• Phil Cole

Make Your Next Meeting Functional

Meetings are a critical yet often-derided part of group performance. Our distaste for wasted time and preference for individual work leads to the neglect of one of the most important moments of interaction. When managed successfully through a functional approach to leadership, we can use a meeting to assess and act upon the functions of leadership in a way that creates excellence long after the meeting is over.


Let’s tear into the average meeting with the goal of a concrete set of functional actions that will allow us to turn a boring meeting into a moment of leadership investment.


Vision

We start with the function of vision. A meeting is not a place to develop shared vision, unless that is a pre-planned activity based on an identified need. Rather, meetings are where we evaluate the clarity and ensure alignment of the shared vision. To do this, we look for a common understanding of the shared output and the standard of excellence for each task or effort. If we see signs of disagreement or separation, we will develop a plan to address them through deliberate effort outside the meeting.

We determine clarity and alignment by asking questions and listening to the discussion to reveal:

  • If members are working on related and priority tasks, based on timelines and milestones.

  • If the division, performance, and combination of the whole product into individual tasks creates problems, for example where a portion of the effort will be neglected.

  • If tasks support each other, based on the output of one task satisfying the input for another.

  • If members understand the desired impact upon the customer or client, which will inform their individual decisions and performance of work.

When we watch for answers to these questions, we can identify a problem within the shared vision before it appears in a work product. When we see disagreement or misalignment, we know that the shared vision is experiencing pressure from individual visions. This conflict is natural, but we must intervene to resolve these tensions and restore focus on a common output.


Relationships

The core function of a meeting is to facilitate relationships, both interchange and emotion. Synchronous communication is one of the most effective ways to perform interchanges and to create clear, intentional emotion reactions. This is often the specific reason for a meeting, but attention to relationships as a function improves the group’s performance. We will address interchange and emotion relationships separately.


Interchange Relationships

The role of interchanges is to ensure that people have the things they need to perform their tasks. Information in all of its common elemental forms is one of the most important of these things, and meetings are an opportunity to transfer information from giver to receiver. When we plan our meetings to facilitate these transfers, we create a space where interchanges can occur effectively and clearly, which leads to a successful meeting and then high performance afterwards. Without these elements in place, participants are likely to feel that nothing moved forward, but they are also likely to spend time performing the interchanges outside of the meeting. This reduces efficiency, increases the possibility of mistakes, and limits the reach of interchanges.


The overriding question for interchanges in a meeting is:

  • Who needs to know what?

This question naturally leads to a set of follow-up questions:

  • Are the right people or materials in the room?

  • What format of meeting do they need to transmit this information?

  • Can we confirm that the exchange was successful?

Because synchronous communication is more effective at resolving disputes and reaching consensus (or at least acceptance) than other forms of communication, meetings are often a place for decision-making interchanges.


There are several questions that support effective decision-making related to the general information interchange questions above:

  • What needs to be decided?

  • Who needs to know the decision?

  • Is the person responsible for the decision in the room?

  • Are the right sources of information for the decision in the room, or has that information been provided through a different interchange prior to the meeting?

The nature of the interchange determines the shape of the meeting. Irregular pieces of information can be addressed through unstructured meetings, for example where the agenda changes every instance. Meeting facilitation should reflect this by providing agendas and clear invites for people who need to attend. By contrast, regular or consistent information exchanges should occur in meetings with a formal structure that facilities the interchange, for example, daily pre-work or SCRUM meetings. These meetings may not require an agenda, but do require a more structured process to facilitate the interchange during the meeting. If we need to establish a more formal relationship to transfer critical information on a regular basis, then a meeting might not be the appropriate format.


Meetings are a critical opportunity for interchanges. We should both ensure that all appropriate interchanges occur in the right meeting, and also that interchanges that do not need to occur in the meeting are handled elsewhere. This is where the tools of structuring relationships are highly effective.


Emotion Relationships

Like interchange relationships, the communal space of a meeting is an effective place to create honest, direct emotion reactions. While not all conflicts should be handled in the open space of a meeting, our preparation with the following questions allows us to ensure that we will both address appropriate emotion reactions and avoid inappropriate ones.


As we evaluate the emotion relationships in the group, we ask questions and listen to determine:

  • If members are experiencing conflicts from a lack of clear communication or misunderstanding.

  • If members can see the common values and leadership beliefs (factor five of the story of vision) within other members.

  • If members have a shared sense of identity and the factors upon which they build that identity.

  • Where (or which) members experience fracture or disagreement in the shared identity and community.

When we see these elements in place, we gain insight into the invisible emotion reactions occurring in members’ heads. We cannot see exactly what people feel, but we can make informed assumptions based on their interactions.


Large parts of the emotional culture of a group occurs through informal and undirected interactions such as pre-meeting chitchat and “catching up.” Allowing this very human engagement to occur improves and strengthens the bonds between members, and for this reason it is valuable. Don’t be afraid to allow topics to turn personal at times as these interactions are essential to shared identity and community.


Learning

The function of learning allows members of the group to explore new ideas. While most of these experiments occur in the performance of work, meetings are an opportunity to brainstorm solutions and to reinforce the value of learning.


One way to do this is to allow the meeting to go off the rails. Even if the meeting doesn’t produce a creative, effective solution, the interaction will open members’ minds to the need for change. We can prompt this conversation by bringing up a problem or area the group’s performance is struggling, as long as we don’t point fingers or tolerate finger pointing. We facilitate by encouraging creative dialogue and through gentle guidance towards productive (not harmful or negative) disagreement.


We can also use meetings to recognize and reward learning. Criticism is almost always best done in private, but praise is most powerful when used in public. If we see a valuable contribution that will strengthen the group’s performance, no matter how small, we can use the meeting to create pressure to turn the interaction or behavior into a relationship.

  • What new developments were productive and should be reinforced?

  • Who has demonstrated commitment and engagement to the shared vision?

The experiences that members have within a meeting will inform their comfort and safety when they return to their work. Dedicated and driven work towards a shared vison, productive interchanges, and positive shared feelings create the space for members to challenge themselves and seek out new ways to perform the work.


Meetings as a Microcosm of the Functions

Meetings are small moments that represent the larger interactions in the performance of work. With a foundation of a shared vision guiding interactions towards productive interchanges and emotion reactions, meetings can create learning and growth while ensuring that members are prepared for their work. Without a functional approach to leadership, meetings can be frustrating and time-consuming affairs that do little to improve performance. The ideas here should get you started seeing the functions in action within your next meeting.


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