If you’ve never watched the show, I recommend checking out How the Universe Works on Science Channel. You don’t have to be a geek or even have any scientific aptitude to fall in love with this series. The episodes are incredibly entertaining and often visually stunning in their representation of different phenomena in the universe. You may run into occasional shushing from your spouse when you poke them awake so that you can talk to someone about it with someone – a small price to pay in my view.
As I was happily (re-)watching an episode the other night about how the Earth’s moon formed, I was reminded of something I learned from a great manager of mine. As a preface, this brief clip from the show’s website contains a neat visualization of how the moon formed. Skip to the 3:00 mark if you want to cut to the main event.
(And yes, the only thing nerdier than watching a documentary about the moon for at least the third time is referencing it in a blog post about how to run meetings well.)
The clip shows how the Earth’s moon was born from utter chaos. A huge collision between the Earth and another planet-sized body obliterated our planet’s surface and created an ocean of debris orbiting Earth. Over hundreds of millions of years, gravity coalesced all of the debris into our moon. From entropy arose order in the form of a new moon orbiting the planet.
What I realized the other night is that running a successful meeting is just like making a moon. The only difference is that instead of gravity there’s you, and instead of hundreds of millions of years you have sixty minutes, give or take.
In case I haven’t convinced you, I’ll explain.
Making a Moon in Sixty Minutes: The Arc of the Meeting
I’ve written before on Smart Like How about times when I’ve failed to manage a meeting well, but I haven’t written specifically about how to run meetings well. Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, but let’s keep things simple: there are meetings in which questions are raised, and meetings in which decisions are made. Meetings go off the rails when people lose sight of the goals. If you try to go too deep on a problem during a status meeting, not only will you often not be able to resolve the issue, but you also won’t accomplish the goal of providing status updates. Similarly, if you go into a problem-solving meeting without the right people or without doing your homework beforehand, you probably won’t succeed in resolving a hard problem. Since your reward for screwing up a meeting is often meetings, it’s in your best interest to keep your meetings on track.
Keeping a status meeting or a team standup on track is pretty basic. Any problem you can’t solve in a minute or two should be taken offline to be resolved more rigorously in a dedicated session. That session is the one in which the problem is really wrestled to the ground. Since the latter type is what generally refer to when we discuss the importance of “managing the room”, I’m going to focus my attention on the meetings in which problems are solved and decisions get made.
A typical sixty-minute meeting typically goes through several distinct phases, and your role as the meeting organizer changes as the meeting progresses. Of course, much of the work to ensure a successful meeting takes place before people get into a room. You need to set a clear agenda for the meeting based on what you want to get out of it. You must ensure that the people whose expertise or authorization you’ll need can be present. For really important meetings in which big decisions will be made, preparation of materials can be extensive. If that’s the case, you should preview your presentation with key decision makers beforehand so that they aren’t surprised during the meeting. I’ve written about how to secure buy-in for big ideas here.
Without further ado:
Phase 1: Chit-Chat and Technology Fumbling – Most business meetings begin predictably: participants banter or check emails while the organizer fumbles with presentation and/or web conferencing tools. With apologies to Citrix, I call this the “Go to Meeting Tax,” since it seems like ten percent of virtually every meeting I’m in gets lots to difficulties with setting up technology to either share their screen or dial people in.
Your Role in Phase 1: Keep this phase to under two minutes. Get there a few minutes early to get technology set up. Boot people out of the conference room if they are running over. Leave another meeting a few minutes early if you can to get set up. You can’t help it if people show up late, but you can at least set the tone that you’re there to get work done, and that you value everyone’s time.
Phase 2: Entropy – This phase is the scariest for the meeting organizer, but it simply has to happen when you bring people together to solve hard problems (especially the really big ones). In the Entropy phase, planets collide and the debris starts flying. For a sixty-minute meeting, the Entropy phase ideally lasts between thirty to forty minutes, but you don’t want to let it go much beyond that. Meeting participants will all lay out their opinions and their subject matter expertise to argue different positions on a matter. The crossfire of ideas can also be pretty fun in the right circumstances, and this is the phase where you want as much open contribution as possible.
