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What We Learned from Let’s Stop Meeting Like This

In Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done, Dick and Emily Axelrod detail their six-step system to transform meetings from “time-wasting, energy-sapping” affairs into “productive and engaging events,” using the Meeting Canoe.

The Meeting Canoe is a simple system to structure business meetings. Below is our brief summary of the Meeting Canoe followed by helpful action items you can immediately try in your next meeting to maximize the effectiveness of each step of the process.

Image Source: The Axelrod Group.

1. Welcome people.

“The first task of any meeting is to create a safe-enough environment so that work can be done.”

Welcoming people starts well before the meeting and continues throughout the meeting. Meeting participants must feel valued for contributing their time and mind-share. They must also feel safe and respected in order to get their best thinking.

One thing you can try in your next meeting to make people feel welcomed:

Share the meeting agenda with the team ahead of time so people know why they are there. Invite the participants to give feedback on the agenda by asking them questions such as:

  • What topic(s) are critical, urgent or important and missing from this agenda?

  • What information do you need in the room in order to have this discussion/make this decision?

  • What do you want to achieve in this meeting and how will it help move your work forward?

By asking for input on the agenda ahead of time, you are ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and incorporated from the start.

2. Connect to each other and the task.

“Personal connection builds trust; connection to the task unleashes energy.”

The goal of this step is to create meaning so each person feels bonded to the people and work. When meeting participants feel connected to one another, they have greater trust and commitment. When participants understand and buy into the task at hand, they are energized to accomplish it.

One thing you can try in your next meeting to connect everyone:

Avoid jumping into the discussion right away. Take a step back and check-in how everyone is doing in the moment. Engage each person through eye contact and a simple smile.

If you are a meeting participant, put away distractions (both physical, like your phone, and mental, like what you’re doing for dinner that night). Try to be present; take a moment to get a sense of who’s in the room (or online). Think about why you are here, what you want to achieve and how you’ll contribute to the meeting’s results.

3. Discover the way things are.

“Create a shared view of the reality…” and “provide the opportunity for people to make sense of that reality.”

A lot of meeting time is filled with presentation of new information.  However, the objective of most meetings is not to tell people what the reality but rather, to help discover and create reality within themselves. Invite meeting participants to join you by providing their perspectives on the topic. Take advantage of the different viewpoints of each person to discover new facets of reality.

One thing you can try in your next meeting to get people on the same page:

In your next meeting, after you share your ideas or data, avoid saying “any questions?” or assuming everyone is on board. Instead, ask people to discuss what they heard by reflecting on what they want to know more about, what they agree or disagree with, and what the presentation sparked for them.

If you are on the listening side of the conversation, reflect back what you’ve heard to help process your own thinking. Use statements like “this is what I heard….” or “let me rephrase and please let me know if that’s what you meant” to share your thinking. No one likes dead silence after they share their ideas, so be proactive to respond and help the rest of the group process their thoughts.

4. Elicit people’s dreams.

“Dreaming is about the future, not what works now.”

As with Step #3, this step is a classic example of defining your current state and future state—both are necessary for a full-picture view. Ideas can come from anywhere, but only if there is an opportunity to share those ideas.

One thing you can try in your next meeting to inspire your team:

Avoid focusing solely on the current reality by asking questions to help your team envision the results. Try getting specific with questions, such as:

  • What will be different if we get X done?

  • What results do we expect will happen when we achieve the goal?

  • Imagine we’ve already accomplished X. What impact has it had?

These types of questions can help your team get past their current concerns and create a shared vision for the work to be accomplished.

If your team isn’t ready to answer questions like these right away, you can also start with an interactive exercise. For example, ask the team to imagine their ideas, projects or initiatives as the cover story of a well-respected magazine or the headline for a popular media venue. Ask the team to write down the highlights of the story, why it is noteworthy, and how other people would describe their success.

5. Decide on next steps.

“You must be clear about who is making the decision, how they will go about deciding, (and) what they are deciding.”

Similar to a well-established coaching model by Sir John Whitmore, once you have identified the gap between the “reality” and the “dream”, you can come up with many options for how to close the gap. The challenge is often not in ideation but rather in getting down to decision-making. An extensive discussion without any decision made is a waste of time and energy for your team.

One thing you can try in your next meeting when making a decision:

Include what decision is going to be made in the agenda and phrase it as a question. Sometimes after a long discussion, people forget what decisions need to be made in the meeting. Put the question on a flip chart or on a shared screen as a visual prompt for everyone.

If you usually vote to finalize the decision, make sure everyone is clear about the options and the argument behind each one, so the voting process is clear and informative. Consider using the Fist of Five method to make voting even more productive.

If your team usually makes decisions by consensus, be sure to clearly capture the decision in your meeting notes and include the rationale for the decision so everyone is on the same page. It’s easy to forget or discover that not everyone is clear on the decision when the decision-making discussion ends with an ambiguous phrase such as “sounds like we’re all in agreement.”

6. Attend to the end.

“How you end a meeting creates the platform for your work’s next stage.”

The end of a meeting is the beginning of the next step of work. If you invest a few minutes in achieving alignment at the end of every meeting, you will save time going forward because you will minimize the chance of confusion and misunderstanding. In addition, a quick summary of next steps and decisions can create a strong feeling of accomplishment for the participants, reinforcing that their time was well spent and energizing them to move forward.

One thing you can try in your next meeting to close the conversation:

Share a recap of decisions and next steps. Review each new task and ensure it has an owner and due date. Restate each decision and ask if it properly reflects the team’s understanding.

For a more complete wrap up, use our 5-minute check-out process to properly end the meeting with alignment on people, outcomes and process.

Changing the meeting habits in your organization

Are meetings keystone habits? What might happen if you changed the way you meet?” —Dick and Emily Axelrod

Some people enjoy the meeting culture in their organizations, but many suffer through it. You might think, “There is no way I can change the way my organization handles meeting. Nobody likes our meetings, but this is how we've always done it.” Yes, change is hard. However, implementing small actions like ones we mentioned above can start you on the right path. You might find that making one small shift totally changes one meeting, one colleague or one team.We encourage you to pick one thing to try in your next few meeting and let us know if you can tell a difference.


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