Category Archives: Meetings

The Porpoise

“Purpose?” Phillip squinted.

“Purpose,” I repeated. “The first step to having important meetings is to be crystal clear on its purpose. We tell Project Managers they need to have meetings, and then we wonder why their meetings fall apart. Bottom line is that most companies don’t train supervisors and managers on how to conduct an effective meeting. They just expect it to happen, like magic.”

“So we need to start with purpose?” asked Phillip.

“Everything starts with purpose. Meetings run amuck when there is no purpose, or where people attending have different purposes. Until we get those purposes out on the table, our meeting is going to meander aimlessly.”

“How do we do that? Send an email out before the meeting?” pondered Phillip.

“Yes, it’s as simple as that. But think about it. How many meetings did you attend during the past month where there was no stated purpose and no agenda?”

Phillip didn’t have to think long. “You know, I don’t think I went to a single meeting last month where there was a published agenda, much less, a stated purpose.”

“Now, I know some things managed to get done in those meetings, but they could have been much more effective. Do that one simple thing, and teach your PMs to do the same and you will see an improvement.”

The Fear in Contribution

“Does anyone have any ideas about how we can solve this problem?” Wayne asked. The team just sat there, staring at him with lizard eyes, fixated, motionless. Sure, it was Wednesday (hump day), but the atmosphere was limp.

It was like throwing a party where no one shows up. You think you have done your job as a manager, assembling the troops to solve a problem, but you get no response from the team.

It’s not lethargy and your people are not stupid. I find the biggest problem is fear. Fear that their idea will be seen as inadequate or silly.

Prime the pump. Simple solution. Pair everyone up. Have team members work two by two for a brief period of time (brief, like 45 seconds), then reconvene the group. Working in pairs takes the fear out. People can try on their thoughts in the privacy of a twosome before exposing the idea to the group. Primes the pump every time.

What If You Never Came Back?

“I called my office to see how the meeting went, and found out, just because I was out of town, they decided not to have the meeting. There were important items on the agenda, but they cancelled the meeting.” Bob had just returned from three days on the West Coast.

“What if you never came back?” I asked.

“What do you mean, if I never came back?” Bob replied.

“What if you decided to move to Montana and manufacture dental floss? What would your team do without you? How would they have their meeting?”

“Well, I guess, they would pick someone to lead the meeting and carry on.”

“Look, this is a regular meeting, right? Happens every week? Agenda very similar from one week to the next? It’s an important meeting, but the structure doesn’t change much.”

“You are right,” confirmed Bob.

“Pick your next strongest person, tell them to prepare the agenda for next week. Tell them they are going to lead the next meeting.”

“But, I will be at the next meeting.”

“Exactly, but you will become a participant. If you want your meetings to occur while you are out of town, you have to start identifying the leadership while you are in town. Each week, pick a new person to lead. Publish a rotation schedule. You will still be there to prompt and assist, AND you will test their leadership in a safe environment.”

A Hard Working Bunch

I looked around the meeting room. Raul was quietly talking on his phone. Barry and Jim were sending emails under the table, thumbs furiously pounding. George was reading the business section of the newspaper and Theresa was finishing some paperwork. They were a hard working bunch, but their minds were not in this room. And this was an important meeting.

I made enough noise to get the electronic units shut down, the newspaper folded and the paperwork stuck in a briefcase, but I could see the minds were still charging about the world outside of the room.

“Take a piece of paper and write down two sentences responding to the following question. What do I need to say to myself and to this group to let go the outside world for the next 45 minutes to be fully present here and now?”

There was silence. The sheets of paper remained blank. Pens poised, but not moving. Seconds ticked off and the first response was put on paper. Then another. Soon, the ink was flowing and the pens finished their work.

As we circled around the table, each team member lost their grasp on events outside the room and began to focus on each other. Four minutes had passed and we were finally ready to work.

Three Team Members

Who is on your team?

The first type of person always shows up early, helps to arrange the chairs, sits on the edge of their seat and is a frequent volunteer. This is the person I call the Eager Beaver.

The second type of person is never early, but never late. I call this person the vacationer. They are very happy to sit in meetings, because after all, they are not back in their cubicle at work. Responding to a discussion, sometimes they will participate, sometimes they won’t, doesn’t really matter to them, because, after all, they are on vacation.

The third type of person is precisely punctual, sits in the back of the room with arms folded, daring any person around to engage them in conversation. Body language is simultaneously defensive and aggressive. This is the person I call the hostage.

Which of these three has the insight, the brilliant idea that will save the day?

As the manager, we don’t know. No manager can afford to have a single team member disengaged. We need maximum participation, no coasting, everybody plays.

How often do we sit in meetings and watch people check out? One ear open to the meeting, one eyed glancing at a report they were supposed to review yesterday. One brazen team member, laptop open, supposedly taking notes of the meeting, but more likely checking e-mail.

