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Do Your Meeting Practices Support Lean Startup Culture?

“The strongest message about how you want your culture to perform is embedded in how you conduct your meetings.” - Bob Pothier, Director at Partners in Leadership and former GE executive

Have you heard of design thinking, Agile or Lean Startup principles? Organizations large and small are introducing these principles to create company cultures that embrace innovation to stay competitive. Given that meetings set the tone for how to conduct business in an organization, they are a logical place to introduce changes that support innovation. Read on for a discussion of how meeting practices can support a culture of innovation like the one offered by Lean Startup.

What is Lean Startup? What is Lean Startup Culture?

The philosophy behind Lean Startup management practice is to minimize waste (time, money, energy) and focus on value-generating practices that maximize business results. According to Steve Blank, an adjunct professor at Stanford University, “Lean Startup favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development.”

Culture is the set of beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees act and interact. Culture is expressed as implicit or explicit rituals, values, norms, systems, processes, language, and habits. If you want to establish a Lean Startup culture, you need to establish the elements of culture that support Lean Startup beliefs and behaviors.

Changing meeting practices is one of the quickest ways to improve culture

Meetings provide a unique opportunity to assess and drive culture. They occur throughout organizations, bringing people together from multiple departments and positions of authority. They gather team members to generate ideas and insights, build relationships, and make decisions. They reveal how people engage (or not) in the conversation and how they treat each other as people and colleagues.

At Meeteor, we’ve spent the past few years dedicated to improving meetings in organizations of all kinds and learned from hundreds of people about how meetings have impacted their work. Here are three reasons why meetings matter in the context of supporting innovative cultures such as Lean Startup.

#1. Managers and senior executives spend half their working hours in meetings

Decision-makers spend much of their time in meetings, one third of which research says is considered a waste of time. A fundamental principle of Lean Startup is to reduce waste and to focus on the highest priority work that leads to learning and moving forward quickly. Running effective meetings frees up time to do that more important work of talking with customers, running experiments, and iterating on products or services.

#2. Learnings are only as good as your response

Learning is a key principle of Lean Startup culture, as captured in the build-measure-learn cycle. The objective is to build a product or service, measure customer feedback, and learn from the feedback what action to take next (e.g. continue on the same path, adjust product, abandon ship). The cycle continues indefinitely. When meetings slow down the cycle by delaying decisions or wasting time, it’s more likely that learnings will be forgotten or become irrelevant. Acting on learnings is critical to implementing and benefiting from Lean Startup culture and other innovation methods.

#3. Moving quickly means maintaining alignment is harder

Meetings provide opportunities to share information, make decisions, and identify next steps. In Lean Startup culture, the focus on moving quickly amidst so many moving parts increases the chances that misalignment occurs. In many organizations, if a team member does not attend a meeting, they are likely not informed accurately or in a timely manner. Keeping all relevant stakeholders informed regardless of whether they attend meetings will reduce efforts spent on activities that are no longer relevant.

Three meeting strategies to support innovation

Applying meeting best practices will not only improve your meetings; it will also build a work culture aligned towards innovation. The following practices address the challenges mentioned above and the before-during-after stages of a meeting.

Strategy #1. Set a desired outcome for every meeting

When you know exactly what a meeting must accomplish, it’s easier to invite the right people, provide appropriate pre-work, and create a thoughtful agenda to guide the conversation toward achieving the objective. When meetings consistently achieve their desired outcomes, organizations save time while also becoming more agile.

Putting it into action:

  • Frame the desired outcome as the result, not the activity. Defining the desired outcome means describing what the meeting will produce if it’s successful. Frame desired outcomes as a concrete result to measure against the actual outcome of a meeting. Try outcomes like, “A list of next steps for XYZ,” “alignment on XYZ,” “decisions on XYZ,” or “A list of ideas for XYZ.” Save actions like “review,” “brainstorm,” or “share” for agenda items.

  • Share the desired outcome for your meeting in the meeting agenda. Include the desired outcome in your meeting agenda and share it with meeting participants at least 24 hours prior to the meeting to set expectations for why the meeting is happening.

Strategy #2. Use norms to establish expected behaviors in meetings - and then stick to them

Norms or ground rules are the explicit guidelines that shape behavior during a meeting. Ideally, you already have a company culture in which everyone’s voice is valued, the boss isn’t always right, conflicting ideas are welcomed, and “good enough to go” is accepted. But if you don’t, norms are a way to shift meeting participants’ behavior in a more effective direction. Over time, norms can permeate other aspects of communication within the organization so that the culture shifts more fully into a Lean Startup culture.

Putting it into action:

  • Select norms that support innovation. Select norms that relate to the type of discussion you will be having and review them at the start of the meeting. For example, a brainstorming meeting benefits from norms that encourage participation, question asking, and divergent thinking. Here are some norms you can employ in your brainstorming meetings:

  1. Ask “How might we?” and think boldly

  2. Customer’s feedback is more important than our opinions

  3. Challenge assumptions and voice concerns

  • Follow the norms in meetings and remind each other. Relying on norms lets you guide or redirect behavior without "being the bad guy." For example, if no one is speaking up because they are uncomfortable disagreeing with the boss, you can gently remind everyone that in this meeting, there is a norm of asking tough questions or playing the devil’s advocate.

Strategy #3. Take notes, share them, and create a knowledge bank

A strong meeting note-taking practice helps your team stay aligned even when you’re moving fast. Without a consistently reliable record of meeting notes, it’s easy to revert to foggy memories or digging through notebooks and email for what was said. And a culture of FOMO (fear of missing out) may exist in which team members feel obligated to attend meetings in order to stay informed.

Effective meeting note-taking means taking clear meeting notes, sharing them with relevant stakeholders (including people who did not attend the meeting) within 24 hours, and storing them in an easily accessible place. This keeps communication transparent and the team aligned. Over time these meeting notes become a knowledge bank for your team which team members can reference as needed.

Putting it into action:

  • Capture notes as Tasks, Decisions and Learnings. During the meetings, the designated meeting note-taker can organize notes into tasks, decisions and learnings so you and the team can quickly identify critical information. Share the meeting summary within 24 hours after the meeting ends and forward it to key stakeholders who were not in the meeting to keep them informed.

The Meeteor Team shares Tasks, Decisions, and Learnings from a retreat planning meeting.
  • Use meeting notes to build a central knowledge bank. Store notes in a central place so they can serve as a reference for the future. Use a system like Meeteor that automatically pulls content across different meetings and builds the knowledge bank for you. Revisit learnings, decisions, and next steps to take advantage of previous great thinking and minimize rehashing old conversations.

Meetings are a microcosm of your organization

Meetings are an ideal place to focus on developing the atmosphere in which innovation can thrive. Whether you introduce a specific innovation method such as Lean Startup or want a generally innovative environment, effective meetings can lead the way.

Editor’s note: Here are the recording and the presentation slides from a speech Mamie gave on this topic at the 2016 Lean Startup Conference on November 2. 

How do you build a work culture that encourages innovation, in and outside of meetings? 

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