Make sure you spend your time effectively in meetings. Listen to this episode to be sure you’re getting the most out of the time you invest in them.
Elise Keith is the co-founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings, where she leads the research, publication, and product management efforts, constantly seeking the best ways to make it easy for people to enjoy meetings that get work done. Leaders call her work “a treasure trove of valuable info and guidance” and “a game-changer for our organization.” Elise Keith’s highly praised book, Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization has been described as “golden. It’s deep, well-researched, and a joy to read,” and “Of all of the books I’ve read on meetings, this is the best by far.”
It turns out when we walk out of that room or off that call, we’re often jumping into the next thing. And the agreements and the value that we got from being in that coal disappears, it’s fleeting. We can’t hold it.
So if you don’t take that time to actually cement it and put it into people’s heads strongly and ideally also into their inbox or some sort of tracking system, you will repeat it.
The scientists, they’re like, yeah, it’s weird to watch these teams go through these expensive meetings with these expensive people and be without doing it. If you sat in a room with people who were just burned 50s, 50 day after day, which is what they did. You are listening to the Airline Remotely podcast and the show dedicated to helping you distributed teams under difficult circumstances. I’m the host. Look, Scherba and I’ve participated in or run distributed teams for almost a decade.
As a practitioner, I’m speaking with experts on leadership, strategic alignment and work to help you navigate the issues start facing after you get. So today’s episode is a continuation of the conversation with Eles Keith, the author of Where the Action Is, and today we cover what the link between meetings and corporate culture is in practice. We cover how the shadow system in a company, what it is and how it can derail the best of intentions. And also we speak quite candidly and practically about how to counteract silos and all of the associated incentives and behaviors around that.
Finally, we cover how to think about meetings and meeting cycles to really make sure that they achieve what they’re intended to. So the whole design of meetings. So without further ado, let’s move on to the interview.
Changing direction a little bit, again, you say in the book that there’s a strong link between meetings and company culture.
How are you defining company culture? Because that’s already a particular topic.
There are a lot of different ways to define culture. Some people are like, oh, that’s our value statements or it’s our our beliefs or whatnot. And I see culture as the way things actually work within a team and within a company. So that’s a combination of what we believe, how we relate and what we do together. And there are parts of every company’s culture which are the kinds of things people put up on posters.
And then there are actions that they take that either line up with those posters or don’t know and then look into some of the complex adaptive system stuff. There’s what you call the shadow system, which is the way things actually go down on the ground level. And often times in companies, leaders will do the poster. And they will do the occasional rah rah event or maybe a big weekend getaway or whatnot that’s meant to align with the poster and then in the theater.
Exactly. It’s Halloween or Easter or whatever. We’ve got our esteemed event, which is strategic planning.
But and then you’ve got they leave meetings to the shadow system. They leave it to be something that each and every individual manager or meeting leader figures out for themselves. And it just works out. And that means that each and every one of those is designed not to match the poster, but to match the understanding, the skill level and the personality of the person in charge. The opportunity when you design your meetings is to design meetings that match the poster so that each and every time people come together in your company or when your people in your company come together with your clients and your vendors and your community, what they’re doing lines up with the culture that you hoped to achieve.
And when you look at the most amazing companies in the world, the ones that we write all the big stories about and that we wish to emulate, you will find that they have done this. So it’s definitely kind of a necessary prerequisite, is there any culture outside of what happens in meetings?
Oh, sure, absolutely. I just think I think meetings are the are the opportunity to design it most strongly. You can design like your company celebrations and your award systems and your hierarchy and all of those things. I was thinking about this recently. So when you get you put together your company and one of the things that you can do is you can design teams to be self managing or you can design them to be manager led and hierarchical.
Those are pretty big choices that drive all kinds of different behavior. And yet if you just do that and you don’t design the way they talk to each other. There’s nothing in organizing people in a self managing team that guarantees that information will flow in an equal way or that all of the people in that team will actually get to participate in the decision making. There’s nothing that inherent in hierarchy that says that the people at the top are actually making the decisions and not involving the people below them or that or that it’s working in any way that you intended it to until you design how the information flows, who talks to who, who talks when, who’s in the room, when the decision is made, how many choices you look at all of that’s just moving sticky notes around on the org chart.
Hmm. The thing that came up for me so far in the research is that there’s a lot of issues, mostly across departments. So in fact, a lot of teams are reasonably well gelled. But in larger companies, it’s talking across department lines where things tend to fall through in terms of execution. I guess it could be solved with an appropriately designed meeting.
Absolutely. What are some silo busting meetings? There are some how do you get people from different departments to go visit and sit in on the meetings of other departments? And one of the companies I like to look at is Zingerman’s, and they’re literally a collection of different businesses. It’s more than departments like their whole different businesses. Every year they run what they call their passport program, and employees go and sit in on the weekly meetings of the other businesses.
