks complained that the meeting was nonproductive and asked if such information could be sent via email. Our exchange was a turning point for me.

My response to this complaint was, basically, “we’ll cancel the informational meetings, but you must commit to reading the memos.”

2. Responding to offline inquiries promptly

Pittampalli: “Encourage people who have questions and concerns to schedule one-on-one conversations with the leader or others who can actually do something about the situation.”

Address problems, concerns, etc. outside of the meeting time. Encourage inquiries. Respond quickly and thoroughly to questions. Also, note any points of confusion to improve the clarity of your written communications.

3. Crafting written messages that cover pertinent information and move the project forward

Pittampalli: “The Modern Meeting requires that you don’t dribble your thoughts in an endless series of instant messages and e-mails. No, you have to share your thoughts in coherent, cogent documents.”

Writing meaningful messages takes a great deal of effort and, therefore, time. Set aside a large portion of certain days to focus on the project or assignment, plot the path, determine next steps, and write a memo that informs and instructs. To keep myself focused and make sure my communications are comprehensive but not overwhelming, I send just one or two emails each month to the entire group.

4. Welcoming conflict and encouraging collaboration

Pittampalli: “It’s work having a Modern Meeting to engage in collaborative problem solving. Getting smart people in a room to figure out how to support a plan or launch a product makes sense.”

Many people are not experienced in working together, much less dealing with conflict, expressing concerns in a non-threatening way, truly understanding another’s perspective, and searching for solutions that benefit multiple groups. Instead, they feign false harmony so that the meeting will end more quickly. Unless they are challenged otherwise, they continue in counterproductive behaviors.

Create an environment in which people feel free to discuss sensitive, even controversial, topics. Let people know that the purpose of engaging in conflict is not to declare winners. The goals of conflict and collaboration are to define all aspects of problems, identify opportunities and synergies among these opportunities, formulate feasible solutions, and make firm commitments.

5. Clarifying and communicating the purpose of each meeting

Pittampalli: “After all, how can you thoughtfully debate a decision, or intelligently coordinate its resulting action, upon having heard it for the first time?...In our purposeless traditional meeting, your impromptu comments once sounded intelligent; in the Modern Meeting, they’ll sound unsubstantial.”

Many people have spent years honing the ability to speak confidently and glibly without actually committing to anything. They simply report on plans and general activity rather than explaining results and talking about changes that can improve outcomes. But they can’t do that anymore.

By writing memos clearly and planning meetings carefully, you pinpoint what is needed to move to the next step. At your meetings, explain what should happen during the session. Place key items of discussion on the table, let meaningful conversations begin, and provide leadership in making decisions that will result in well-defined outcomes.

6. Following up on decisions

Pittampalli: “It’s the meeting leader’s responsibility to follow up and hold participants accountable for their commitments.”

Outside of your meetings, follow up with participants. Offer guidance and resources while reminding them of their responsibilities. Keep a relentless focus on achieving the goals of your organization.

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