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Why Have Cookie Cutter Meetings if You Are Not Making Cookies

Commentators are universal in their condemnation of meetings. While they all agree meetings are a bane of existence, they differ on the steps to improve them. I have concluded that most of the commentators’ strategies do not make meetings better--as everyone still complains about them.

I will join the meeting hater bandwagon and come up with my own prescription of how to improve meetings. Much of my ideas are borrowed heavily from Patrick Leonici recorded in his book, Death by Meetings. I think he actually devised some good ideas to improve meetings which I applied with some modifications and reasonable success.

One strange thing about meetings is that even though they have many purposes, they are almost all structured in the same way. As a leader, you call in your team for your weekly (or semi or bi weekly) meeting. The agenda is created by the leader and distributed before the meeting. The meeting lasts about the same amount of time. Meetings become cookie cutter even if the team is not baking cookies.

Instead, a leader ought to think about what she wants to accomplish in a particular meeting and structure the meeting to best achieve that goal. For instance, some meetings are designed to share information. In that case a very short meeting, or even an email exchange may work best. Other meetings focus on implementation strategies. A 45 minute meeting with a limited agenda and one decision to be made works best. Other meetings ask the team to consider strategic issues. A ½ or full day off site retreat is best designed for that purpose. Too many teams try to accomplish all of these different purposes in their 90 minute regular meeting to ill effect.

When I ran a school, I wanted the team to know what each member was doing that might influence another team member and I wanted the team to share that information daily. Rather than meet each day, we used a software package--IDoneThis--in which each team member would record their relevant activities of the day. A digest of everyone’s comments would then be delivered to each team member’s email address each morning.

We also had tactical issues we needed to deal with. We had an hour-long weekly meeting to address those issues. The agenda for those meetings were determined by team members who would put what they wanted discussed on a shared agenda. We went through most of those items quickly. If an item was trickier or more strategic than we expected we put it in a parking lot and waited for the next longer meeting.

Finally, once a month, the team left campus for a day-long retreat to discuss strategic issues. I would generally run those meetings. Having time to dive into critical issues made our decision-making process better.

We found that this division of meetings made us more effective and we knew what we wanted to accomplish (and what was not appropriate) for each kind of meeting. While it did not make meetings perfect, it certainly improved them.


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