In Defense of Long, Large and Agenda-Free Meetings

November 25, 2019

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019

We all have declared war on meetings. After sitting through far too many time-wasting gatherings, most business leaders have decided that the best meetings are short, small, and tightly focused. No more than 30 minutes, don’t invite too many people, set an agenda, and give it to attendees in advance. Don’t try to boil the ocean. That way, the fewest possible have to suffer for the shortest time, and maybe we’ll get a few small things done for a change.

But not all meetings are created equal. There is a certain kind of meeting that absolutely must be long, big, and agenda-free, and if you design it to be otherwise - if you aim for efficiency and damage control - you will sabotage your outcome.

When matters are complex – new, multi-faceted, and indecipherably entangled – the idea of “short, small, and focused” won’t cut the mustard. Complex challenges are the confounding head-scratchers where there is no straight line to a solution, and you can only know that you’ve found an effective strategy in retrospect. Ambitious (but common) goals, like doubling the growth of a business or changing its focus, require people to come together and run a radically different playbook. For those, here are three principles to keep in mind.

Bring lots of people to the table. The usual advice is not to invite people unless it’s clear how they can contribute or have a stake in the outcome. But when the purpose is to solve problems broadly, the principle to apply is that you need variety to overcome variety --- otherwise known to systems thinkers as Ashby’s Law, after a British pioneer of cybernetics. Don’t focus on the number of people at all; instead, your goal is to invite a sufficient variety of people – different thinking styles, demographics, specialty knowledge, place in the hierarchy, etc. – to address a range of issues.

Deep thinking about variety will result in a very different group than you might ordinarily invite. Try for some people who are visionaries, and some who sweat the details; some who are naturally optimistic and some who are inherently skeptical. It might take eight people, or 40. Or even 42; that’s how many the oil-and-gas technology firm Schoeller-Bleckmann Oilfield brought together with our guidance recently when it was merging two companies to form a new subsidiary, WellBoss. Several executives were concerned the group was too large. But the new company’s president, Jeff McNamara, said afterward that they reached insights about selling the firm’s strengths that otherwise would likely have been missed “because we wouldn’t have had all those people at the same table.” 

Meet for as long as needed. Current thinking says to enforce keeping things short by setting a timer or holding meetings while standing up. But if you’re trying to address something complex, settle in. A meeting might only take an hour, but for substantial issues, it’s better to plan for anywhere from a half-day to a few days. This point is also related to the number of people involved; for instance, you might figure that for every four people invited, there will be one subtopic with its session. 

Figure on some resistance to scheduling that time, to be sure. The new president of a subsidiary of Avaya, a business communications technology company, initially didn’t respond enthusiastically when we said we needed three days for a meeting about doubling the business. And admittedly, the first day was painful; people were frustrated and spent much time airing grievances over how information about new products was shared. But it took till the third day to turn the grievances into action to change the process. 

Don’t set an agenda. Should people know what problem they’re meant to solve? Yes. Should they be told in advance how to discuss it? No. That’s how the dynamic shifts from planning the meeting to rigging its outcome. A pre-set agenda constrains people’s thinking, pre-determines results, and preempts vital conversations. Instead, take the first 10% of your time together to make the agenda, with everyone present and engaged. Let them brainstorm on what they think matters. That will significantly increase their engagement for the remaining 90% of the meeting.

We applied that principle to our own company when we were acquired by the nonprofit research institute RTI International in 2016 and set up a meeting about long-term strategy. The participants came up with a bunch of seemingly navel-gazing topics that gave the CFO pause. But it turned out they needed to work through those to get to their ultimate goal of establishing faster decision-making and more flexibility negotiating with clients.

If we all primarily give up on getting people together in one place for enough time to get productive thinking and decision-making done, the danger is that we drain our ability to resolve the thorny issues that can interfere with high ambitions. Or else we outsource those issues to management consultants instead of finding our own tough solutions, while our internal teams focus on the easy stuff -- the stuff that can be solved in 30 minutes or less with as few people as possible.

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