A Better Meeting Structure

October 11, 2015 liane

One of the most common outcomes of the first team effectiveness session with a new team is an overhaul of the team’s meeting structure. It happens through a very logical conversation that starts with what’s changing in the world, moves to the value the team needs to add in that environment, and finally ends with “so what forums do you have to do that kind of work?”

Inevitably, teams have failed to link the structure (i.e., frequency and duration) of their meetings with the job that needs to be accomplished in those meetings. One of my favorite examples was from a team that described a gargantuan mandate to reshape how the company was perceived both internally by employees and externally by the public, the government and regulators. I asked innocently “what does your meeting structure look like?” and smiled when the answer was “we meet weekly for a half-hour.” Yup, that should do it.

If you run a leadership team (a team where the members each lead teams), here are the questions to ask yourself to redesign your meeting structure.

What does our team need to do?

Answering this question is not as simple as it seems (and it’s probably time for me to devote an entire post to the topic) but suffice to say that you need to get clear on the work the team should be doing together. Through that discussion, you should also become clear on the work you should not be doing while together.

How can we divide our work into different categories?

One of the ways meetings are sub-optimized is that they combine very different types of discussions with little opportunity to change the pace or tenor of the conversation. Make things easier by having meetings built to suit the work. Can you separate out short time horizon work from issues with a longer time horizon? Can you split operational discussions of the business (working in the business) from discussions about processes and enabling functions (working on the business)

How frequently does each topic need to be addressed?

The short time horizon topics (e.g., revising projections for the coming month) need to happen frequently. Not much point in discussing October forecasts in November (although accuracy will certainly improve!). Are there other topics that have been clogging up weekly agenda but are more appropriately covered once each month in a more open forum?

How much time do the different meetings require?

Each type of meeting needs a very different feel. The weekly operational meeting needs to be crisp and therefore needs to be as short as possible. The exact time will depend on the scope and scale of the organization you lead, but anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours is probably about right. The monthly meeting is going to need a little more time because team members will need more opportunity to express differences of opinion on those topics. Usually a half-day is good, but if your business is complex, make it a full day each month. Once you’re into the long-range strategic conversations, you need a day or two.

Where does the overflow go?

The last question to ask is where to cover off the agenda items that aren’t suitable for the entire team. Often, there are issues that need the input of three or four team members, but would be a poor use of time for the rest of the team. Do you have a standing spot in the calendar to absorb these discussions? Without it, the temptation is to just squeeze it in to the weekly meeting, rather than have to wrestle the schedules into submission. Leave an overflow on the calendar and make it found time for anyone who isn’t required.

One further consideration…where does your team fit in with the teams above you? The leader of your team is probably also a team member on another team.  Where is the natural spot for your meetings to sit relative to those meetings? Should your meeting be just before the one-up meeting so they can be used to prepare? Should they be just after as part of the cascade of communication?  Those are factors to consider when setting your calendar.

So, in case you want an easy recipe to try with your team, here’s what my meeting structure for a leadership team (a team where the members run teams) would look like.

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