So they can hear what are they struggle with, what do they celebrate, how does this work? And they get their passports stamped and if somebody gets all of the stamps, they get a t shirt. Right.
And if it but that cross colonization of, hey, did you know over at the candy shop they’re doing this, maybe we can bring that to the coffee shop. And then when they come together to make it their whole business decisions, they’re not doing it as strangers who’ve been working and competing change.
They’re doing it as a family. That’s coming back for the reunion.
You have your wonderful list of 16 different types of meetings suspended in the book.
So which of those would be most relevant for breaking down silos?
I think sensemaking is a great place. So sensemaking meetings are the ones where we get together just to like to understand something better. Often you’ll hear see a company that has had really entrenched silo problems do things like run a series of fishbowls or other kinds of exercises where they invite people from each department to. Chair, this is what we do. This is what makes us happy, this is where we run into trouble and then folks listen and ask questions and they take turns.
Right. So that’s a that would be like a sensemaking workshop. But then the other things that you can do is you sit in on the real meetings like the day to day team kadence things, just go there and then come together and regular action reviews. And so action reviews by far my favorite meeting for increasing performance period, bring people together. What did you see? What did you learn? What should we do? So. So one of the reasons that I liked this whole list is that it gave the breadth and also the categorization because you’ve taken the systematic approach, what do you think are the important kind of dials or the important variables in designing or running a meeting?
What actually. Matters when choosing which one or how to run it. Meetings are inherently they’re the kinds of things that when you look at them, you can go as deep as you could possibly go.
Right. Because you’ve got you’re bringing together a group of people with all of their individual quirks and experiences and distinct perspectives. And you’re trying to deal with work, which is also inherently complex. And you put those things together and you got 30 minutes, make it magic.
That’s pretty challenging.
So you can go really deep and it’s super fun to geek out and actually go deep. Once you go down that rabbit hole, there’s so many wonderful things to learn. But before you do any of that, the key thing to know is purpose and outcomes. All purpose, an outcome and purpose is basically stated as a verb. So why are you meeting to to make a plan to figure this stuff out, to help people understand how others and other silos work?
And then outcomes are the what are we hoping we might get from our time together? We are investing time. What are we going to get out of it? And if you can identify those two things, then agenda, all of the rest of it. How much time you spend is just connecting the dots we walk into because of this reason to do this thing. We want to walk out at the end. OK, how do we get there?
You just make a map and you go and that taxonomy, the different meeting types comes in handy to help you see the different purposes. I might have.
Like how as I try to articulate that, what are some things that are pretty common to achieve in meetings and and also to see when you think you might be trying to do stuff that’s actually in five or six different buckets at the same time to realize that you’re going to screw it up as human beings don’t work that way.
Our brains don’t work that way. You can’t pull a team together and ask them to be accountable for performance to a plan. Right. You promised to do this. You said you do this correct. Check the boxes, fall in line, check the box and then the next minute go. OK, let’s let’s come up with some wild ideas. Human psychology does not work that way so that it’s useful for that, too.
If you have these five meetings, you’re turning them into one. You talk in the book about meeting cycles. How do you think about designing this flow of meetings? For example, do you have a let’s say? Three day workshop or is it a series of meetings that you break up over a period of three months and it’s even though it’s the same amount of time, how do you think about breaking that up into different parts of meeting flows?
Are there’s what you’re talking about there, which is how do you do like a big thing? Do you do it all at once or do you break it up? And then and the meeting flows are also about how do I design and structure the meetings that get me from point A to point B in my work? Agile is a great example. They do planning and they do stand ups and they do retrospectives. There’s a sequence of different meetings that happen in a certain order that help that work project go from an idea to shipped out the door.
In all of those cases, what your balancing is, depending on the nature of your team, either is highly interdependent.
What you do affects what I do, and we have to work together because if we don’t, things go off the rails or not. And our work is either highly complex or, I mean unpredictable or it’s not working. And so it’s really about predictability if it’s unpredictable and we’re interdependent. We better talk quite a bit to make sure we’re all working together in the same path, whereas teams where it don’t actually interact much and their work is pretty predictable, rarely, if ever meet my sons when they are getting their first jobs and they return the grocery carts from the parking lot.
And pretty much those grocery cards are in basically all the same places all the time. So nobody needs to talk to them about whether where they’re going to put them or whether they wipe them down or not.
It’s just kind of and they just don’t have any meetings like ever. Highly predictable, low interdependence right on.
So you’ve got those kinds of factors and you use that to help decide how often folks need to meet and how to break it up. And then the other bit is cognitive load, how much thinking and solutions and working on a thing do people need time to do in their own hands before they can actually talk about it productively? So I run a program, the successful Meeting QuickStart, with companies that are looking to radically improve their meeting performance quickly and when we can go in person, I run a full day workshop.
