Stop meeting mayhem

My recent column on why it’s not always a good idea for everyone to get along and the importance of having a dynamic, and sometimes dissonant conversation garnered a lot of great tweets, queries and comments. Some readers expressed concern about the fact that these conversations can be unwieldy and unmanageable and in the end, it can feel like there is no clear outcome.

That’s all true. So what can be done to make creative friction more productive?

Some years ago, I was talking to a colleague after a meeting and realised we had both walked out of the meeting with different ideas about what was next. That almost makes the meeting useless — and it happens more often than we might think. If we don’t know what is next, then we’ve wasted everyone’s time and will likely end up having another meeting or be inundated with endless email chains trying to figure it out.

It was after that particular meeting that I came up with my “green light, red light, yellow light” system, which I now use almost each time I chair a session. It is clear and it ensures that everyone knows what is going to happen and who is going to make it happen. It is also fairly universal — I’ve used it in meetings all over the world, across different sectors, and everyone knows what a traffic light looks like.

Here is how it works:

A proposal or point of discussion comes to the table discussion and we talk it through thoroughly. Once it seems like we have all the points out in the open, the discussion comes to a close with a decision that is labelled green light, red light, or yellow light.

Green light: it is clear go. There might be some modification needed but there is a clear path for the proposal to go ahead. We note the decision in our meeting minutes, the person who is responsible for the action is also noted and the timetable for follow-up is written down. On to the next agenda item.

Red light: it is a no, and decisively so. We’ve talked the whole thing over, the consensus is not to go ahead, be it for right now or forever. We record the decision and move on to the next agenda item.

Yellow light: this is a slightly more complex answer. I describe it as revise and resubmit. That could mean that we generally like the idea but the proposal needs to be restructured, clarified, or modified in some other way. It can also mean that more research needs to be done, for example to test the market for a new product or service. The follow-up is usually a request that the proposal be presented again with modifications or the proposal is shelved with a clear timeline for it to be revisted on the agenda. The minutes of the meeting should reflect what was suggested, who is tasked with following up and which date was assigned for the proposal to come back to the meeting.

It doesn’t just work in the boardroom and on investment panels, it even works when it comes to organising family matters — you know, when everyone at home is trying to coordinate calendars, decide on holiday plans and figure out who goes where at what time and with whom.

I find it balances out those valuable debates of creative friction to ensure an outcome everyone agrees upon, while assigning accountability. This way no one walks out of a meeting unsure of what was decided or who is responsible for getting things done.

This column is from Above Board with Lucy Marcus, which illuminates how boards work, the consequences when they don’t work, and how they can succeed. To receive alerts from the BBC about new Above Board with Lucy Marcus columns, please subscribe here


23 December 2014

Stop meeting mayhem

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