Nail Your Meetings!
By The Army Leader
We’ve all sat through horrible meetings. In the Army and in civvie street, no one looks forward to meetings. In the US the average employee spends 37% of their time in meetings and 47% complain that meetings are the number one waste of time in their job. A recent U.K. study showed that the average office worker spends around 16 hours in meetings each week. That’s over 800 hours a year. When you could be out on exercise, on the ranges, talking with your soldiers or writing SJARs. Yes, meetings are sometimes even worse than MS.
My personal worst example: The Weekly Co-ord. 15 heads of departments. Most taking the opportunity to say ‘no points this week’ but with 3 or 4 going into a deep dive on topics irrelevant to everyone other than them and the COS. At the end the COS understood what was going on and everyone else wanted to top themselves.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, meetings can almost be enjoyable. Almost.
None of us joined to have meetings – a meeting is almost certainly less interesting then being on ops or in the field. You’d rather be commanding a tank, blowing (or building) a bridge or flying a helicopter.
I joined the Army to be given challenging problems, consider how to solve them, make decisions and then execute them with a team. When I joined I wanted to do that in the field with my TAM. But eventually you reach the point where you do these things in a room with your subordinates. A tight, well-run meeting that solves a complex problem can actually be professionally satisfying.
Meetings aren’t a surprise to us. So why do many meetings take us one step closer to the seven clicks to freedom? There are two pieces of advice that have changed how I run meetings and should change how painful they are for you and your team.
1. The Basics
I’ll nail these first. Generally the Army gets these right. If your meetings don’t follow these then you can make a change for the better right now:
- Have an agenda and share it in advance to give everyone the chance to add value. If you’re in the field or out of the office, write it in your notebook and shared it at the start. Then stick to the agenda (but see below).
- If people turn up late, start the meeting without them and deal with them afterwards.
- Phones off. Computers off. Playing with either of these is disrespectful to the people in the meeting and to the issues being considered.
- At the end, confirm all the decisions and get everyone to confirm they agree to them – this ensures clarity.
- Meetings with more than about 8 people will almost always be painful. Cut unnecessary people out.
Let’s assume you are already doing these things. These are simple but the second point is far more important.
2. Understand what type of meeting you are having
The most important piece of advice I can give on holding a meeting can be summed up by paraphrasing Clausewitz:
“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the chairman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of meeting on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”
(By the way, if you use this quote at staff college it will automatically, in keeping with staff college tradition, earn you additional bonus point with your DS while simultaneously confirming to everyone else what an utter tool you are).
The problems with meetings are that leaders tend to hold one-size-fits-all meetings that are truly democratic – everyone at the meeting hates them equally. Patrick Lencioni calls these Meeting Stews: All the best ingredients from every meeting, thrown into a single pot and stewed by too many cooks, without interest, for far longer than is required. And the result is less palatable than day-old range stew.
Like range stew, clearing up the mess afterwards is just as bad as the stew itself. Rather than serve up Meeting Stew each time, establish the kind of meeting on which you are embarking.
It’s one the biggest mistakes a leader can make when running a meeting. Mixing admin with tactical decisions and operational decisions. Once you’ve split these out, meetings become much less soul-draining. There are four types of meeting in your arsenal:
Admin Meeting (daily 5-10 mins)
Tactical Meeting (weekly/fortnightly 45-90 minutes)
Focussed Decision-Making Meeting (ad hoc 1-4 hours)
Strategic Meeting (quarterly 1-2 days)
Too many Meeting Stews spend their time dealing with the kind of issues that could be dealt with by a 1 minute conversation. Because people don’t see each other daily they bottle up their minor admin points and use them to fill the weekly ‘staff meeting stew’. Or even worse, the kind of issues you could deal with in a 1 minute conversation then become an email or voicemail, which bounces to and fro and takes up everyone’s time.
Remove the admin from your Meeting Stew by having a 10 minute admin meeting every day. If people can’t make it in person, dial in. If someone is away, then have the meeting anyway. The most difficult thing is beginning the process. Once you’ve done it for two months you’ll realise the benefit. Think of it as a commander’s daily ops update for your team. No big decision making, no lengthy updates, no direction-giving; just schedules, issues, questions.
If you do this you’ll vastly improve communication (a key leadership function) and remove the most unpleasant ingredients from your Meeting Stew. Don’t have time? It’s probably because you are too busy solving problems caused by your lack of communication to have a daily communication meeting.
Tactical Meetings (aka ‘The Weekly Coord’ or ‘Weekly O Gp’)
One the biggest mistakes a leader can make when running a meeting is mixing admin with tactical decisions and operational decisions.
When you think of the worst meetings, these are the ones you think of. A weekly 2-hour purgatory of having to listen to every single-issue-Nazi talk to the boss about their biggest (and your least relevant) problem.
I’ve sat through two-hour meetings where all I’ve said is ‘No points’ and I’ve learnt nothing of value. Invariably, at the end the boss has said ‘Thanks. That was a useful meeting’. Useful for him perhaps…
A good Tactical Meeting, one that has value to everyone, has a couple of characteristics.
A Real Time Agenda. It starts by building what Patrick Lencioni calls a real time agenda. This single most important factor instantly makes the meeting useful to everyone. The leader goes around the room and asks every team member to spend 30 seconds explaining what they believe their top three priorities are. This immediately allows everyone to highlight what they are working on and give the leader the chance to refocus the meeting.
If you run a meeting and start by telling everyone the Bn priority is rewriting Bn SOIs (yawn) then you miss the other issues that your team think are a priority. Remember, you are only asking them what they believe. You can redirect them if you want. But a real time agenda gives clarity and a chance for everyone to voice their agenda.
This part rarely takes more than 5 minutes. It is probably the most useful 5 minutes for the leader.
