Want to know how healthy a company is? Take a look at their meetings.
Of course, that won’t tell you everything, but it reveals more than you might expect. Meetings are a core activity at any company — they’re how people generate ideas and solve problems that require multiple skill sets and perspectives. As your company grows, meetings become even more important because the number of people who need to communicate with each other grows exponentially. Plus, the amount of information flowing through the company quickly explodes beyond what any one person can be aware of.
As a startup coach, I spend a lot of my time helping young companies learn how to have great meetings. My clients are always wondering how they can improve this crucial aspect of the company’s work: more meetings or less? Longer or shorter? Structured or flexible?
Those are valid questions, but none of them matter until you stop doing one thing that has probably reared its ugly head in just about every meeting of your entire life: updates. Every company I’ve worked with spends too much meeting time on updates.
Updates are usually the very first thing on the agenda — and often, they’re the whole agenda. Project updates, budget updates, OKR updates, new hires, tweaks to the marketing campaigns…sound familiar?
But surely we can’t just stop doing updates — that’s how people share important information with their colleagues, right? Updates seem essential so that people know what’s going on. But are they?
The problem with the update approach is that it’s like a Where’s Waldo? scene. It’s crowded with information that distracts from the ultimate purpose: finding the little dude in the striped shirt. The task would be much quicker if you magnified Waldo and stuck him front and center — if you’re curious about the rest of the scene, you can always look at it later.
In your meetings, Waldo is an issue, meaning one of two things: 1) a problem that the meeting group needs to resolve together, or 2) information that will impact their work.
In a finance update meeting, the CFO might run through dozens of slides full of tables and graphs, showing how the performance of each product in each location has changed in the last month. Not only is it boring, but the chances are high that the most crucial bits of info get lost in the shuffle, or are surfaced so late that there isn’t enough time to address them — so you have to schedule yet another meeting.
But by turning that update into an ‘issues’ report, the CFO would focus only on the problems that need resolving. Which of these updates points to an issue that truly needs this group’s collective brainpower to address? Which has a knock-on effect that impacts the others? These should be the only points on the agenda. The rest can be shared as an appendix, for people to peruse on their own time if they choose.
Turning updates into issues
The Updates-to-Issues Ritual is possibly the simplest, quickest, highest-impact change you can make to meeting effectiveness at your company. It takes some guidance from team leaders for everyone to get it, but done right, it can double meeting productivity within a month.
1. Introduce it to everyone
Start by sharing the concept with everyone in the company — the idea is simple, and the Where’s Waldo? analogy makes it memorable.
2. Before every meeting
Have meeting leaders remind contributors to ask themselves two questions about every piece of information they plan to share with the group:
- Does it point to an issue or problem that these people need to work together to resolve?
- Does it have consequences that will affect these people?
If yes, share away. If not, share offline or cut it entirely.
3. At the end of every meeting
It can take some time for people to calibrate this process right. They might accidentally withhold important information, or they might continue over-sharing out of fear of doing the former. That’s why it’s important to debrief at the end of the first 5–10 meetings. Meeting leaders should ask the group to assess the situation by asking two questions:
- Have we gone too far? Have any problems occurred since the last meeting that could have been surfaced earlier?
- Are we still wasting time? Did this meeting include any extraneous information?
The startup executives who have worked with me consistently find that this simple ritual is one of the most valuable and powerful tools for improving performance throughout the company. Try it at your next meeting and let me know how it goes in the comments below.