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Death By Meeting
Published by Jossey-Bass
“The guy sitting down for a sitcom has very different expectations than he does when he’s going to a movie. Or watching Headline News at the airport.”
Death by Meeting, page 141
Death by Meeting is a leadership fable and “how-to” guide on why most meetings suck, the surprising impact that can have on your organization, and what to do about it. There are probably four or five brilliant points within Death by Meeting, all wrapped around a surprising, yet totally applicable analogy: good meetings are like good movies. Better, in fact. (for you disbelievers, more on that in a minute) And what makes a good movie? You may have your own assumptions but, as a film school graduate (Yes, that actually happened), let me share my own learnings.
A good movie consists of three key elements:
• Interesting and relatable characters
• Conflict; either between characters or a character and their environment
• Proven Structure; a “hook”, entertaining conflict and a resolution, all within a fairly standardized period of time (120 minutes, give or take 20)
So now that you’re caught up on that, let’s dive into author Patrick Lencioni’s theory on why meetings are better than movies.
Turning meetings into movies
“The leaders of these meetings have to think of themselves as directors. Get people hooked in those first ten minutes, then mine for ideological conflict, then drive it to conclusion.”
Death by Meeting, page 164
One more time: Great movies have a) believable characters, b) engaging conflict and c) a standardized structure. We “get into movies” because we connect with the characters and want to see them overcome (or occasionally be defeated by) the obstacles they face. And yet, as Lencioni points out, the outcome of a movie rarely (if ever) has any real impact on our lives. They’re a nice break from reality, but that’s where their impact ends. Meetings, on the other hand, do impact your reality. They’re already populated with a great cast (you and your colleagues) and, if they’re set up properly, they can absolutely have the same level of conflict and structure that we find so engaging on the big screen.
Mining for Conflict
“(Everyone) needs to be looking for places where people have different opinions but aren’t necessarily putting them out there. And when you see that, you need to force them to communicate what they’re thinking until they’ve said all there is to be said. You need to be constantly mining for buried conflict.”
Death by Meeting, page 122
Movies would be pretty boring if the characters simple took turns being on screen, talking about the events of their past week and the week upcoming. It would also be a huge waste of time, money and energy for the people involved in making the films. Meetings are no different, in that regard. When you put 2 or more intelligent people in a room together, they’re bound to have differing opinions and values. Exploit that. The full value of teams is what I’m calling “collective autonomy”; a group working together to accomplish their shared goals, yet each bringing their own strengths, experiences, interests and opinions to the table.
Too many of us seem afraid to speak up and question our peers during meetings. Do it with respect, and do it with an end goal of mutual gain, but be sure you do it. Question everything and, on the flip side of that, be open to your peers questioning your logic or suggestions. It’s not personal, it’s about making sure everyone’s on the same page and buying in to the final decision, whatever that may be. Make sure your team is making informed decisions by making sure everyone is heard.
Avoid Meeting Stew
“The biggest problem with our meetings, and meetings in general, is structure. … Our problem is not that we’re having too many meetings. Our problem is that we’re having too few of them.”
Death by Meeting, page 135
I’ve done it with my team. I have no doubt that if you lead a team, you’ve done it with yours. I’m talking about “The meandering meeting”, where we leap from topic to topic, covering everything from the minute the monumental, with nothing more than an agenda item point to separate the topics. One of the great wakeup calls for me in Death by Meeting was the reminder that it’s almost impossible for people to shift mindset from a tactical issue to a strategic one. (page 159)
Our meetings aren’t effective when we’re mixing in every element of the business. All attendees deserve to have a clear understanding of the meeting’s purpose, whether it’s tactically based or strategic, and that relevant topics are going to get the time they deserve. Lencioni talks about four distinct types of meetings that we should be having:
1. The Daily Check In – 5 minute standing meeting to touch base on needs and actions for that day.
2. The Weekly Tactical – 60 minutes, comprised of quick updates, a progress review of key (no more than 6) metrics and a “real time” agenda – focused on the most pressing tactical decisions that arise during the quick updates and progress review.
3. The Monthly Strategic – 120 minutes per topic on the “directional based decisions”
4. The Monthly Retreat – an offsite 2 days to discuss all the “other pieces” of the business – Key Employees, Industry Trends, etc.
If you haven’t read Death by Meeting, the list above may seem overwhelming. In reality, it’s completely the opposite. By keeping the context clear on each meeting, you’ll find your team to be more engaged and more passionate in debate, allowing for more productive meetings in general.
I truly believe every leader should own a copy of this book to have on hand. For those of us that spend a good deal of our time in meetings, Death by Meeting is a guidebook like no other. Your business is meant to be fun, and meetings are the cornerstone of that engagement. Dive in.