Are Your Meetings Productive or Are They “Weapons of Mass Interruption”?

I had a really good meeting on Monday with three of my colleagues. Our school had an open house last night, and teachers in small clusters were asked to speak about their program for about 5 minutes as prospective families toured through the school. The purpose of our meeting was to collectively decide on what we thought would be the most meaningful way to convey what we do and why we’re passionate about it.

Why was this a good meeting?

1) No time was wasted disseminating information. One person in our group is new to our school this year and he was able to get that information ahead of time. We knew our purpose/agenda, and were prepared. We had our agenda well in advance and it did not consist of bullet points, but rather meaningful thought and decisions to be made. We came to the meeting ready to make those decisions.

2) Only those who needed to be at the meeting were there. We each needed to share ideas and agree on and make decisions. Everyone contributed.

3) We all left with an action plan with trust that each would execute his or her part.

4) We did not begin our meeting by reading memos or reiterating what was already communicated in emails.

5) We did not come to the meeting with solutions, but brainstormed ideas. It didn’t take long for each person to adopt an idea and then have us figure out how to link those ideas.

6) Everyone felt safe to share their ideas as we entertained them all before narrowing down our list.

7) We wrote it down, photographed it, recorded those ideas in some format (in fact, our four slides were completed before our meeting was over).

8) It wasn’t a get together of the passive.

9) The meeting took less than 20 minutes. No time seemed wasted.

10) Our meeting earlier in the week wasn’t a social visit. In fact we had a great dinner together last night before returning to school for our open house. We didn’t talk about what and how we were  going to present. Our meal was social and we kept it that way. Our meeting earlier in the week was to get work done.

I recently read a book called Read This Before Your Next Meeting by Al PittamPalli. That’s where I got the quote in the title of this post. There’s another passage I like that states, “The most talented among us know that they best serve the organization by making things. We add value only by producing work that contributes directly toward our goals and by initiating amazing work that wasn’t even asked of us.”

The positive psychology of ‘flow’ (the state in which we do our best work) has been referenced in many recent books including this one. We need to focus sometimes for long periods to do our best work, to get that flow. Meetings are interruptions that require us to start over again. Pittampalli states, “We’d have more time in the day to spend innovating and initiating new projects, instead of drowning in old ones that never seem to die…In a world with fewer meetings, we’d have more time for our real work, the work we do that actually propels our organization forward.”

In a school that has a mission, one that we strive to achieve and calls for change, meetings are essential. But those meetings have to be productive.

Here are some ideas on how to improve meetings:

1) Have an agenda with a clear purpose and have it available well-ahead of time so all who needed to contribute to the decision making  could come to the meeting prepared. Post the agenda on a google doc, so one could get feedback and questions ahead of time. A one-sentence blurb is not an agenda.

2) Don’t rehash the information. It’s time to say, if you haven’t read the information and you’re not prepared, you don’t need to be at this meeting.

3) Only invite those who need to be there. If I don’t have a part in making a decision or in contributing to that decision, don’t make me observe a meeting (there are more entertaining things to watch).

4) Record the meeting in some format. There are often those who are passionate and should be part of a meeting but can’t make it. They should be able to get the minutes (whatever the format) somewhere when they return.

5) Model the protocols you’d like to see teachers use with their students. Differentiate the meetings, use technology, make the problem we’re trying to solve clear.

6) Use the time in the meetings for people to make decisions and get important work done.

I think face-to-face social time is important too. I really appreciate it when colleagues check in on me, and I get a chance to find out about them, but those aren’t meetings. They’re conversations.

The author also states that group work sessions and brainstorms aren’t really meetings either. They’re important and purposeful.

What he says should change are those weekly meetings where everyone stops what they’re doing individually to gather as a large group. That large group should be working collectively to make decisions on complex problems that help the organization (in my case a school) get a little closer to its mission. We need to use that meeting time to decide and act. One can plan forever, but if you don’t act, nothing changes.

Another alternative for schools that have a weekly faculty meeting time set aside would be to use that time for continuous, sustained, professional development.

My school’s getting much better at using our weekly meeting time, but there’s always room for growth.




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