Do Your Meetings Crackle or Flat Line?


Once again, we are honored to host a guest post from Dick and Emily Axlerod, who are celebrating the relaunch of their book Let’s Stop Meeting Like This. If you have ever struggled with participating in, facilitating, or leading a meeting, you’ll want to not only read this article, but their book as well!  



Meeting participants hold the leader responsible for the meeting’s success or failure. You can debate the rightness of this position, but what we know for sure is that meeting participants hold the leader accountable for what happens or fails to happen in a meeting.


Recently we discussed the leader’s role with Tanveer Naseer, who observed:


“I’ve watched leaders treat meetings as if they were handing out orders to their short-order cook with little or no discussion or input. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen leaders who were so lackadaisical in their direction that there were numerous periods of dead silence as participants waited for the team leader to speak up and guide the process forward.”


There is no argument when it comes about the extent of the leader’s power to shape a meeting. The real question is how a leader uses that power. There is no shortage of tools and techniques for meeting improvement. The problem is that these tools do not care how they are used.


Recently we attended a stand-up meeting. There has been a lot a talk lately about how stand-up meetings create energy, increasing a meeting’s productivity. In this case, the stand-up meeting lasted two hours and there weren’t any chairs in the room. As people tired, they slumped to the floor. The tool, stand-up meetings, did not care about how the leader used it: good idea, bad outcome.


Your power shapes meetings

The question faces every leader: How do I use my power to construct meetings that build teamwork among the participants and advance the work of the organization? Our experience is that leaders do not set out to have bad meetings, but nevertheless, they end up conducting them.


What makes matters worse: gone are the days when the meetings you conducted were solely with your work group. Now, in the course of a day, in addition to meeting with your work group, you may chair project meetings with people from multiple workgroups, and at other times be a meeting participant. How do you use your power in each situation?


Hank Queen, former Vice President of Engineering, Manufacturing and Product Integrity for Boeing, put the leader’s dilemma about meetings this way, “I can order involvement, but I can’t order engagement.” Hank recognized that he could call a meeting and, by virtue of his organizational power, people would show up, but he could not force them to be engaged in the meeting and contribute to its success.


Use leader prerogatives to improve meetings
In most organizations, leaders are entitled to:


  1. Identify the meeting’s purpose
    A clear purpose answers the question, “What do you want to be different because this group meets?”


  1. Clarify the meeting’s task
    What is the work of this specific meeting? Is it to make a decision, discuss information, or resolve an operating issue? Task clarity establishes boundaries for the meeting and tells people what is and is not open for discussion.


  1. Decide the meeting’s structure
    Will the meeting follow Robert’s Rules of Order, or will it have the shape of the Meeting Canoe™? The Meeting Canoe is an alternative to linear, get-through-the-meeting agendas.

meeting canoe


  1. Name the meeting place
    Do the physical surroundings support the meeting’s work? For example, are there white boards, natural light, round tables, moveable tables and chairs?


  1. Determine who attends
    Are those present necessary and able to accomplish the task of the meeting? Depending on the meeting’s task, you may want to include people who have responsibility, authority, necessary information, ability to implement the results, different ways of thinking, or even an attitude of opposition to what you want to do.


  1. Define meeting participants’ role
    Participants need to know why they are present in the meeting and what is expected of them. Are they there to add a different perspective, provide information, make a decision, or learn something new? Not knowing what is required of you or why you are present in a meeting leads to apathy and confusion.


  1. Define the decision process
    Are participants there to simply learn about a predetermined decision? Are they there to provide the leader with feedback on a course of action? Is their role to have an equal voice in the decision at hand?

What we have found is that clarity about the decision-making process is as important as how the decision is made. Ilan Morachy, writing in Inc. magazine, says, “The deception of democracy bothers them [meeting participants] more than the transparent absence of it.”


  1. Involve meeting participants the meeting design
    You can take all the previously identified actions by yourself, or you can involve meeting participants. The more you involve meeting participants in constructing their meeting experience, the more they will take ownership for the meeting’s success.


  1. Make your meetings voluntary
    This suggestion is for the brave of heart. In doing so, you can be like Boeing’s Erik Linblad, who uses meeting attendance to gauge his meeting’s value. He wants people to attend his meetings because they are valuable and trusts them to make the right decision about where they should spend their time.


You are free to choose the voltage
Meetings provide a rapid way to shift your organization. The beauty about what happens in meetings is they are under our control. If you are a meeting leader, you can use your power to create productive meetings–or not. You can use the Meeting Canoe framework–or not. You can create meetings that carry an electric charge–or not.

When’s your next meeting? Head for the Meeting Canoe.


More about the Axelrods 


Dick and is wife Emily Axelrod are pioneers in creating employee involvement programs to effect large-scale organization change, and co-founded the Axelrod Group in 1981. Dick is also a lecturer in University of Chicago’s Masters in Threat and Response Management Program, and a faculty member in American University’s Masters in Organization Development program. Dick and Emily created the Conference Model®, an internationally recognized high-involvement change methodology.


Together, Emily and Dick are frequent keynote speakers and co-authors. Their latest book is Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done it outlines a flexible and adaptable system used to run truly productive meetings in all kinds of organizations―meetings where people create concrete plans, accomplish tasks, build connections, and move projects forward.


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