1 October 2015

Lean Habits: What's This Meeting for Again?

Have you ever sat in a meeting and thought to yourself, “This is not the best use of my time”?

You are not alone. Whether it’s due to lack of a clear agenda, lack of follow up or simply not knowing your role, bad meetings are all too common. Meeting waste is a huge drain on businesses and teams that want to work more efficiently. 

In 2014, for example, the Harvard Business Review found that employees at one large, unnamed company spent 300,000 person hours supporting a weekly 2-hour executive committee meeting. Software company Atlassan found in one study in 2013  that unnecessary meetings contribute to a $37 billion a year drain on U.S. businesses.

Legal teams should be especially mindful of the waste caused by unnecessary or unproductive meeting. For in-house teams, an undisciplined meeting culture reflects poorly on the department, particularly in organizations where the legal function is under pressure to cut costs. And if you have outside counsel sitting in poorly planned meetings, those hours still show up on the bill.  

Meanwhile, many clients are instituting billing guidelines declining to pay for intra-firm conferences. While the cost considerations are understandable, this can chill the knowledge sharing and communication that are key building blocks to effective teaming. 

In my experience managing a number of different projects in legal environments, I absolutely believe in eliminating unnecessary meetings. However, legal teams are often fluid, with individuals of diverse subject matter expertise and varying skill levels coming together in response to specific needs or problems. Also consider that most legal teams span organizational boundaries and are hardly ever collocated. Meetings are a critical tool to help legal teams establish clarity and alignment on project goals.  

What’s the solution? It starts with your next meeting. Before sending out an invite, think through the 6 Ws of effective meetings outlined below.

The 6 Ws help ensure that your meetings will not waste everyone’s time, actually accomplish something, and generate a list of meaningful action items that align with your goals.

Disclaimer: this is not rocket science. You might already be doing some of these things, in which case, “Bravo!” Your colleagues probably already love you for it. The key is to turn these simple and easy steps into habits: both individually and as a team. To help the entire team to think and act Lean, consider establishing ground rules for effective meetings. Developing a focused, concise, and action-oriented approach to meetings can help everyone on a case team share information, stay informed, and practice at the top of their license. 

1. WHY are we meeting?

Before you open your Outlook calendar, you must first and foremost establish a goal for the meeting.  Generally, meetings can be broken down into 4 categories, described here by Toastmasters:

  • Information and status sharing
  • Decision making and problem solving
  • Brainstorming, creative or working meetings
  • Training and team building

Strongly consider pushing information and status sharing into email reports or collaboration tools, particularly for large teams. If your team is working on interdependent tasks toward a critical deadline (e.g. trials, deal closings), I recommend establishing a disciplined "stand-up" meeting format, which asks every attendant to share (1) what they accomplished since the last meeting, (2) what they are working on today and until the next meeting, and (3) anything that is in their way. This format helps to keep meetings more actionable and focused on project completion. 

From my experience, every other kind of meeting requires more preparation than most people realize. Successful brainstorming sessions usually stem from prepared formats and exercises: specific questions for the group to consider or must-have criteria to keep in mind. Distributing pre-meeting materials and asking attendees to to come prepared can cut down on level-setting for decision-making meetings. 

Simply deciding WHY you want to have a meeting will go a long way to helping determine the remaining 5 Ws - especially WHO will attend the meeting and WHAT the agenda will be. In some cases, you may realize that a meeting is not necessary at all. 

2. WHO will attend?

After determining the goal of your meeting, it’s easier to put together an attendee list. For instance, if you have planned a status sharing meeting, your attendee list will be broader than than that of a decision making meeting. Putting together a RACI matrix for each project will help guide you toward better attendee lists.

The “Who?” question is important because a meeting is a request of someone’s time and energy. For that reason, you should make sure each person in the meeting has a clearly defined role and reason for attending.

If you can’t articulate the specific, concrete purpose for a person’s attendance, that's a sign that you should remove that person from your list. The meeting organizer should communicate roles to each attendee prior to the meeting, so each person comes prepared.

Additionally, it’s very important to clearly assign two key roles:

  1. A meeting facilitator or moderator--to watch time and make sure all agenda items are covered.
  2. A note taker--to be sure that next steps, action items and parking lot items are captured.

Sometimes one person will perform both roles, usually a project manager.

Without a meeting facilitator and note taker, your meeting is more likely to drift off topic and important action items will be lost.

One additional note on the attendee list: err on the side of smaller meetings. It's easy to fall into the trap of overinclusiveness in the name of teamwork and collaboration, but this is usually counterproductive and almost always leads to waste. Problem-solving meetings tend to suffer most from this meeting faux pas. Productive discussions usually happen in small groups.

If there is a larger group that should be kept informed, make sure they're aware that the meeting is happening and that they receive a summary update after the fact. 

3. WHAT is the agenda?

Now that you have a meeting goal, a list of attendees and roles for each, it will be much easier to assemble your agenda. This outstanding how-to guide on effective meeting agendas from the Harvard Business Review is definitely worth a look. 

When it comes time to circulate your agenda, remember, this is an important piece of written business communication. Make the most of this opportunity to set the stage for achieving your meeting goals before you even get in the room. Choose a meeting title that is accurate, informational and succinct, and that all agenda items are pithy but descriptive. 

4 & 5. WHERE and WHEN?

This might seem like simple logistics, but many important meetings have died on the hill of poor planning. Time zones, physical location and virtual meeting technology can all be complicating factors. The complexity of this step increases as the number of attendees balloons. This is a great time to lean on a project manager.

Once you have secured a time for the meeting, you need to think about which attendees will be in-person versus virtual. It’s important for attendees—and critical for the facilitator—to be well-versed in web meeting technology. or have tech support on standby, especially for  the meeting facilitator or organizer. Otherwise you can spend valuable meeting time just making sure everyone is on the line. It’s critical to include location information in the meeting request, so that people don’t have to dig in their email.

Also, avoid scheduling a longer meeting to cover a wider range of topics with more people. Shorter meetings are more focused, more efficient, and attendees will be more engaged and productive.

6. WHAT's next?

As soon as possible after the meeting, have the meeting note taker circulate a list of action items that clearly denotes responsible parties. Keep it short. While detailed meeting notes might be helpful in some situations and for some people, having a shorter list is clearer, easier, and more efficient to read.

Following the 6 Ws is easy to do and will certainly help drive you toward a more efficient and lean legal department or legal team. Getting it perfect the first time is not the point, so do not strive for perfection. Getting in the habit is the most important takeaway.