Trash your meeting agenda (and have a good conversation)

I love agendas. They make me feel safe. Agendas let me enter into that “vacation state of mind” in which I can be oblivious to the most important things going on around me, while attending—sometimes obsessively—to some of the least important things. Like how well we are sticking to the agenda.

Agendas help me make insightful contributions to the group, like “we’re running over our allotted time, folks,” and “that’s not on the agenda.”

With every topic and every minute accounted for, the world is orderly and predictable. And when we cover everything on the agenda…well it’s almost as if I’m getting real work done. As if I’m actually earning my pay.

They don’t just deliver benefits during the meeting though. Planning the agenda is also satisfying. Like a cross between playing god and being a TV weather anchor. This is a guess, cause I’ve never been a TV weather anchor.

But here are the three very best things about agendas and the dogged attempt to stick to them, no matter what:

  1. Agendas help the group avoid addressing what it doesn’t want to address.
  2. Agendas help the group avoid addressing what it knows it should address but doesn’t know how to address without somebody freaking out. This is especially useful when the leader is the one who tends to freak out. So agendas can also serve as “binkies” for the boss. (Note: My son is now 18 so it’s been a while since we’ve deployed a real binkie. According to the online Urban Dictionary, some of the synonyms for binkie include: binky, nipple (duh), aardvark (?), Arthur (??), cock, stink, buster, nook, LSD (huh?)… And all that time we thought we were just pacifying our son.)
  3. Agendas help the group avoid addressing things it doesn’t know it needs to address (because there is never time in the agenda to speculate together about what those things might even be).

With all of these “benefits” you may be wondering why I titled this piece “Trash your meeting agenda…”

Seriously, here’s why: Because agendas don’t improve performance. They can’t. Only people can. And we do that through conversation. Improve our conversations and we improve our organization’s performance.

To be fair, the agenda isn’t really the problem. Agendas can help us have better conversations, but too often they end up limiting topics to what people are comfortable talking about and lulling groups into believing that they are having good conversations just because they’re following the agenda.

But having good conversations isn’t always easy.

The real problem is that many groups and individuals simply don’t know how to have good conversations, especially with other human beings. Part of the problems is that those pesky humans each have their own peculiar ways of seeing things. And their own particular values, interests, aspirations. This can make conversations confusing, frustrating, even scary. (I single “human beings” out here because this is definitely NOT the case with my dog Bella, with whom I have some of my very best conversations, at least when she listens to me.)

Having good conversations about important things—especially when the issues are complex and/or emotionally charged, requires some conversational chops. Many individuals and groups simply haven’t learned how to do it. It also often requires courage. So we turn to our agendas to do the work—which doesn’t work.

What can you do? Here are some possibilities…

  • You could just toss the agenda in the trash at your next meeting, and let ‘er rip. (May feel risky, but could encourage some interesting conversation.)
  • You could invite your group to submit topics that you’ve never talked about together that might be important to talk about, and then add one or more of these topics to your next agenda. (Only do this if you’re actually willing to talk about some of these things.)
  • You could add to your next agenda a conversation about the group’s own conversations—How well are we raising real issues? How well are we learning from one another? How well are we really listening and understanding each other? How well are we keeping our commitments to one another and to others? (Could feel a bit weird at first for folks who aren’t used to reflecting on their own behavior in a group setting, but very good things can come of this.)

The point is this—don’t be the victim of your agenda any more. Don’t let agendas run your meeting, your team, your organization. It’s fine to have an agenda, but the purpose of any meeting is to have a good conversation. Make sure you are talking about what’s really important, even if it’s “not on the agenda.” As your conversations improve, so will your group’s performance.

The Tell-Fest

We’ve all been there. A leadership team meeting, board meeting, project team meeting, it could be any meeting in any organization, almost anywhere on the planet.  Sometimes you know its coming and you just wait it out. Other times it sneaks up on you.  Or perhaps you’re the one who starts the party and you just keep on partying.

It’s the tell-fest—that meeting or conversation that consists mostly (or sometimes entirely) of people talking at each other. Telling each other what they know, what they think, how they feel, what others should know, think, feel…

You don’t need many people to get a tell-fest going. All it takes is one or two people dominating the conversational airspace and you’re there. But sometimes the whole room is caught up in the festivities and you’ve got a tell-fest royale.

While they can be boring or annoying, there are other reasons why tell-fests are problematic, namely that they…

  • Sap the energy out of the group, because few people like to be talked at incessantly, even by super smart folks.
  • Limit the opportunity to test hypotheses, question underlying assumptions and explore dissenting views, all of which are essential for teams to learn and respond well to changing conditions. It turns decision making like hitting the piñata with a blindfold on—fun to do at a party, but not great business practice. It doesn’t lead to good decisions. Good decisions require good learning, which means ample listening, asking thoughtful questions, and questioning assumptions and opinions.
  • Weaken commitment. Strong commitment generally comes from feeling personally engaged in a conversation, project or some shared future with others. But when the conversation dominated by telling, there is little chance to fully engage. What could be a shared future becomes a collection of “private futures,” where siloed thinking is the norm.

