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6 tips for an effective meeting based on the CIA manual

If you want more effective meetings, it might pay off to first look into the reason why so many meetings are ineffective. In other words: how can you paralyze an organization and make sure as little as possible gets done?

Some time ago I came across the Simple Tamper Field Manual of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. This manual contains a variety of methods for sabotage. Initially, it was intended to be a source of inspiration to counter the Nazis in Europe.

This manual was released around 1940, but a lot of its content is still very relevant today. The final pages of the document contain several tips on how to oppose organizations while remaining unnoticed. By reversing these tips I came to 6 tips for effective meetings (and working more effectively in general).

Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential.

Stephen R. Covey

6 tips for effective meetings in 1 minute

By inverting the tips in the CIA sabotage manual, I came to these 6 tips for effective meetings:

  1. Make sure there is a clearly defined goal. Inform participants in advance on the goal of the meeting. This allows them to assess whether their presence is required. The other way around you may also expect others to inform you on the reasons they request your presence.
  2. Be pragmatic and take risks. Processes are not sacred, so always keep the end goal in mind. Make a decision and go for it.
  1. Communicate clearly and effective. Do not use more time than necessary for the meeting.
  2. Limit the number of people involved. The more participants, the less individual responsibility they experience.
  3. Focus on the essentials and plan ahead. Do not get lost in detail.
  4. Share knowledge and results along the way. Communicate often so that others are informed of what is going on

1. Make sure there is a clearly defined goal

Why hold the meeting in the first place. Half an hour of someone else’s time gets scheduled just like that. There is no clearly defined goal, just a calendar invite for a specific time. We are too quick to accept such meetings when they are scheduled further along in the future. If you don’t want to spend time on it right now, then don’t accept an invite for it in the future. Say no and save yourself and the other participants the time and unnecessary frustrations.

When the goal is clear the next question comes up: Should this be a meeting? There might be other – more effective – ways to coordinate work. Especially now that many of us are working from home, fatigue is lurking. We shouldn’t spend a full day sitting behind a computer screen. The virtually more mature organizations have often embraced other ways to coordinate work.

There are alternatives to a meeting

Are you still convinced that you need a meeting to achieve your goal, then make sure to set an agenda in advance. Also explicitly state what the goal of the meeting is. Is it necessary to share background information? Then do so, but be concise (see also the third tip further along in this article).

Another approach to effective meetings

At Amazon, they have found an interesting way to run effective meetings. The use of PowerPoint to present a new idea is prohibited. Instead, a maximum of 6 pages are devoted to telling a story. At the start of the meeting, all attendees are given 30 minutes to read through these pages. Based on the common understanding and knowledge provided, the group can come to a decision. To sum up a complete proposal in only 6 pages is a challenge. This setup ensures that the document contains only the essential information for the decision-makers. Another benefit of this approach is that the most relevant information is available to all stakeholders.

2. Be pragmatic and take risks

Every organization has processes in place to streamline day to day operations. The process is not sacred though. A process is nothing more than a method that probably works well in most situations. It has once been devised by someone, which does not mean it still or always offers the best solution.

Every process serves a certain goal and we tend to lose sight of that goal over time. Make sure to focus on the goal. If the current process does not match that goal, adjust the process.

Ask yourself at every moment “is this necessary?”

Marcus Aurelius

Keep moving forward

A pragmatic approach also means you have to be willing to take risks from time to time. You rarely have all information available. If that’s the case, assess the information you do have and make a decision. If that decision turns out to be a wrong one, adjust it where possible. Indecision is a far larger problem than making the wrong decision.

How often have you taken part in a lengthy discussion on a subject that later turned out to be only of minor importance to the project as a whole? In these discussions, the costs in terms of time wasted are far greater than the benefit the decision might have. Unfortunately, the indirect costs of not making a decision are rarely made transparent.

Responsibilities are not always clear, but this offers opportunities. By being decisive, you ensure that your organization keeps moving forward instead of getting stuck in analysis paralysis.

Finally, do not come back too easily on decisions once they are made. Any difficult decision has proponents and opponents, but in the end, everyone has to accept the decision. Once a decision is made, make sure everyone expresses their support for it. Silent resistance is difficult to identify and it is a disaster for the effectiveness of your team. It is no problem to come back to a decision that was made earlier, but only if there are new insights that justify altering the decision.

3. Communicate clearly and effective

Do not schedule a meeting without a clear purpose in mind (tip 1). Next, determine who should attend the meeting to achieve that goal (see also tip 4). Ask yourself: With good preparation, how much time would it take to achieve this goal?