Your Role in Phase 2: Make sure all of the opinions and options make it from the participants’ minds out into the open where they can be dissected and evaluated. Challenge participants to respond if you sense they are holding back. Steer individuals back to the main topic if they veer too far off-topic, but other than that, don’t be afraid of the entropy. In the same way that polished public speakers don’t fear the awkward pause, it’s incumbent on you the meeting organizer not to throttle the discussion but to coax the ideas out of the participants and make sure that people are bringing their expertise to bear. That’s why you invited them, after all. At the same time, it’s also important that you make sure you’ve left enough time for the remaining two phases. Ideally, you want at least fifteen minutes left after the Entropy Phase completes.
During the Entropy phase, look for how the different ideas and proposals either fit together or clash. As you take in the feedback, weigh the ideas against the constraints and considerations that are most important to you. You want to get as many good ideas as possible and make sure everyone is familiar with the knowns and unknowns of the situation. As soon as you sense that the well for new points of view has run dry, you shift the discussion into the next phase.
Phase 3: Re-aggregation – After the Entropy phase, all the available facts and input needed for solving whatever problem it is the participants are there to solve have been captured. With entropy having reached its zenith for the meeting, the participants have to now shift toward bringing order to the chaos they’ve created. Some of the ideas that spilled out during the entropy phase coalesce to form parts of a new solution, and the ones that don’t fit get flung into outer space never to be seen again. What you have at the end, in the best of cases, is a set of solutions or decisions that address the core challenges the group set out to address.
Your Role in Phase 3: In Phase 3, you shift your focus away from pulling ideas out of people and toward the ideas themselves. Find the commonalities among ideas, and find the incompatibilities. Your biggest job is to distill all of the options on the board into the handful of decisions that must be made – and then drive those to conclusion. If you don’t have enough information to make a decision, come out with a point of view that says, “If ABC is true, then we’ll do X and if DEF is true we’ll do Y.”
This is the hardest phase to master, especially as a junior team member. It takes practice to get good at doing this in real-time while the ideas are flying.
Phase 4: Conclusion – This phase only last from one minute to a several minutes, but it is crucially important for ongoing momentum, especially if additional meetings need to take place. In good meetings, important decisions are recapped and the next steps are outlined.
Your Role in Phase 4: Make sure there are no loose ends. Action items need specific owners and proposed dates of completion. As a group, you need to agree upon the next steps. If any follow up discussions must take place, you all decide who needs to participate in those and when they will occur. If everyone walks out of your meeting knowing exactly what will happen next, then you’ve done your job.
For the Win: Meeting Notes Are Written by the Victors
The expression “history is written by the victors” is slightly off when it comes to tying up the loose ends from a meeting. It would be more accurate in this context to observe that if you want to be a victor, write the history. The same manager who explained the arc of the meeting to me also opened my eyes to the subtle power of meeting notes for advancing a point of view. He noticed that whenever external consultants were present for meetings he was in, they were religious about sending out the meeting notes afterward to everyone. I noticed this too. Consultants tend to send out polished memos to summarize even routine meetings. I had always brushed it off as merely consultants trying to look busy and create more deliverables where they weren’t really needed. In fact, I had underappreciated the power of owning the historical record – something they understood well.
When you send out the meeting notes, you own the history of what happened during the meeting. Obviously you can’t (and shouldn’t) distort the record. Still, how you frame the important decisions is up to you. You can add whatever context you feel is needed to make sure that certain points are really hammered home for the audience. You can also present your own questions and opinions to make sure they are heard alongside the other points. In short, having final editorial control over the “official” record of the meeting can be as important for advancing your points of view as all of the pre-work you do for a meeting. When people see these framed in the meeting notes, it has a way of calcifying the message and securing buy-in that may not have existed when people left the meeting.
If you want to be a victor, write the history.