Thursday, November 26, 2015

Turn Tough Meetings into Successful Outcomes With an Excellent Plan and Meeting Kickoff That Creates Focus

Picture yourself in a meeting room.  You arrive early and people start trickling in.  It’s a few minute pass while you all   Who will do the most talking?  Who will be THAT GUY who won’t agree with anything. Or THAT GIRL who won’t stop talking even though nothing relevant is being said.

This is how things start in many of your meetings.  Put aside the bliss of the “status” meeting where you just sit and consume information.  That’s not the meeting we are talking about.  We are talking about the meeting that really needs people to express incredible creativity. The meeting where people need to solve those intangible problems that people keep saying, “we should do that some day.” 

Energy and time are needed to solve tough problems in a meeting.  Actually you need ENERGY and TIME and FOCUS.  With the proper start of each meeting you have a chance to give participants a turbo boost of all three of those things.


Energy comes from expressing a goal and instilling into others the sense of urgency to reach the goal. 

In a previous article “Change Your Meetings and Change Your Life,” I introduced Better Meeting Magic, a way to change the culture and productivity of a team, department, division or company that embodies the spirit of collaboration, inclusiveness and focus.

Then in a subsequent article, "Improve Your Focus and Improve Your Team's Performance in Meetings", recall that Planning Is Indispensable because you have created a runway to achieve high altitude performance during your meeting.  You created a meeting GOAL.  You included the GOAL in the invitation. And now you are going to paste it on the wall in the biggest font you can find.

This is step 2 "Opening" in the Better Meeting Magic.   You will open a meeting with some administrative tasks, setting expectations and preparing the participants for an excellent collaborative experience.

Tip #1: Post the Meeting Goal for High Visibility

On an 11”x17” paper print “Goal:  Decide on the Marketing Strategy and Create a List of Step to Achieve It”.  You can also write on a flip chart or even on whiteboard. It must stay as a focal point for the whole meeting, so make sure whatever surface you use to present the goals stays visible and does not get erased.  Make it public so everyone can see it and read it. You might need to revisit the goal during the session. 

Tip #2: Post Meeting Rules for Everyone to See

Also on an 11”x17” paper print “Rules: …”.  Same operating principles apply to the Rules sheet as applied to the Goals sheet.  Make it visible and keep it posted throughout the duration of the meeting.

Reiterating and publishing the goals ENERGIZES the participants because they know that this meeting will not waste time and that achieves the criteria of successful meeting key #1.  A goal also FOCUSES the participants and achieves the criteria of successful meeting key #2.  And if you start on TIME and end on TIME, you will achieve the criteria of successful meeting key #3.


Allocating the correct amount of time to a meeting is essential and must be part of the planning process.  But now that you are in the meeting, you have to keep yourself and the whole party on track to achieve the goals. Part of this journey is starting on time. The end of this journey will be better appreciated if it ends on time as well.


FOCUS is the essential ingredient to make a meeting work and you’ve started off with right foot forward if you’ve posted the Goal(s) and Rule(s) and started on time.  The rest of the meeting is going to be better because you know your purpose.  Just like an aircraft flying from Los Angeles to New York that will fly slightly off course 99% of the time, you too will continue to adjust the course of the meeting ever so slightly when you see things getting off track.

Focus! Focus! Focus!

Put time into understand the purpose of the meetings. Then post Goals and Rules.  Then monitor and gently correct.

Tip #3: Make a Parking Lot for Off Topic Ideas

I almost forgot the Parking Lot.  This is a jewel and you cannot forget to put this up on the wall as well.

In order to keep the meeting on track, explain that you have a Parking Lot and put notes into that space. Write on whiteboards or flipcharts or post sticky notes for any items that don’t fit into the context of the meeting, but are burning issue for some of the participants.  Be sure to follow-up on this items.

