Stop Informing, Start Collaborating

Email → Slack → Notion → Code → Twitter → LinkedIn → Back to Google Meet/Zoom room Email → Slack → Notion → Code → Twitter → LinkedIn. That's what people are doing while we're presenting our well-thought-out and beautiful presentation on that new Framework, Project or Update we have. These meetings were hard enough in person. Now that people can tune us out, we should think about them quite literally as burning the company's cash.

Man with a Mac working in a Café. The man has multiple apps open and is doing a command+tab shifting from one to the other It's way harder to catch someone's attention when we're competing with thousand different things they can do on their computer–Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

Remote work is not going anywhere. Gartner Research has found that 82% of company leaders will allow people to work some of the time remotely. Yet, we're still relying on some of the practices that do not work remotely. Meeting fatigue has increased with all the video calls we're jam-packing in a single day. People are tired, unengaged, and angry at meetings even more than they were before. And they're right.

You might get the urge right now to assign blame and finger-point. "If they cared about the message, they would be paying attention." Or something like that might go through your head. I urge you not to. It's upon us to lead the company to find what's more effective and find ways to convey information and collaborate that work better remotely.

So what's the fix? There's still information we need to convey to multiple people. We still need alignment and commitment. I've found that some things help:

  1. Avoid informational meetings, focus on outcomes
  2. Enable discussion and collaboration
  3. Prepare

Avoid informational meetings, focus on outcomes.

Informational meetings are incredible time-wasters. They exist out of habit and mistrust. Habit: "We've always done them, so we keep on doing them because they got the company so far"–yet no one in the meeting feels like it was a good use of their time. Mistrust: "If we just send an Email or a message, no one will read it." As accurate as that might feel, think about how condescending that is: It states that people don't know any better and can't be held accountable for finding the relevant information for them to do their jobs.

Steer clear of the informing, reporting, reviewing, discussing, updating, chatting meetings. Instead, make your meetings around the outcomes you want out of them and involve people in getting that outcome from the meeting—good outcomes from meetings: Plans, Decisions, Problem Resolutions. Think about what you need to achieve this outcome and separate what the people involved can figure prior and what they can't. Share this context before and make sure people understand they will need to use it during the session.

Enable discussion and collaboration

You've probably seen this too. Someone presents a set of slides and asks the people in the room: "Any questions?" or "Everyone agrees so far?" And what we get is silence. Sometimes someone asks a question, making more people ask questions, yet only about 30% of the people in the room asks a question or comments on anything.

It's hard to collaborate in large groups. People don't feel safe sharing their opinion. If we force them to do so, most will just quickly spiral to consensus, the safest opinion. So we need to enable people to collaborate. We need to bring practices that will help people share their inputs and thoughts and engage with the content.

One of my favorites is Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). "CPS takes a single, business-critical question and makes it the focus of a 60-to-90-minute meeting."–Keith Ferrazzi explains–" You need to craft the question carefully. It could be about upside potential. It could be about mitigating the downside. Everyone preps by drawing in data or insight from their wider teams. Everyone is also clear on who will make the final decision or who "owns the question." The aim isn't consensus–far from it. The aim is robust dialogue. If that's the setup, there can be no resentment if one idea is picked instead of another. But the most powerful element of CPS is the breakout. For half of the session, the team breaks into small groups of three or four people to discuss the question and report back. In these small groups, people have more courage. They will self-critique and weed out weaker ideas. The temporary tribes that form in the breakout rooms establish a bond that would make people lose face if they watered down their discussion too much." CPS is excellent when we need to solve a problem.

We don't always need to do CPS, but it's always a good idea to break the group into smaller groups if you want robust dialogue. Another tool to drive engagement is doing Polls.

As a rule of thumb, never go more than 15 minutes without giving everyone an opportunity to collaborate.

Prepare and Follow-Up

We usually think about meetings as only the event, the time we gather everyone in the room (virtual or not). But meetings also have a before and after. Usually, what makes meetings unproductive is a lack of preparation or follow-up. Preparation means spending enough time before a meeting:

  1. Designing a thoughtful agenda: Use the collaborative tools above. If you have 50 minutes, fill the schedule with 45 minutes max.
  2. Developing appropriate pre-work: What context people need? What questions do people need to reflect on before the meeting? What content do they need to consume? Include information on how much time people need to assign to each part of the pre-work.
  3. Communicating clearly with your meeting participants: It shouldn't all be in your head. People need to get the information on time before and know that they will be held accountable for consuming it.

After the meeting, it's key to follow up. Produce an artifact from it, either a document or a few bullet points and share it with everyone–make sure to tag Optional attendees that didn't get to go. Ensure everyone left the meeting knowing who does what by when and how people will hold each other accountable for these action items.

If this seems like a lot of work to you, consider that this saves time for everyone, so the return on investment for this time is usually very high.

Be mindful of people's times. Show you care. And they will repay you with great results and more engagement in and outside meetings. Don't want to do this? That's fine. Just get a pile of cash big enough as the number of hours you're wasting, burn it, and don't schedule that meeting. Your company will be better off. At least you're not fatiguing people further.

I've also written on meetings in the past in these articles: