Meetings to Learn and Achieve Results


Eliminate recurring meetings?

Make meetings optional?

Convene leaner and faster meetings?

Convert from face-to-face to virtual meetings?

I discovered recently from bloggers in my PLN (Personal Learning Network) that large companies such as Dropbox, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel are taking the above steps to limit meetings that steal their employees’ time and erode their productivity. Maybe their experience offers lessons for leaders of nonprofits and small businesses to consider and implement, too.

For instance, Rebecca Hinds and Bob Sutton at Inc. magazine reported that Dropbox declared an “Armeetingeddon” two-week moratorium on recurring meetings in 2013. The company-wide email “informed employees that all recurring meetings had been deleted from their calendars. … “Ahhh, doesn’t it feel fantastic?” Managers followed up with guidance to employees to:

1. respect the “Sanctuary period” and avoid scheduling any recurring meetings for two weeks

2. make sure meetings have agendas, owners, and action items

3. encourage team members to be protective of their calendars; and

4. consider a venue other than a conference room: “Go outside and get some vitamin D.”

display-panel-457381_430Employees liked being encouraged by their senior leaders to say “no” to time-sink meetings. Employees were also willing to evaluate the merits of gatherings before restoring obligations on  their calendars, too. The directive led to long-term change because Hinds and Sutton assert that at Dropbox “In the post-Armeetingeddon era, meetings are shorter and more productive, with less rambling discussion and more focus on making decisions.” Additionally, even though the number of employees has tripled at Dropbox since 2013, the number of conference rooms has only doubled. So maybe they are convening fewer meetings and/or holding more of them online or outside.

Chuck Blakeman writing for Inc. offers another view of what corporations are doing to stop unproductive meetings. He reports that:

Intel imposed a rule that no one could hold a meeting without a clear purpose. Lenovo lets its staff stop any meeting that is wandering. Many other companies have made them optional. Semco ($1billion, 3,000 Stakeholders) did that almost thirty years ago. And still others like Project eMT have abolished all meetings. They’re not allowed.

He notes that in his own company, Crankset, people meet as needed to “solve specific problems” but only one regular meeting is scheduled each month. Blakeman champions the Law of Two Feet for attending meetings. His interpretation of this Open Space practice is that “if you choose to attend a meeting, you must either 1) be learning, or 2) be contributing …” Otherwise, don’t go to the meeting.

Blakeman also recommends guidelines for reducing or eliminating meetings in organizations.

1) Make them optional. You’ll learn very quickly which ones are useless.

2) Have a written agenda and stick with it. (TIP: He uses a shared online document with meeting participants before the meeting to build the agenda to address only relevant issues.)

3) 15-30 minutes, with a hard-stop. Respect begins with telling people the meeting will be over at 10:30am. Make sure it happens.

4) Standup Meetings–Great for mandatory daily operational meetings.

5) Never, ever solve problems in a large meeting. He advocates giving the problem to the owners to resolve outside the meeting and to report on its resolution at the next meeting.

We share his sentiments and call to action at the Women’s Learning Studio. Because we are a virtual company, Lisa and I meet with full audio and video at least weekly to advance our work. Our Dropbox for shared files and emails back and forth help reduce the need for purely informational meetings. We also help our client groups develop routines and skills to work online in groups and meetings to achieve high value results. Working virtually requires us to move carefully through the pre-meeting, in-the-meeting, and post-meeting phases with clients. Here are some things we have realized about helping people prepare to work online in groups to learn and accomplish worthy ends together.

Technology Challenges—A majority of our clients have limited exposure to conferencing technology and password-protected discussion spaces. (That’s one reason why they need us!) Most, for example, have not set up their own internet connected devices—tablet, iPad, or laptop—before to use online audio and video technologies in a conferencing platform. Therefore, our Help Hours in the virtual meeting studio in advance of the first meeting are much appreciated. Not only do we help our potential participants get their technology to work as intended in the meeting context, we get to know them better and they us. Improved ongoing communication and trust build as a result.

Beginning Perceptions-– Outdated perceptions of what an online meeting is and what it can do for groups persist. Maybe they’re due to a past over-reliance on long conference calls with no video.  Maybe it’s meetings that were primarily one way presentations of material to “train” or convey information to participants. Or long meetings that limited interaction to ten minutes or less of questions/answers with expert presenters. Participants are happy to know there is a better way to meet and interact on issues that matter to them. Additionally, many individuals participating in learning opportunities with us are new to online learning networks and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) learning online. Some are surprised to know that DIY learning online is quite different from a “sit and git” webinar. Instead, as adults, they choose how and what to spend their learning time on and then test their new understanding with supportive peers in live and asynchronous discussions.

Meeting Purpose and Agenda—Explaining the desired outcomes and front-loading the most important items into a short, clear agenda are important for good online meetings. The simple agenda is distributed 4-5 days ahead of the meeting along with links to the most important resources for meeting participants to review beforehand. We leave the agenda posted throughout the online session for easy reference.

We also start with an advantage that employees in one work location might not have. With distributed groups working online, a meeting could be the only time they congregate because they may not work for the same employer or workplace. Meeting online gives them opportunities to socialize and build connection as well as momentum and ideas to continue their work on their own.

Setting up the Meeting RoomLisa hosts our meetings in Adobe Connect. This conferencing platform allows us to set up multiple screens/presets to offer polls with instant results, discussion questions, or resources to spark and focus discussion. Everything we might need is preloaded and brought to the front for viewing when needed. We can still spontaneously share the screen if participants wish to load resources to use during the meeting.

Additional Thoughts?

There is a lot more I could say about facilitating online meetings and learning groups but we’ll save that for a future post. What do you think? We would love to know more about your experience in working with nonprofits and small learning communities online. Is it similar to ours? Different? Please register or log-in to use the comment box below to share your ideas.

Puzzle and time photographs courtesy of geralt at Pixabay


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