It’s a new year, and many of us have sworn to uphold ambitious resolutions of personal improvement. No small number of those resolutions involve getting fit, losing weight or eating a healthier diet. We’re a few weeks into the new year, so right about now, many of us are already abandoning those resolutions. Collectively, we’re pretty terrible at executing on such things (just 9% of people feel they succeed at meeting resolutions).

Female Runner jumping into the new Year 2017 and leaving 2016 behind.

The means to achieve these resolutions are endlessly documented in books, videos, academic studies, blogs, magazines, seminars, webinars, tweets and discussion groups. Our failures are definitely not for a lack of knowing how.

What does this have to do with better meetings?

Just as with weight-loss schemes, the problem with running meetings is not lack of knowing what to do. We generally know how to get fit. Likewise, we generally know how to run effective meetings. Yet, by and large, we don’t do either. Year after year we continue to complain of evil meetings, poorly conceived and ineptly executed. Why is it so challenging?

I’ll leave fitness to the sport experts, but I think I can provide some guidance on meetings. I’ll give you what I think are the three biggest challenges to running great meetings, and for each explain why a product like Instant Agenda helps you overcome them.

1. We Focus on Participation, Not Running the Meeting Effectively.

I think the single most common and difficult to overcome reason we can’t make meetings better is that in the vast majority of meetings, the person running the meeting is also a key participant. It is very difficult to focus on both procedure and content. We’re all just too busy and too focused on what we need to discuss, resolve, debate or accomplish. The result is that we don’t prepare for meetings as well as we should. Once in the meeting, we are easily sidetracked, or bogged down, or ignore some voices in the room. After the meeting, follow up is scattershot. It’s not that we don’t know better, our attention and energy is just focused elsewhere.

Some of the best meetings and working groups I have ever participated in were run by skilled meeting facilitators who were not participants in the content of the meeting. But it would be onerous to include one in every meeting. This is one of the core reasons we built Instant Agenda — to handle many of the facilitation duties so that participants can focus on participation. A good meeting facilitation tool provides lightweight structure and process so that you don’t need to think about it. One of our users remarked that Instant Agenda meetings, “Seem to effortlessly stay focused and productive.” Effortless because most of your attention can be directed to the content of the meeting, not the procedure of running it.

2. Attendees Don’t Take Responsibility for the Meeting Outcome.

The second factor confounding great meetings is that we wrongly believe that one person runs the meeting and is entirely responsible for its outcome. Those of us who “participate” in meetings tend to behave like unruly cinema goers. We walk in, sit back, enjoy the show, spill popcorn on the floor, and then walk out leaving others to clean up the mess.

One of the great benefits of Agile methodologies is that they distribute responsibility, ownership and empowerment. Everyone is responsible for the delivery of great software. It is a holistic activity. Meetings are the same. A great meeting requires that everyone present take responsibility for the outcome. Instant Agenda helps you do this by making the facilitation of the meeting visible and participatory. Everyone can see and participate in the keeping of time, recording of notes and establishing of action items. It lets us hold each other accountable. If there is some discrepancy, we catch it right away. One of our users told us, “I love that you can see the notes and action items in real time. Everyone is on the same page.” Another user said, “Since we started using Instant Agenda, people are more engaged.” Everyone in the meeting becomes the steward of better outcomes.

3. It’s Not an Activity. It’s a lifestyle.

Just like fitness, great meetings are not one-off activities but an aspect of organizational culture. It’s not enough that “a few really important meetings” are great if the other 95% are a disaster. Given the expense of having many people attend a meeting, we need all of them to be concise and productive, whether they are small and informal or large and strategic. Success depends upon building a consistent and strong culture around meetings.

Establishing a consistent culture or pattern of behavior within an organization is a challenge. It requires persistent messaging, training and coaching. We believe that Instant Agenda can dramatically reduce the level of effort by providing consistency of practice across your organization. Instant Agenda is lightweight but opinionated. We have intentionally built in practices and values that teach and guide so that everyone in your organization can improve together.

There is nothing magical about running great meetings, just like there is nothing magical about getting and staying fit or meeting your New Year’s resolution, whatever it is. It’s just hard. Instant Agenda makes it significantly easier to consistently run great meetings across your organization.

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Michael Ball

Co-founder, Product Lead at Instant Agenda
Michael was born a squalling, helpless MVP and has struggled ever since to obtain product-market fit. Experiments have included Peace Corps volunteer, ops engineer, scrum master, product owner, agile coach, husband, father, armchair philosopher, and, most recently, lean startup founder. Michael is still working on his exit-strategy, but his earliest angel investors seem generally proud of his accomplishments.
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