By Les Wallace, PhD
Meetings with clearly defined outcomes that actively engage participants get high marks. People adore action and abhor boredom and lectures. That’s why employees consider 50 percent of their work meetings a waste of time. Another 70 percent find “status update meetings” unproductive. Managers who lead those meetings have a more positive perception of their value because they are mostly the ones talking. Add to this the amount of time people spend producing the perfect meeting presentation and you have misdirected effort (Ray Williams, “Wired for Success,” Psychology Today (4/15/12).
Board of directors meetings are not exempt, one of the top three complaints from boards is about the quality of their meetings: wrong agenda, not enough dialogue, too much death by PowerPoint™.
Value Proposition for Face-to-Face Meeting
Meetings are quite valuable for three purposes: (1) problem solving and decision making with the right people in the room, (2) innovative thinking where we can spark off one another’s ideas, (3) finalizing decisions for the work unit, enterprise, or board of directors. Meetings filled mostly with updates and presentations while we sit bolted in our chairs waste valuable time—in today’s environment people are accustomed to pre-readings, e-bulletin boards, and other means of staying in touch, so taking fifteen minutes for announcements is unnecessary. People can also read an executive briefing, decision proposal, or presentation prior to a meeting to protect as much meeting time as possible for dialogue and decisions rather than presentation—reading and digesting content usually takes less time than a live presentation.
In the boardroom and executive suite there appears to be an epidemic of PowerPoint™ presentations that management believes are dynamic and necessary but bore board members to death and steal dialogue time. Mostly, management believes that’s what boards want and boards are often too courteous to change the motif. Inevitably, in a self-assessment the board declares they could do without all those time consuming presentations. At the executive and governance level time is measured in increments of $300 per hour per person. Think about that the next time your nine-member board sits through a fifteen minute presentation ($675 of listening time) they could have read prior to the meeting to jump-start discussion right away with Q & A and deliberation.
Enter the “flip” Meeting
Flip, as in flip the presentation time to minimum and the dialogue time to maximum. This is becoming more common in classrooms where students read or view video content and spend class time applying that content to problems, case studies or talking through implications (“Flip Teaching” Wikipedia.org; Flip Your Classroom, Bergmann and Sams 2012).
Professional meetings and conventions are not exempted. The new conference format has participants digesting content in advance and then gathering for highly interactive sessions with one another and subject matter experts—hands on learning not “sage on a stage” lecturing. Participants find this highly interactive learning stimulating and lots more fun (“Flip Thinking Turns Meetings Upside Down,” Christine Born, collaboratemeetings.com, May 2013).
Boards of directors are discovering the value of increasing real deliberative interaction and exploration by reducing live presentation time at meetings and investing in pre-reading before a board meeting. All boards worry about having enough future facing discussion time to explore the strategic future of their organization.
Group learning and decision making take place through interaction—there is no substitute. Any strategy to increase dialogue and interaction increases learning, decision quality, more thorough consideration of issues, and, ultimately, participant confidence in what they’ve learned or decided.
For most of us the typical meeting (work team, executive, or board of directors) is patterned after how our predecessors did it. Having advanced agendas, plentiful background data and analysis, and identification of needed meeting outcomes is now common with boards but still missing in workplace meetings. Any sample of workplace meetings finds employees unhappy and managers frustrated. That’s because they are experiencing the same tired old industrial meeting model in a virtual era.
Work Teams: make your team meetings more powerful. Provide agendas at least 24 hours in advance. Clearly identify the outcomes expected from the meeting. Provide background executive summaries (one page) on each topic or issue and assign anyone expecting to present to also do an advanced executive summary. Start and stop the meeting on time—45 minutes is a good time frame to provide urgency and accomplish good decision making on most items.
Anyone leading a discussion of an issue references their pre-submitted executive summary, provides a 60- second introduction and opens the discussion by asking for questions, additional data/insight, and potential ideas/solutions—in that order. In that order, no exceptions! Meetings that are problem minded first and solution minded second are much more successful and satisfying. Summarize decisions and next steps and get back to work. Remember, any meeting over one hour is taxing everybody’s attention and energy.
Application: I recently helped a manager “flip” her meeting. She had the courage to bring this idea before them, get their input and re-design her meetings. The team loved it and expressed appreciation for (a) being more involved, (b) not wasting time going over material they could pre-read and (c) reducing meeting time overall. This has now become the meeting motif and other managers are trying it out.
Learning Events: make your learning events, workshops, and seminars more dynamic and powerful. Provide ample advanced information electronically including video “lecturettes”, articles, and data summaries. Online learning combined with classroom application is known as “blended learning.” Tell people to come prepared to apply what they’ve digested in discussion and case studies. The teacher now becomes a learning coach, not a lecturer. Participants become active in their own learning. Yes, this is how corporate education and training should be flipped! (See 101 Ways to Flip, Honeycutt, 7/12). People failing to invest in the pre-study soon learn to change that behavior.
Application: I recently conducted a three-hour seminar on governance focusing on two distinct issues: (1) strategy and (2) CEO relationship. Participants studied a dense PowerPointTM™ (with additional references) on both topics prior to the meeting. I showed up and announced we would start with the strategy topic asking: “What are your questions?” Immediate learning fusion commenced with the audience controlling the topics, flow and depth of dialogue with me while I served as a learning coach and subject matter expert. The next topic went similarly and evaluation results were off the charts positive. Remember, a dense pre-read helps make this better learning.
Boards: take back your precious two hours a month or eight hours quarterly. Use face-to-face interaction for the most valuable investment you can make: dialogue to gain perspective and make decisions (For a good treatment of this investment in board dialogue read” Governance as Leadership, Chait, Ryan and Taylor 10/2004). Because future facing strategic choice is the number two challenge facing boards (fiduciary accountability remains No.1), doesn’t it make sense to increase the dialogue time about those issues rather than sitting through a background presentation you could have digested casually over a cup of coffee?
Application: At a recent board meeting I coached a senior manager who experimented with the “flip presentation.” He submitted a tight PowerPointTM™ for pre-read announcing that at the meeting he would only take questions and facilitate discussion. The topic was a major new vendor decision management had made requiring no board action but important for the board to understand how it contributed to strategic goals. Instead of a fifteen-minute presentation and a fifteen-minute discussion the entire agenda item was done in 13 minutes saving 17 minutes of board time from the previous process of presentations. Multiply this by your agenda items and it adds up quickly. I’ve introduced this to numerous boards and to a person they all find it a better way to conduct business.
Take Back Time: time is as precious as our own personal health. Lose time and we never get it back. Moreover, we are frequently frustrated and angry at the waste. Thinking about the best use of time in advance is a competency of the most successful leaders and groups. Flipping your meeting gets you in that frame of mind. Give it a test drive at your next meeting and watch the smiles break out. Unless, of course, you have nothing better to do with your time.