Who is responsible for creating a different atmosphere, a different context? Who is responsible for creating the crucible in which a problem can be explored, alternatives generated and a solution selected? Who is responsible for creating the kind of meeting where each team member is engaged from beginning to end? Who indeed?

If that’s you in the mirror, the next question is “how?” How can you create maximum participation from every person in the room? How can you create full engagement?

How to Pick Up the Energy in a Meeting

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


I am a new manager. I hold a weekly meeting that goes pretty well. We say the things that need to be said and make our plans, but the meetings seem to bomb at the end. They just stop. The energy in the room is flat. I tried to give a motivational rah-rah speech at last week’s meeting but it fell flat on its face. I wish I had kept my mouth shut. The meeting is missing something at the end. How can we finish on a high note?


Follow your own advice and keep your mouth shut. Unless you are one of the rare charismatic managers, your attempts to raise the energy level will feel contrived and pointless.


Because the energy is all coming from you. You need some help. Try the following exercise.

At the end of the meeting, distribute 3×5 index cards. Have everyone write down one action item they plan to do based on the meeting. Then make your way around the table, asking each team member, in turn, to publicly state (in one sentence) their commitment to action. You will be amazed at the rise in energy as you adjourn the meeting.

This is no hollow rah-rah. The reason this works is because it is real and every person participates. -Tom

Up Front

“As a participant in any meeting, Sheila, have you ever walked out at the end saying, Darn, I wish we had done this at the meeting.”

“Well, yeah. Almost every meeting I go to, is like that. Sometimes, it wouldn’t take much to make a meeting more meaningful,” she replied. “Almost every time, it misses the mark.”

“So, you think a meeting would have been better if it had just included some unspoken element?” I asked.


“Then, up front at the beginning of the meeting, does it make sense to get those unspoken elements out on the table?”

Sheila tilted her head. “How would you do that?”

“If you are the leader of the meeting, early on, after establishing the purpose for the meeting, simply ask, What is your condition of satisfaction for today’s meeting. What has to happen, by the end of the day, for you to say, this meeting was worthwhile, to say, you are glad you came, you are glad you contributed?

“As the leader of the meeting,” I continued. “You might as well know that up front.” -TF

Before the Meeting

“They could have done two things up front that would have made the meeting worth attending,” Sheila started. “First they could have published the goals for the meeting. It’s like it’s a big secret. Why not just tell us what they are trying to accomplish with the meeting?”

“And what else?” I asked.

“You know, I said they could have put it all in an email. They could have published all the INFORMATION stuff up front so we could look at it before the meeting.”

“You really read that stuff?”

Sheila smiled. “No, well, yes, I would have at least skimmed it beforehand to get a basic idea of the details.”

“So, what else? What else could have guaranteed the meeting would get you engaged?” -TF

Waste of Meeting

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“It was a waste of time,” Sheila complained. “Some of us had to travel to get here, we lost two days of productivity back at the office. All for this BIG meeting. They’re rolling out this new program, but for my time, they could have told us all about it in an email.”

“What did you learn?” I asked.

“Well, I learned how not to run a meeting,” she replied.

“So, when you run your own meetings, with your department, you now know what NOT to do?”

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t need two lost days to learn a lesson like that.”

“Is it possible, that after all the expenses, all the planning and all the effort that went into the meeting, that your company failed to accomplish what it set out to accomplish?”

Sheila started to chuckle. “You’re right, they probably didn’t intend to have a bad meeting. I am sure they had some goals for the two days, they just didn’t share that with us.”

“Tell me, Sheila. What could they have done differently, to have the impact they were looking for?” -TF

My Fault

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


My last meeting was a one day-seminar working a live case with creative breakout sessions. A warm-up on the beach, 3 coffee breaks and a large lunch break. Instead of 15 minute breaks, the team takes 30 minutes. Instead of 30 minutes for lunch, the team takes 45 minutes. So they found creative techniques to mess with the timetable, and the content of their solutions was not that great.

With this particular group, this happens a lot. I asked for their expectations up front, but that doesn’t work. Normally when I make agreements for a session like this, with other groups, we have no problems.


So, what is different about this team? The answer to your predicament is not some technique on how to handle a group in a meeting. The answer is in what’s different about this group.

I work with groups all over North America. While I have very consistent program material, I have learned that every group I work with is different. And my first job, as a facilitator, or your job, as a manager, is to discover that difference.

If I fail to discover that difference, the level of engagement suffers. When the group is not engaged, they will do something else to fill the time. It appears as misbehavior, taking long breaks, falling asleep or playing with Blackberries under the tablecloth.

Is it the group’s fault? Or is it my fault?

It’s my fault. I failed to engage. I was too impatient, I didn’t listen, I rushed into the content without drawing in the group.

So, over the next few days, we will explore how to do that. -TF