As the first thing and then it’s three months of follow on calls, but in the remote world, it’s three 90 minute sessions or two hour sessions spread out over a week and a half while people think the full day workshop is more fun and there are cookies.
So I don’t blame them. It used to be like like Twisties and things like that.
But but in terms of processing and using the information that they are learning, the virtual one where we break it up works better. If you get one idea and you apply it and then you build on it in the next one and that it works better. I think strategic planning should always be done over the course of a full week. It never is, but it should be because the plans are always better when they come out that way. And that’s all about managing cognitive load.
One of the things that the team that I was running was remotely was was building a large software system. So we realized that actually it’s more of a workflow as a workshop and an ongoing thing. We can leave up the virtual whiteboard and then in between the times when we get together, people would move stuff, talk about it, refine it, and plus they would think about it in the proverbial shower. It made the process better than if we literally flew them all into one place and said, we have a week, we could walk out with a design.
It actually turned up better.
You just can’t the shower epiphanies or the walking the dog epiphanies or the talking to somebody over dinner and saying, I heard this thing and then they tell you something that is from completely different part of the world that gets into your thinking.
You can design for that. You know, you can design time. And for that, how cool is that? Right.
Going back to more common everyday business, purpose and outcomes is the number one opportunity people miss, you can run a fabulous meeting if you’re clear on your purpose. This is the thing they miss at the end. Spend the last three to five minutes saying, we decided these things and we made these promises to each other. And you confirm those agreements. Number of studies have been done with work teams that find they’ll do like Team 18 B and they’ll do an intervention and team A does that.
They spend five minutes writing down their promises and their decisions and Team B does whatever they were doing anyway. And Team A’s performance always goes up dramatically over every other team.
And I guess the scientism did you cheat, did you like all the lazy people in TV and all the superstars and T Mayodan they like? No, they were really careful about controlling all the other variables. But it turns out when we walk out of that room or off that call, we’re often jumping into the next thing. And the agreements and the value that we got from being in that coal disappears, it’s fleeting. We can’t hold it. So if you don’t take that time to actually cement it and put it into people’s heads strongly and ideally also into their inbox or some sort of tracking system, you will repeat it.
The scientists, they’re like, yeah, it’s weird to watch these teams go through these expensive meetings with these expensive people and leave without doing it. If you sat in a room with people who were just burning 50 day after day, which is what they do.
Do you have any thoughts on immediate things to check? Simple.
Take the temperature thing from quality of meetings perspective.
When we run a program with a team, the very first thing we do is have them actually get out a spreadsheet and put two weeks worth of meetings on your spreadsheet and look at did I know why that meeting was held? What did we get out of it? How long was it? How many people were there? And then just do the math. Right, just do the math and. You will instantly see whether or not you’re spending time there in a way that’s productive.
See it in a way that starts to break down all of the knee jerk reactions that we have when we talk about meetings. And that’s the first step. You’ve got to get past that knee jerk meetings are a waste of time or. Oh, yeah, whatever. I can’t do anything about it. No, you absolutely, absolutely can. And it starts by busting that idea that it’s somehow this sort of unstoppable, amorphous force out there that’s happening to you.
It’s everyone. It’s not at all. Right.
These are things that people put on the calendar on purpose. And you have choices. So make it real, look at the choices you’ve made and then start to make some better ones. Greg, so what’s the best place for people to get in touch with you and engage with of meetings?
It’s easy, cheesy. We are occlusive meetings, dotcom and at the top, there’s this button that says, work with us, come work with us. It’ll be great. You’ll find the book. You’ll find more resources than you could ever hope to enjoy on our resources page. The training software. It’s all there. Brett, thank you very much. That was an absolutely wonderful conversation. There’s so many takeaways, I mean, if I had to choose two, I think one was that the you know, the by default, the shadow system is kind of the default approach in most organizations.
And again, it goes back to being deliberate and designing the meetings and culture and then really following through to make sure that it’s happening. And the other one that on one hand, I think many people know, but really finalizing takeaways is one of the most important parts of the meetings, because that’s where you make sure the decisions actually happen. So by that, I mean being clear on who owns what, assigning a person timelines and also making sure that you have enough time at the end of the meeting scheduled to be able to recap and note down what it is that has been agreed.
Just for a quick bit of back story. This podcast is part of my process to create a book called The Line Remotely, which will cover roughly the same topics as we have on the podcast, if you’d like a free advance copy of the book. I’d be more than happy to give you one. Just to be clear, it’s totally free. There’s eight chapters as of today available for presell and people are buying it right now. And this offer will go away as soon as the book is fully launched.
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