Put simply, Tell-fests are not so much conversations as serial monologues.

An alternative to the tell-fest

If tell-fest is monologue, an alternative is dialogue—the free exchange of ideas, perspectives, assumptions, feelings, judgments. A conversation in which people not only attempt to influence others, but also let themselves be influenced by one another. While this kind of conversation sounds great—and it is—getting to dialogue can be challenging for many individuals and teams, especially when they’re used to life in the tell-fest lane. Many teams never actually experience real dialogue together. They don’t even know its possible.

If the tell-fest is primarily about telling others what you see, think, feel, want—telling them whatever—then shifting out of that mode means moving to more listening and inquiry. It means becoming curious about how other people are seeing things, how they’re understanding what you’re trying to say, and how you may be understanding what they are trying to say. Becoming curious about how the world looks from perspectives other than your own.

Of course, this requires that you actually do value the others’ perspectives, otherwise why would you bother! (Better off just continuing to state (and listen to) you own views, continuing the monologue.) Which brings us to an interesting point, which is that when most of the conversations a team has known together have been some form of tell-fest, it’s very possible that you don’t really know how interesting or informative others on your team may actually be, especially those who aren’t the doing most of the telling.

(In future article, we’ll explore some thoughts that might make it easier to become more curious if you’re not currently predisposed to that.)

For now, let’s assume that you’re prepared to at least give curiosity a chance. Here are five things you can do to begin moving away from the tell-fest:

  1. Become more aware. Start to notice when the tell-fest is happening in your conversations or meetings. Keep a log for a week to record all of the times you notice an overabundance of telling in any conversation. Chances are, except for intentional “downloads” or one-way presentations, there will also be a shortage of real collaborative exchange, reflection and learning when there is a lot of telling going on. As you pay attention to these conversations, also notice your own interest level, energy, and curiosity. You’re propably not the only person in the room who may be experiencing boredom, frustration or impatience.
  1. Engage in more inquiry yourself. Ask real questions that aim to better understand what people are saying, thinking and feeling. You might give yourself a goal of asking at least two questions in your next meeting. Although it will feel contrived at first, once you do it a few times, it will probably start to feel more natural. And it’s likely you’ll learn some things about the other people that you might not have known before. Which will make it easier for you to keep asking more questions. (A funny thing may start to happen as you ask more questions: Some of those people who have always dominated the conversation before may begin to ease back on the advocacy throttle as they begin to feel better listened to, more understood.)
  1. Name it. Bring it to the group’s attention when you think a tell-fest is happening. You might raise your hand to get people’s attention silently, and then ask the group whether there is enough inquiry and listening in the room. Sometimes just asking this question is enough to shift the group towards more inquiry and listening.
  1. Make a request. Ask the group if everyone would agree to do just a little less telling and do more listening, ask more clarifying questions and even allow some “white space” between comments. (I think the judicious use of white space—silence—is like a magic elixir for conversations. All sorts of unexpected and valuable things can start to happen in conversations when people allow just a little more white space in between the sentences and paragraphs.)
  1. Solicit input. If you’re more comfortable with an indirect approach, consider soliciting input from others who are not contributing as much in the conversation. Ask for those who haven’t spoken much to weigh in, or perhaps suggest you go around the room, round-robin fashion, to hear from everybody. This way everybody has a chance to contribute to the conversation, whether or not they always take advantage of it.

If you make just one of these moves in your next tell-fest, you’ll be doing the team a favor. It may feel a bit awkward at first, especially if the team is accustomed (or even addicted) to lots of telling and little inquiry. The more you do it, though, the easier it will be and it will likely start to spread.

You’ll know things are changing when others begin asking more questions spontaneously, taking a little more time between responses, or just talking at each other a little less. And as your conversations begin to improve, so will your team’s performance, because organizational performance lives in its conversations. (hyperlink to other article)

Managers – Is Something Missing From Your Job Description?

There may be something missing, but you may not know it. You probably don’t think about it most of the time, but without it you wouldn’t get anything done. You wouldn’t even have your job.

Here are some hints…

  • We all do it all the time–with our bosses, our reports, our peers, our customers, our competitors (and with our friends, our lovers, our kids, and our neighbors’ kids).
  • It actually shapes what we see, how we think, and what we commit ourselves and our organizations to.
  • It’s all about action (but may not always appear that way).
  • Without it you wouldn’t even have your job.

The answer: You have conversations.

You’re attempting to stifle that yawn, but consider: As a manager, almost everything you do is conversational. Let’s take a closer look…

Obviously your meetings, phone calls, skypes, emails, blogs, texts, even tweets are conversations–somebody is speaking (or typing) and somebody is listening (or reading). So that also includes preparing and reading reports, articles, books, slide decks and the rest of it. Even if they’re not in the same room at the same time, there is still a conversation taking place between the speaker (or author) and the actual or imagined listener or audience.