The more time you give people, the longer it will take to get results. By keeping the meeting short, you force attendees to get to the heart of the matter quickly. Therefore they will have to come to the meeting well prepared. There simply isn’t any time to talk about all the nitty-gritty details and fringe cases. This allows you to focus on the core of the matter and leave those details for what they are, namely just details. Effective meeting focus on the core of the challenge at hand.

Work expands so as to fill up the time available for its completion.

Parkinson’s law

Keep meetings as short as possible and certainly no longer than one hour in a row. What helps is to get rid of the conference table. Research has shown that stand-up meetings on average take up 34% less time, without negatively affecting the results. In case you need more time, for example for a brainstorming session, make sure to schedule plenty of breaks. Breaks allow the participants to process information and all of their impressions. There’s a reason you get the best insights when you are no longer actively processing information.

4. Limit the number of people involved

I mentioned it before: take a hard look at the individuals you truly need to achieve the goal of your meeting. Everyone attending should also have a sufficient amount of time to say what they have to say and provide their input. The challenge here is to find the right balance between getting buy-in and having a proper decision-making process.

Make sure to map the anticipated resistance in advance, so that this does not come as a surprise during the meeting.

The main thing about any meeting is that it takes place outside the meeting

From the book ” Hoe word ik een rat?”

An important aspect to keep in mind when working on effective meetings is social loafing. This term from social psychology states that as the group size increases, individual efforts decrease. As more people (can) bear the responsibility, individual group members feel less responsible for the result. You might recognize this yourself: when talking to a colleague one-on-one you are often more actively involved than in a meeting when 10 others.

The more introverted colleagues are less comfortable being in the spotlight. If you value their input during the meeting, notify them in advance. This gives them time to prepare their input and it provides you with more insights from different viewpoints.

As we are working from home and meeting digitally, smaller group sizes have an additional advantage: there is a bigger chance that non-verbal cues will be picked up on. These cues are harder to notice as we aren’t in the same room together. The larger the group size, the harder it becomes to pick up on these signals. Noticing and acting on these cues lead to more effective meetings.

5. Focus on the essentials and plan ahead

In order to clarify your goal (tip 1), it is important to make a clear distinction between the main issues and less relevant details. At the start of a new project or assignment, this is often top of mind. The challenge is to keep this in mind throughout the project. Once you get up to speed, your agenda fills up and your to-do list will grow each day. At such a moment ask yourself: What would contribute most to reaching my goal? The Eisenhower model can help in mapping your priorities.

In any case, don’t get lost in details, such as the exact wording on an internal document. A tip a colleague once gave me was to think about the elements I would remember 10 years from now. This point of view allows you to assess your own way of working from a distance and adjust where necessary.

What is important must never be at the mercy of what is urgent.

Stephen R. Covey

Keep looking ahead and map dependencies. Coordinating with the legal department might not seem like the most important task at hand. If however, you fail to inform them in a timely manner your project will most certainly get delayed. So in addition to the dependencies, also take a good look at the lead times of your tasks. By planning ahead you ensure that you remain in the driver seat.

6. Share your knowledge and results along the way

Knowledge is one of the few things that grow once it is shared. By sharing knowledge you also get a better understanding of the matter at hand. Furthermore, it makes the information stick.

A great example of the potential impact of sharing knowledge is the story of Spencer Silver. Spencer Silver was a researcher at 3M who attempted to develop a strong type of glue. As he failed in his attempts, he did manage to create a weak type of glue. He didn’t keep this information to himself, but instead, he shared it with his colleagues. Some years later his colleague, Art Fry, became very frustrated as his bookmarks kept falling off his lectern during choir rehearsals. He remembered Spencer’s story of the weak glue and that is how the post-it was born.

One of the most frequently mentioned improvements in change processes is to ‘communicate more often’. By regularly sharing your results, you keep others informed of your progress. You are of course well aware of what is going on, but the pitfall is to think others are too. Everyone has his priorities and you project simply is not always top of mind for others. Also, keep in mind that you should repeat a message 5 to 7 times before it has settled in with everyone. The importance of frequently getting results and communicating on them cannot be emphasized enough.

Effective meetings, the new normal

This article serves 2 purposes. On the one hand, I expect you to be mindful of the time of others. Do not carelessly claim their time without a clear goal in mind. On the other hand, I hope it helps you to better guard your own time when others are trying to put a claim on it.

Challenge yourself to find others ways than a meeting to reach your goal. Could you for example achieve your goals with a short e-mail or a quick phone call?

When you do require a meeting, think of the minimum number of people that can join to achieve your goal. In how short of a timespan can you reach that goal? Prepare an agenda for the meeting and share relevant background information in advance, so that you can come to a substantiated decision.

Take a hard look at the calendar invites you receive. Are they prepared insufficiently? Help others take steps in the right direction by guiding them. This results in a better use of both their time and yours. Make effective meetings the norm in your organization!

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