Pointless Meetings and Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater Rafting

26 Sep Pointless Meetings and Whitewater Rafting

A frequent complaint I hear in organizational transformation work is that there are too many meetings and that most of them don’t add value. If you do a search for how to have more effective meetings, results will include things like “have an agenda” and “stay focused”. In essence, the typical suggestions are to improve facilitation.

While facilitation is an important component, I have been in a plethora of pointless meetings that were well-facilitated and my guess is that you have too. Aside from being boring, meetings that feel pointless bring down morale and happiness which has a major impact on engagement and productivity. On the other hand, when people come out of meetings that I put together, I frequently hear comments like “That was a great discussion.”

There are several factors that contribute to successful meetings but if I could give only one tip, it would be this: STOP HAVING STATUS MEETINGS and start having goal setting, strategy, planning or any kind of discussion that moves things forward.

Status updates have some value but talking about what you have already done gets boring fast, especially when you talk about it more than once. For some reason, companies love to present the same status in three, four, five ways or sometimes even more. On top of that, many of the status meetings have the same attendees.

Status updates are also out of date before they are even delivered and have little value when it comes to moving forward. To illustrate the point, close your eyes and imagine a boat cruising on a river. Ok, maybe you shouldn’t really close your eyes…

I like to envision a moonlit night. As you cruise along, you drop a buoy in the water every so often. These buoys are like status reports. As soon as you drop them, they are no longer an accurate representation of where you are and they begin to disappear in distance. If you are the one driving the boat and you try to navigate by looking back at the buoys you have dropped, you will end up crashing sooner or later. The better thing to do is to look in front of you, pick a spot and head toward it.

In the business world, picking that spot is difficult and can be risky but that makes it interesting and fun. Organizations that are able to achieve continued, long-term success are the ones that not only pick a spot (vision, goals, etc.) but are able to develop a course that will lead them there (strategy, roadmaps).

Last weekend, I did an overnight rafting trip on the Gauley river and our guide did a great job of illustrating these points. Before each rapid, he would give us a brief. If the guide were to do the brief in the form of a status meeting, he might have said things like: in the last hour, we went through two class IV and two class V rapids, nobody fell out. We plan to be at lunch in two hours and we have 1 more class V between now and then. Everybody would be up to date on what we had done, what we intend to do and it would be an incredibly boring and nearly pointless conversation.

Our actual briefs included information and instructions such as “The rock on the left is undercut, if you go under there, it may be days or longer before they can recover the body” and “if you fall out, swim hard right, roll off the rock in the middle then get back to the boat as soon as you can.” The guide also covered what maneuvers we were planning. For example, ”We are going to go down the middle, then paddle hard to try to make the hole on the right. There may be an all back somewhere. Be ready for anything.” He would always end with his catchphrase, “The best way to do it is to stay in the boat.”

Though the majority of the brief was not a two-way conversation as a good meeting should be, we were still covering the same sorts of things that would be part of good planning and strategy meetings. We (or the guide in this case) shared insights, defined a strategy, identified risks and developed a contingency plan. We were also well aware that our goal was to make it home alive and with all of our limbs because that was covered many times at the beginning of the trip. Nobody was bored and nobody thought any of the briefs were pointless.

Moving away from rafting and into the world of organizations, I am currently leading an effort to update a young adult program for a non-profit. We have had 5 meetings so far and none of them have been status meetings. After every session, at least one person and generally several people have said that the conversation was valuable. At the beginning of the meetings, I will sometimes take about five minutes to recap what we have done so far, but that is only to catch people up who may have missed the previous call and to set the stage for the conversation. The rest of the discussion is all about what we should do next. Everybody is engaged and, in most sessions, the majority of the group attends which speaks for itself given that the group is made up of volunteers and our meetings tend to be late in the evenings.

If you experience frequent, boring status meetings, I encourage you to try shifting the focus to something more forward-looking and see how people respond. Try having a discussion about what your goals should be and why or explore insights into your markets and your customers or build a strategy to navigate new challenges or whatever topic is relevant and timely for your organization. If you run the meeting, hopefully, it will be an easy experiment to try. If you are not the owner of the meeting, consider proposing the experiment and offering to facilitate it.

Fair warning, these changes can create discomfort. The first few times you try it, you may run into some resistance because looking to the future means acknowledging that everything is not perfect and safe. That said, most people appreciate the changes and will thank you either immediately or in time. Don’t let resistance discourage you. Significant benefits only come with significant change which comes with significant resistance. In other words, resistance can be a sign that you are doing things that will have major benefits to the organization.

If you take the leap and give this a try, let us all know how it goes in the comments. If you have other ideas for more successful meetings, please share those as well.

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