You spend most of your time reviewing numbers, immersed in financials or dashboards? Those are conversations. You’re still “listening” to the person who prepared the report. That person is “speaking” to you, conveying and organizing facts, possibilities, predictions. Telling you a story in the language of numbers and graphs. And in response to their speaking, you’ll be forming your own story, and you’ll likely continue the conversation in some way, perhaps by thanking them for their work, asking for clarity or more supporting data, or making a decision based upon what they said.

You like to sit quietly in your office, reflecting? (You do quietly reflect sometimes, don’t you?) Even when deep in thought, we are often still in conversation with real or imagined others. There is someone speaking and someone listening, although it happens to be one and the same person (us). If you’ve ever tried to meditate for even just 5 minutes, you know how constant—even relentless—your inner conversations can be.

I’m not saying that we don’t do anything else, but in one way or another, it all comes back to conversation.

We typically assume that our conversations are something to be tolerated in between the “real” work: “Enough talk, let’s do something!” But as managers, our conversations are the real work, because as my colleague, author, speaker and business consultant Dr. Rafael Echeverria says, “conversation is action; when we speak we act.”

That is in fact what many linguists, biologists, social psychologists and others now understand—that we human beings get things done with words—through conversation. We plan, evaluate, describe, seek help, offer help, hire, fire, learn, make promise, succeed and fail… with words. Our words even shape our emotions and our bodies (but more on that another time).

Through conversation we exert a force, we generate power in the world. But clearly some conversations are more potent than others.

 

What’s a good conversation?

Good conversations can alter people’s understanding and change what they commit themselves to. Good conversations can open up new possibilities that weren’t conceived of before. They foster meaningful commitments and strengthen relationships. They’re energizing. Good conversations set into motion a virtuous cycle in which we build trust with one another which helps us to be more open, cooperative and accountable with one another tomorrow and the next day.

When conversations aren’t good, they set into motion a different kind of cycle. They widen the distance between us, leading to misaligned actions, weak business results. Disappointment, distrust and defensiveness spawned by poor conversations can linger and accumulate like toxic sludge, contaminating relationships, teams and entire organizations. You’ve probably experienced a toxic organization at some point. You may even be working in one now. It’s not because the people themselves are screwed up, it’s just that their conversations are weak.

Here are just a few common symptoms of weak conversations…

  1. People around you are constantly fighting fires, feeling overwhelmed, heroically solving the same problems again and again.
  2. Everybody knows what the “real” problems are (the elephants), but these aren’t discussed with the people who can actually do something them. Or when they are raised, nothing changes.
  3. People complain about meetings, saying they’re a waste of time. Meetings sometimes even make things worse, destroying what little trust and morale people may be clinging to, and further widening the distance between folks who are already hunkered down in their silos.

When you know what to look for, you can trace each of these symptoms back to weak conversations. And it’s pretty common.

 

How common are weak conversations?

For years, my colleague, author, speaker and business consultant Dr. Rafael Echeverria, has been asking business executives around the world how many of their daily conversations they felt are ineffective, as in do not produce satisfactory results. Ready for a shock?

These highly successful, highly paid CEOs and VPs from widely diverse companies, industries and cultures consistently estimate that more than 50% of their conversations are not effective. These estimates jive with my own informal polling of executives over the years.

What do you think the cost of these ineffective conversations is to your organization? The wasted meetings, lost business opportunities, misaligned actions, poorly kept promises? What if you could improve these conversations by just 10% or 20% (You can improve them by much more than that, but let’s be conservative).

Try this exercise: For the next week, pay close attention to your most important conversations, noting…

  • How people (including you) are listening to each other. Are they checking their own listening with others to be sure they’re actually getting what the speaker is intending? Are they each leaving the conversation with different ideas of what was decided and who is going to do what?
  • How people (yourself included) are thinking or feeling at the end of the conversation versus at the beginning. Are people letting themselves be influenced as much as they are trying influence each other?
  • What is not being talked about. What might people be avoiding? And why do you think that may be? (It’s usually because we don’t feel confident about having conversations in which people may feel uncomfortable.)
  • The mood and energy of the conversation. Are people open, curious, appreciative of others? Or do you notice defensiveness, resignation, or antagonism? Are folks leaving the conversation energized or deflated? (These are just a few examples. You may notice many other moods.)

Observing your conversations more closely, you may notice things that you haven’t seen before. You may see all sorts of room for improvement.

If you do, know this: You can improve your conversations–dramatically. You and your team can develop good conversational chops. But it doesn’t just happen by itself—you’ll have to treat it like any other skill and make it a priority.

Get some coaching, learn about what works and what doesn’t work in effective conversations. Set time aside in your team conversations for practicing and exchanging constructive feedback about how your conversations are going.

Which brings us back to your job description. Even though it’s probably not spelled out, one of your key job responsibilities is to have really good conversations. Because that’s what makes you a good performer.

With so much riding on your team’s conversations, you might also want to start including “fostering effective conversations” in your organization’s job descriptions. At the very least, it could be a good conversation starter.