Meetings at your company aren’t going away. If anything, that much-maligned beast is growing in prominence, thanks to the ease of gathering people via technology. This Harvard Business Review article found that on average, executives spend more than two days each week in meetings. Outside the executive offices, everyone else gets to join in the fun as well: 15% of an entire organization’s time is spent in meetings.
Many often decry, “Do away with meetings! They’re useless.” It’s an understandable reaction; so many of us have suffered through poorly run meetings that seemed designed as torture devices rather than as a means to get to get work done. It’s only natural to want to eradicate something which causes such grief and is so unproductive.
Most meeting leaders don’t want their meetings to be tortuous. You’ve probably attended plenty of meetings that followed the “Running Effective Meetings” format: meet only when it’s warranted, create an agenda, and get the correct players in the room. And still, these gatherings are a bust. What gives? As a former corporate trainer whose main role was to facilitate the flow of conversation, I offer this observation: One of the reasons meetings fail is because the meeting leaders don’t manage the dynamics of conversational flow.
To reverse the death-by-meeting trend, start with this question: Do you want the meeting participants to expand possibilities or to come to closure? Your answer will dictate which conversational path the follow. Most meetings will require a discussion that uses both expansion and contraction; it’s important for the person running the meeting to communicate the expectations so meeting participants can properly contribute.
Here’s how to sort out the two differing conversational paths and use them to improve the meetings you lead.
If the primary purpose of the meeting (or agenda item) is to expand possibilities, the conversational flow will be “divergent” in nature. Divergent conversation employs a fluid, dynamic vibe. If expansion is your goal, the discussion should be designed to explore opinions, share ideas, gather data and/or brainstorm. You may have noticed that some meeting participants are wired to expand possibilities until the cows come home. These personality types love to spitball ideas and create “what if?” scenarios. The benefit of divergent conversation is that it allows for the free exploration of ideas that lead to breakthroughs. If that’s what you need during your meeting, let people know that’s what you’re looking for. If not managed properly, divergent conversations can lead to meetings that meander. This creates frustration for attendees who think the meeting objective is to move a process forward.
Meetings also present excellent opportunities to make decisions, and the biggest part of decision-making is coming to closure. If the main role of the meeting (or agenda item) is to come to closure, you are leading a “convergent” conversation. Convergent discussions are built around consensus-building, narrowing of choices and decision-making because they create focus and bring ideas together. Just as some people are wired to create endless possibilities, others strive to boil it down to the bottom line. These “get it done” types are constantly striving to come to closure, often to the detriment of exploratory conversation. They have a much lower threshold of tolerance for “blue sky” conversation and may blunt the creative process in their rush to conclusion. When people with an affinity for closure drive too hard for decisions, those who enjoy the creative process feel shut down and devalued.
Think back on the most productive meetings you attend. What was the balance of divergent and convergent conversation? Effective meeting leaders state upfront the type of conversation they’re looking for with statements such as, “Today, we’re going to focus on gathering lots of ideas. Then, next week, we’ll narrow down our options” or “We’ve already invested a few weeks brainstorming options, so for today’s meeting we’re going to work on narrowing the list down.”
Meetings, when well-run, do have a valid place in organizational life. They can even be invigorating, if properly led. It takes a skilled meeting leader—one aware not only of how to organize a meeting, but also about the ebb and flow of human interaction—to create a successful gathering of the minds.
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant who’s writing and digital training materials help business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow her on LinkedIn and download her free copy of “16 Discussion Questions to Help You Lead Better Meetings.”