Do you have an interesting story about how a meeting went so off course?  Please write a comment and share your story.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Improve Your Focus and Improve Your Teams Performance in Meetings

Today I almost went batty in a meeting.  It wasn’t just me, but one of my colleagues almost went batty as well.  Why? There was disconnect on the type of information that we needed to get from participants.  Other participants were wandering from topic to topic and could not constrain themselves to find the core purpose of the dialog. I looked at my colleague and I saw the strain on his face was barely contained (he was trying to maintain a professional posture).  The person currently talking had gone down a bunny trail of technical details that sounded more like a R2-D2 beeping and chirping to C3PO.  The purpose of the meeting was to inform the product owner how to make a decision about a couple different features in the upcoming release. The talker had completely lost touch with the goal of the meeting. I held my hands and requested a pause from the stream of consciousness monologue.  I reminded the team of the meeting purpose and we began anew with a better context and refreshed understanding of our GOAL.

In layman’s terms the bad behavior described above is called lack of meeting focus.  FOCUS is the root of productive personal and collaborative efforts at work and at home.  FOCUS enables people to reach a new state of productivity that some call FLOW.  FOCUS in meetings enables all participants to police themselves and police others so the meeting can make rocket propelled progress toward the GOAL.

The GOAL of a meeting is really the key aspect of meeting planning.  It’s the core of a productive person’s arsenal against distraction, negativity, bias, closed mindedness and unimportant topics.

In my previous article, “Change Your Meetings and Change Your Life,” I introduced Better Meeting Magic, a way to change the culture and productivity of a team, department, division or company that embodies the spirit of collaboration, inclusiveness and focus.

The diagram below repeats the Better Meeting Magic flow. This article describes the “Planning” component in depth. In fact, I've already introduced the most important aspect of planning: DEFINING the GOAL. 

The Goal

As mentioned above the biggest factor in making a meeting productive is defining the outcome of the meeting.  In Stephen Covey’s seminal work, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this is called “Habit 2 : Begin With the End In Mind.”  This powerful mechanism to challenges your brain to think about the outcome you would like.  Often a meeting is schedule because you know you need to talk about something that is blocking progress or causing friction or some collaborative decision needs to be made.  The meeting sponsor is often consumed with resolving the nagging issues, but sometimes neglects to define the core issue that must be decided before the meeting ends.

Tips for Setting a Goal: 

Tip #1: Make a goal for every meeting

When you create a meeting with your calendar application, stop before you send it and make sure the first line of the meeting description contains this line: “Goal: <fill in outcome here>”.
Force yourself to NEVER send another invite without a GOAL at the top of the calendar invite.

Tip #2: Keep your meeting goal concise

When you define the meeting Goal, make sure it has a measurable outcome.
You don’t need excess words in your life that don’t help you get to your destination.  You need explicit statements that guide the course of your meeting to a satisfying solution.

Tip #3: Make an artifact for every meeting

In the goal of your meeting, include the what artifact that you intend to create. You either want a “plan for marketing in a certain region" or a “vision statement for your department” or a “project plan with milestones for XYZ project”. 

Don’t sell yourself short and ask only for a “discussion”.  A discussion will always happen.  You want OUTCOMES.  ACTIONABLE steps.  Something that represents a DECISION or PLAN.   If you only have a discussion, you’ll have to meet again for a DECISION.  Don’t meet twice if you can meet just once.  In a later article, I’ll discuss other mechanisms to insure you manage your time and achieve your meeting goals.

Examples of good and bad meeting goals:

Good Goals:

“Goal: Discuss System Requirements for Project X and Create an Architecture Model.”

This is good because it has a specific outcome “Architectural Model.”  You might complete the meeting by finishing off a straw man architecture on a white board. Take a picture and e-mail the picture to everyone in the meeting.  GOAL ACHIEVED!

“Goal: Create an Actionable Marketing Plan for Product Y.”

This goal also has a specific outcome that you can measure, “Actionable Marketing Plan”.  You might end the meeting with a wall full of sticky notes that represent an ordered list of actions that the team will as execute.  You will take a picture of the wall, e-mail it to yourself.  Have your secretary transcribe it (or you can transcribe it) and send to everyone.  GOAL ACHIEVED!

Deficient Goal:

“Goal: Discuss the Needs of Customers in New York Region.”

While this may sound like a good goal, it does not end with an artifact.  In other words, what is the purpose of the discussion?  Do you want a sales plan?  Do you want to create a list of ideas? Do you want to create a demographic model? What is it that you want to ACHIEVE? A discussion can take place over lunch or over coffee or in the hall. You don’t want to waste time just discussing things, you really want to create something that can be instantly turned into a plan of action.

