Earlier on this year, as I sat twiddling my thumbs and checking my emails in yet another meeting, I began to wonder if there was another way. The problems with meetings are variable and for me, can be summed up with a few Dilbert cartoons:

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Once I entered management, I soon realised the way in which meetings would rule my life; forcing to the edges the ‘spare’ time I had to act on whatever emerged from a meeting. Ahead of my recent #ukfechat conference workshop, I ran a poll on Twitter to see how many hours education leaders spent in meetings- I soon realised that the upper limit of 150+ was a little low, with a number of College principals citing a number closer to 700 hours each academic year:

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Although I’d love for the answer to this ‘epidemic’ just to be: ‘reduce the number of meetings!’, I recognise the reality is more complex than that. With many of us, especially in FE colleges, now working in larger organisations spread across a number of campuses and in some cases spread across counties, there is a clear need for meetings to take place. So if their number can’t reasonably reduce then they must add more value than they currently do. If their sole purpose and focus remains to share key messages and information or check on progress then that’s not value enough in my book. Before any meeting, we must ask,

‘How will our time together today lead directly to impact on the organisation AND reduce rather than add to colleagues’ workloads?’

My three biggest frustrations with meetings emerged as:

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  1. Why don’t meetings enable me to share my ideas? Why aren’t they a soundboard for me to see what colleagues think- in a safe, honest and supportive environment? Working in the way I do, I could really do with their input but I don’t want to be adding yet another meeting to their already busy weeks.
  2. Why don’t meetings connect me to others? Why aren’t I learning from others’ expertise? Why am I having to grab a few words with each of them as I enter or leave a meeting? As a new leader, I could really do with having stronger connections.
  3. Why don’t meetings help me to get work done? Why do they always generate more work and make me feel like I’ve lost time that I’ll never get back? A cancelled meeting = sheer relief.

I began to gather lots of ideas together from my own meetings, from teaching practice, from other leaders, from other organisations and from what I felt would work. This resulted in the epic making the most of meetings post. I then worked with a couple of Deputy Heads of Learning who were working to put more Teaching & Learning into their meetings. I left them with a small basket of goodies and a list of suggestions about how the work we had started could continue into their future meetings. I then realised I might actually be onto something and so a trip to Wilkinsons and Poundland took place (other cheap stores will work just as well…). The meetings kit was born:

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Each of the objects had been labelled with some ideas for their use and a set of instructions was printed:

Welcome to your ‘Making the Most of Meetings’ kit!

Why have you been sent this kit? In a world where meetings are a commonplace occurrence, it makes sense that we make the most of the time we have with colleagues.

  • Why are you having a meeting?
  • What do you want the output to be?
  • What might be the best way to achieve that, whilst also hopefully boosting staff morale and confidence?

This kit may challenge how you currently run your meetings or it may complement what you already do. Whichever one applies to you, the hope is that this kit can inject a little bit of fun, engagement, creativity, collaboration and productivity into your meetings because I believe that time together in a meeting is far too precious to waste on fixed agendas, presentations and the giving of information.

Your mission is to use (at least) one object/ idea contained inside this box in your next meeting. That meeting could be a 1-1, a team meeting, or a meeting with a selection of colleagues.

Each of these items has a label attached with some ideas for how you might choose to use it. Once you’ve ‘completed’ your challenge, you must do each of the following:

  • Complete the meetings log
  • Add to the labels if you’ve used items in different ways to those suggested
  • Replace any of the items you’ve used if necessary
  • Add any additional ideas/items to the box as you wish

Your final task is to decide which of your colleagues will be the next recipient. Seal the box well, ensure there’s a warning about ‘handling with care’ visible, and add the next recipient’s name to the address label, before dropping the box off at your College campus post room!

It was placed in our College post room and addressed to the first recipient. For the new academic year (17-18), teams can book the kit for use with their team and today saw me receive the first request for the box.

The objects selected were as follows, although you don’t necessarily have to select the same things. Most are prompts for running a meeting in a way that maximises impact on attendees rather than things I expect managers to be waving around (mainly because I know they’re not all quite like me!)

 

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My hope is that the meetings kit will bring the good stuff within reach and will meet each of my ‘successful six’ for meetings:

1- Challenging the 1 hour meeting paradigm– just because your calendar defaults to 1 hour slots doesn’t mean that you have to follow it. How about setting the length of a meeting based on the activities- if they will only take 20 minutes, 45 minutes or 56 minutes then set your meeting for that amount of time?

2- Challenging collective decision making as well as ‘silence is agreement’– If you wait until 100% of those involved have reached a consensus about the next step to take then you’ll be in meetings until the thing you’re attempting to fix has either blown up in your face or is no longer an issue. How about making like Google and Ideo and embracing small-scale experiments and iteration instead?

The opposite side of this is assuming that because everyone in the room is silent, they agree with your suggestion and you can push on with it: this will lead to a meetings culture where people will stop contributing altogether because they recognise their input isn’t of value. How about creating a climate of trust that values the input, and perhaps more importantly- feedback- of others- every time?

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3- Challenging the favouring of extroversion- Meetings are set-up with extroverts in mind: agendas are shared with only hours to spare and the loudest voices are given the longest air time. How about arranging time for reflection prior to meetings and activities during the meeting that will allow everyone to contribute as they see fit?

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4- Challenging knavish behaviour (saving face)– It wasn’t long before I felt I’d over-shared in a meeting; been a little too honest about how things were going. I soon realised that meetings were spaces for people to share what was going well and what actions they were taking-they weren’t to be productive or confidence-boosting for me. How about creating space for sharing challenges being faced and crowd-sourcing solutions instead?

5- Challenging the race to action– Meetings are all about the minutes and the resulting actions. A meeting is seen as a waste of time if it doesn’t generate actions; something for everyone to go off and do. How about a meeting where the actions are accomplished then and there and the action record is merely a record of problems solved and actions taken collectively during the meeting?

6- Challenging information transmission– Meetings generally consist of people sharing updates with one another- they become an overload of information, handouts and actions with very little time for reflection, let alone implementation. How about a meeting where information is shared prior to the meeting (or during it) but there are a variety of discussion and assessment activities set-up so that everyone leaves being on board and feeling clear about their role in the initiative.

Although there are objects in the box that will serve as reminders to you and meetings participants that you’re choosing to do things differently, the following ideas might help, in more practical ways-

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In case you haven’t quite got it yet…

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