Reaffirm Your Why and Check Your Progress. A weekly coord meeting is a good opportunity to reaffirm what your main objective is and how you are progressing to it. This is part of creating clarity. Begin by reminding the team what your team objective is and what the 4 or 5 main sub-objectives or outcomes are that support it. Then get each team member to comment (if they wish) on progress towards the sub-objectives. Your primary team objective and its 5 most important sub-objectives are significant enough to dedicate specific time to them. Doing this provides direction and focusses the meeting’s attention on the most critical outputs.
“The CO’s aim is that in 2018 we deliver the best performance in the Brigade on Ex WESSEX STORM. We’ve agree five main objectives to achieve this: Sufficient qualified and experienced drivers and commanders; Maximum G1 deployability; Confident basic soldiering skills at all levels; Maximum vehicle readiness; 90% of PSBC and SCBC commanders qualified.
For ‘SQEP drivers and commanders’, can we each please comment on progress.”
Assuming those five really are the five most important objectives for achieving mission success, they deserve 15 mins of time. Often, the answer is just ‘we are on track’. But doing this ensures that the rest of the meeting is framed around achieving the 5 most critical outputs of the team and doesn’t disappear down marginal-gain rabbit holes.
Follow the agenda but allow flex based on the first two items. Now you can hit the agenda. It can flex because the first two items you’ve just covered have helped create clarity, focus and the chance to raise priority issues.
The important thing to do during the rest of the meeting is identify the issues or decision that need to be broken out into the third type of meeting. This is another thing that frustrates people: big issues that require dedicated thinking time and analysis, being considered without that time and analysis and when only 50% of the people in the room can contribute. Issues that deserve proper attention deserve their own Focussed Decision-Making Meeting. Do care that one of the squadrons has a problem meeting its critical MATT instructor ratios? I do, because I care about the success of the regiment. But if I’m OC of the LAD I probably have nothing to contribute.
If you are leading a meeting, have the balls to sometimes move an issue to its own meeting. Experience will tell you when to do this, but if you don’t you’ll reduce the effectiveness of both the tactical meeting and the operational decision.
Which leads me to…
Focussed Decision-Making Meetings
Operational meetings, planning meetings, call them what you want. These are the meetings that can actual be professionally satisfying. Come with an issue, come prepared, debate and decide, then leave with a clear decision to execute a plan. Decision-making meetings should leave you invigorated and with a problem, if not solved, at least nailed down.
These meetings require 1-3 hours. How often do they come up? Who knows? But when something deserves attention the worst thing you can do for the issue is deal with it during a tactical weekly meeting. Even ‘taking it to a side-bar’ at the end of the tactical meeting doesn’t allow the right amount of time of analysis. Side-bars are good for admin issues that creep into tactical meetings but not for focused operational-type issues.
For focussed decision-making meetings you don’t need a real time agenda, you don’t need to assess strategic progress. You just need to ensure you have an agenda nailed down and that everyone comes prepared. Coming unprepared to a meeting like this should count against you. If you are leading the meeting make this clear.
The Army is pretty bad at doing this. If you want to have a strategic why objective and a set of sub-objectives to assess your progress against in your tactical meetings then you need to find the time to get away from work and determine them as a command team. ECAB manage to have away days. Have the courage to take your command team away from the distractions of the office or camp. You don’t need all of your team for this, but you do need the major power-houses.
You’ll struggle to get it right. You need to include major team stakeholders, but only those that have a capability to add value. Many more than seven and you’ll struggle to reach decision.
You need to invite those who add value to stop this becoming the output of just the commander or leader’s thinking (although they will probably be the most influential). You need to invite the stakeholders so that they have the chance to air their views, add value and say their piece. Hopefully the stakeholders and value-givers are the same people.
What might it look like for a regiment or battalion? CO, 2IC, QM, RSM and five company commanders? Rank doesn’t always equal value but experience and ability to be a team player probably does.
These meetings need to deal with big issues. They don’t need to come out with concrete actionable decisions. Rather, they come out with an agreed set of strategic objectives that the whole team is bought into.
Strategic meetings are complicated (and important) enough to have spawned a whole genre of consultants and books. If you want to run one of these then I’d recommend Patrick Lencioni’s influential book The Advantage and Simon Sinek’s talk on inspiration or his book Start With Why.
Stop Killing Your Staff With Meetings
One of our roles as leaders is to make decisions, but we also have to track progress against delivering the outcomes other leaders have directed, be they your CO, 2* Director or CGS. Regular meetings with a clear purpose and outcome are essential to keeping the ship on track.
I’ll not quote Clausewitz again – 50% of people probably stopped reading when they got to that quote – but I genuinely feel that the paraphrase is true. Horrible meetings start when the leader mixes together two or more different types of meeting. Work out what you are trying to achieve and then separate out admin chat, tactical updates, operational decisions and strategy meetings. The analogy with the levels of war isn’t perfect but it’s easy enough to understand.
Some meets will fit between the types; Part 1 of a Unit Health Committee is probably a tactical meeting, Part 2 is nearer a decision-making meeting. The daily admin meeting on ops will be longer (for good reason). The CO probably wants to gather his 2IC, RSM, QM (and perhaps Adjt) periodically to crunch private issues and ‘blue-sky’ think. But I’ve found the four types above to be a good framework to follow.
If you have 10 min daily meetings, 2 hour weekly meetings, spend 6 hours each month on decision making and 2 days a quarter on strategic meetings then that’s about 23 hours a month. Assuming a 40 hour work week (well done you!) that’s less than 15% of your time. 15% of your time that gets admin done, gives effective weekly tactical guidance against strategic objectives, makes good decisions and creates strategy. Maybe it even stops your team trying to stab themselves in the eyes to stay awake in meetings.
And I think that’s worth doing.