Unproductive meetings waste the nation’s resources

Would $30 billion in cost savings or added productivity make a difference to our lagging economy? It certainly would.

Consider this: Our nation could probably save that much simply by eliminating poorly run and unnecessary meetings.

Each day 11 million meetings take place in the United States, or 2.6 billion in a year. Based on an average salary of $30 per hour, the U.S. spends $80 billion on meetings each year.(In reality, the amount spent on meetings is much higher because most meetings involve more than two people.) Some research says that 37.5 percent of all meetings are considered “poorly run or unnecessary,” which would equal $30 billion a year of unproductive or poorly run meetings.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard “If I didn’t have to go to meetings, I’d like my job a lot more.” Research supports that notion.

Employees’ perception of meetings mirrors their overall job satisfaction.

Meetings have become the bane of business. How often have you left a meeting asking yourself: “What was the point of that? Why was I invited? Will any actions come from this meeting?”

Getting people to meetings can sometimes be tough. One company I worked with forced late arrivers to sing a song, essentially incentivizing promptness through embarrassment. Years ago the quality of food at Microsoft meetings determined how many people showed up. Essentially, the company was incentivizing attendance through food. There’s got to be a better way.

Because we avoid accountability, rely on tradition, buckle under office politics and lack facilitation skills, meetings have become “Corporate Sominex.”

Well-run meetings inspire engagement, drive decisions and produce accountability.

Here are sound ideas for how to make your meetings engaging and effective:

• Meeting preparation: Set goals for the meeting. This will determine the agenda and who should attend. Not a single decision is made in 65 percent of all meetings. So cancel them and rely on e-mail, Sharepoint or some other communication medium.

Give participants a role. Encourage them to brainstorm, help make a decision or provide feedback.

Distribute reading materials 48 hours prior to the meeting. Attach a standard agenda sheet that clarifies the reason for the meeting and its desired outcome and explains who’s asked to attend and why.

• During the meeting: Establish and follow the meeting code of conduct. Start by reviewing the anticipated outcomes and agenda. Rely on a facilitator to keep the discussion on track. Avoid PowerPoint presentations at all costs because they distract more then they engage.

Involve each participant in the discussion by calling out quieter individuals and limiting air time for those who easily dominate the conversation. Determine next-step actions by clarifying who “owns” the actions and when they are to be completed.

• After the meeting: Publish a list of action items and encourage “owners” of action items to schedule time in their calendar to complete their items. Eighty percent of the time in meetings is devoted to less than 20 percent of company’s long-term value. So, without having to lay people off or make major expense cuts, companies can see real improvement in productivity by making meetings more effective and engaging.

Dean Newlund is CEO of Mission Facilitators International Inc.

Good leadership includes structure

Innovation is the cornerstone for surviving and thriving in today’s world of V.U.C.A, Volitivity, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity; or what I describe in a white paper of the same name, The New Normal 2.0. To not be aware of nor respond to the seismic changes in our economy, demographics, buying patterns and workforce demands is a receipe for disaster. We all know of companies that failed because they didn’t respond to these market changes. Others, like Apple and Google brought fresh life into their industries because they made innovation a part of their business strategy and values like tolerance, collaboration and flexibility found their way into business practices.

Companies should re-examine, redesign, removed or improve upon every aspect of their business. Some companies have seriously taken on this challenge of reinvention while other have not.

However, there is one part of almost all U.S. businesses that has changed quite a bit: Leadership. Just look at the number of books on Amazon about leadership and you’ll know I mean. Our fascination with power and prestige of leaders is fueled by a concern that being a good leader is not only hard, but rare. We seem to be grapsing at straws trying to figure out what leadership should be.

And then there is the responsibility of the follower that seems to be absent from the literature.

Today’s leaders are instructed to be agile, flexible, cooperative and intuitive; traits perfectly in line with creating innovative companies. These traits have become the core of numerous models that define leadership as being a servant, an authentic person, a coach, a mentor; an individual who provides “appreciative inquiry” or reaching “level five status” on top of Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs.

While I applaud all of these new models, and many others not mentioned, I think we have incorrectly devalued some traditional characteristics of leadership. Leadership isn’t just about a set of behaviors. Leadership is a structure on which behaviors can be effective. Much of that structure has been diluted or overshadowed by any new leadership behaviors described as “flavors of the month.”

I’d like to see more emphasis on structure. We should be asking: does the leader work under a clear and compelling mission and set of strategies? Do they know the goals they are accountable for? Are they and everyone else on their team clear of their roles and responsibilities? Do they know who is ultimately in charge for each project for function? Are they certain how work gets handed off and is there a clear escalation process for issues? Do they have a good structure for how they run meetings and make decisions?

Pressures to put out fires, doing a lot more with a lot less, and a relentless focus on cost cutting also contribute to being more reactive and less reliant of structure. Because of, not despite of these pressures to innovate and achieve short term results, we should not devalue or abandon sound structure. A leader without a solid structure is just an employee with good influencing skills.

Dean Newlund is CEO of Mission Facilitators International and can be reached at www.missionfacilitators.com.

Are you addressing symptoms or root causes?

Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action is there is an equal and opposite reaction? I’ve coined a similar law for business teams: For every symptom there is a hidden root cause. Symptons are easy to see while root cause is often hidden. Why should we care? We make decisions on what we can see. If we can’t see root cause, then we’re making decisions on symptoms, and those decisions can pull us way off track.

Take for example my client Kathy, a leader asked to mediate issues between two teams outside her department. She told me she witnessed unkind behavior, avoidance and poor listening. How could I help her improve the communication between these two teams? I asked her, “How do you know these two teams are only suffering from poor communication?”

“Because”, she said”, “they said so and I’ve seen it.” “Ok, let’s just assume for a moment that the poor communication you’ve identified is just a symptom of something else. Then, what could be the cause?
She thought for a moment and then said: “They haven’t clarified roles, nor developed a process to hand off work. They also don’t have common goals or a decision making process.” Then I followed with: “If they had all of the things you just mentioned, would they still have poor communication? “Yes, but much less.”

The two teams Kathy was trying to help did indeed have some communication issues. Many team members were not good at modulating their style. For example, results-focused people didn’t take the time to listen to relationship-focused people. Communication delivery could definitely be improved. But, as Kathy discovered, most of these teams’ issues were not stemming from communication. They hadn’t done the foundational work to make them two interdependent teams.

I told Kathy she should follow the wisdom of small children who ask their parents why at the end of each answer, or Honeywell that adopted the practice of “asking the five whys”. This is a great way to get to root cause.

Kathy went back to these two teams and facilitated a process that addressed their root cause of poor communication: The lack of a solid team foundation. Later she worked with individuals on adjusting communication styles. She reported a few months later that the two teams were working much better together.

If Kathy had only addressed the symptoms, she might have put them through some communication exercises, helped them improve listening and how to adjust their styles. But, the underlying problems would not have been resolved. And, in my experience, when we aren’t addressing the root cause of an issue, a part of us is aware of this. And, this disconnect just creates more frustration.

The law of business teams that “For every symptom there is a hidden root cause” has three principles: Communication issues go down when teams are built on a strong foundation. Decisions based on symptoms create ineffective results. Asking the Five Whys helps get to root cause.

Become Literate In Financial Terms

After passing customs I walk into the main part of the Tianjin, China, airport and enter a world of people speaking words I can’t understand. By not knowing Mandarin, I’m dependent on others and ignorant of much of what is going on around me.

In business, the main language is finance. Those who speak and understand it are more able to contribute and make decisions than those who don’t. Learnto speak finance and you immediately become more employable and promotable.

From my hotel-room window I watch a soccer match between two Chinese teams. It occurs to me that the language of soccer is the rules. A soccer player can’t perform well if he or she doesn’t know how the game is scored. In business, one of the main ways we keep score is found in finance.

In any aspect of life where money is involved, the language is finance. We are asked to make financial decisions in many areas; in the form of retirement planning, in the business context as a manager overseeing the budget of our department, or in the voting booth when the national debate is the size of the U.S. debt.

Studies show a large fraction of the population is woefully underprepared to make these decisions. The U.S. suffers from a low level of financial literacy. And yet, there’s a strong relationship between understanding financial concepts, better financial decisions, employability, promotability and household well-being.

I suspect many of us are financially illiterate because accounting classes we took in school were boring.

Now that we’re older, look for opportunities to learn finance with a “rule-of-thumb” approach that ties these best practices to real world situations.

The client who has brought me to China does this better than most. As a trans-national hotel corporation they train all of their managers, regardless of country, in the common language of finance. Concepts are taught, discussed, then applied in an interactive, competitive simulation where teams make dozens of decisions that have a direct impact on revenue, cost, market share, employee engagement and customer loyalty.

To build financial literacy: Ask your manager to walk you though how the company keeps score., i.e., profit and loss statement, balance sheet, cash-flow statement, dashboards and balanced scorecards; learn how your manager’s performance is measured; take basic classes on accounting and finance at local or online colleges; read the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and the business section of The Arizona Republic; learn how to build and read excel spreadsheets; and get experience managing a budget or the revenue and costs of a department.

More so than ever, companies hire and promote people who understand the language of finance. As you plan for that new job or promotion consider this; skills are like dollars: If they don’t grow they become less valuable over time.

How good questions encourage innovation

The quality of how we make decisions, pursue opportunities, solve problems and develop new ideas is based on the quality of the questions we ask.   I’m reminded of a senior research investigator describing the most important part of his work, “Dean, it’s all in the quality of the question. The research, the breakthroughs, the drugs we produce to help patients is all based on the quality of our questions.”

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‘New Normal 2.0’ appears in Arizona Republic

An excerpt from The New Normal 2.0: Survive and Thrive in a New World appeared in the Sunday edition of the Arizona Republic, April 14, 2013.  That was also the day our new website went live. Many heartfelt thanks for Julie Kuehl for her inspiration, professionalize and diligence.

Employees with Digital Influence Have Much to Offer

Since shifting from a manufacturing to information economy managers and leaders have seen their job descriptions and annual reviews include the phrase “The ability to influence others” – sometimes without authority. Developing trusting relationships combined with good communication skills and a healthy amount of emotional intelligence has helped manages and leaders sway opinion, gain consensus and collaborate on difficult issues.  

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