Let’s try again…

“Goal: Discuss the needs of Customers in New York Region and Create a List of the 10 Biggest Opportunities for 2016."

Now the discussion has a purpose.  It’s not a wandering meeting anymore.  The disciple of setting a GOAL is TOUGH.  This will challenge you to think a little deeper. You will spend a minute or two or three, but you will save many many minutes of people’s time and your own because you have a purpose in the discussion and everyone is now aware of that purpose.

If you know the end from the beginning, you’ll be a long way toward achieving your goals in a meeting.  It really only takes a couple moments to breath deep and put down your desired outcome.  Give this a try and see how it works to keep your meetings a little more FOCUSED.

When you think about creating a meeting, what things do you dread the most about conducting it?  Write me a comment and let me know.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Change Your Meetings and Change Your Life with Meeting Facilitation (aka Meeting Magic)

This article talks about tools to improve productivity every day at your job.  How do I know it works? I've seen change for the better in relationships and in the output of my teams and colleagues.

In 1994 I graduated with a computer science degree and started working at a large telecom company which specialized in wireless telephone networks. From day one I learned that knowledge is power and expressing your well-informed opinions loudly and with passion can move you up the power curve in an organization.

As I navigated my way from “Member of Scientific Staff” (that was my title, no kidding) to “Senior Member of Scientific Staff” then “Individual Contributor/Architecture” and finally to “Software Development Manager” I found that my voice was heard more often if I used it loudly and forcefully.  The downside of an outgoing and dominant personality is that you get your way often, but you don’t always get the best from other people and you create friction along the way.

In 2005 I took a role at another company as a “Team Lead/Scrum Master” and used the same skills that I’d learned in the first decade of my career.  I noticed that other individuals also used the be-loud-and-dominate technique.  Now, when there were two leaders saying different things in the organization, two parties would form and the differing opinions would create a small turf war.

In 2008, after participating for 14 years in the party system of technical decision making, I took the role of department manager and I WAS SCARED SPITLESS because I was taking over leadership of an organization where I had participated in a system that rewarded loud and overbearing people; some of which I had offended by using my techniques of domination instead of collaboration.


Faced with a department divided against itself, I realized I needed to drastically alter course.  So I studied hard to change my mindset and my behaviors. I read book after book and listened to people in the organization that showed management skills coincident with what I was learning in books.  

What I learned in these books and in my interactions with leaders in the organization is, I really need to behave with humility and try to draw out other people’s knowledge and skills.  And at the same time firmly demand discipline from myself and others to focus on solving problems and never drag the rhetoric of workplace or personal history into a arena where creativity and action are needed.

In 2011 I took a course called Agile Team Facilitation as part of my career development and also an Agile development initiative at my workplace. Read more about how a got involved in that course here. The material in the course not only reinforced all the learning in my post WAKE-UP CALL years, but also provided specific skills for applying collaboration and action into every interaction with teams of any size.  Instead of Facilitation, I call it Better Meeting Magic. Better Meeting Magic embodies the spirit of collaboration, inclusiveness and focus that can and will change the culture and productivity of a team, department, division or company. The results that I’ve seen in my current company reiterate the bold statement of change offered in this article.

Better Meeting Magic is pretty simple and includes the following meeting flow:

The description of the individual activities in Better Meeting Magic are as follows:

Know what you want out of a meeting before you go into a meeting
Introduce the overall meeting goals and agenda
Bias Check (optional)
Allow people to express themselves with specific activities to safely capture bias
Collaborate and generate ideas
Remove duplicate thoughts, reduced decision set to a manageable number
Decide what action(s) to take
Retrospective (optional)
Get feedback on how the meeting went or how comfortable people are with the outcome.
Summarize the meeting results and capture follow-up activities
Make sure minutes and actions captured during the meeting are addressed

You and your teams spend a lot of time in meetings. You need relief from unfocused discussion. You need a better way to increase output from your meetings by 2 to 4 times.  Better Meeting Magic can deliver all those things.

I will be posting a number of follow-ups to cover each specific activity.  Please stay tuned as I talk in depth about each component of Better Meeting Magic.

Please leave comments and tell me about the most frequently propagated meeting sin in your company.

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