Experiences from a product leader, ex-McKinsey consultant, and current Stanford MBA student

A group of 5 people around a table. One person says: “Because we don’t remember the conclusion from last time, we will repeat the discussion today”

Ever been to a meeting where the facilitator asks questions and no one participates? Or you can sense underlying tension, yet no one speaks up to disagree with the manager?

Below are my top 5 tactics for creating engaging, constructive meetings for better decision-making. Consider sharing them with your team to improve your own team meetings.

I assume you already know the 10 Steps to Run Better Meetings.

Often, one or two people do 80% of the talking. And they’re talking so much that others aren’t able to jump in.

Yet, Alex “Sandy” Pentland, an MIT professor who uses data science to study human dynamics, found that balanced group contributions drive team performance:

“Overall Pentland’s studies show that team performance is driven by five measurable factors: Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short. (…)”
— Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code.

So how can you help quieter voices speak up?

  • When you pose a question, ask everyone to share their view in a roundtable
  • Directly ask those who have spoken less: “Hi Peter, we haven’t heard much from you yet. What do you think about this topic?”
  • Follow tactics #2 (prepare a short pre-read) and #3 (create space by speaking less)

Have you ever been quiet when a question is asked because you don’t yet know what you think about the topic? Many need time to think about a topic on their own before they’re ready to discuss it.

A short pre-read helps participants prepare ahead of time. Notice the word short; your colleagues are too busy for long pre-reads.

Two people talking. One person asks: “Did you read the pre-read?” The other person responds angrily: “No, I didn’t have time to read 10 pages”

Even if you try to help quieter voices speak up, the dominating voices also need to take a step back.

We create space for others to participate by speaking less ourselves.

Here’s how Liz Wiseman, an executive advisor, coached a manager who drained his team meetings for energy because he talked too much:

“I gave him five poker chips, each worth a number of seconds of talk time. One was worth 120 seconds, the next three worth 90 seconds, and one was worth just 30. I suggested he limit his contribution in the meeting to five comments, represented by each of the chips. He could spend them whenever he wished, but he only had five.
— Wiseman, Liz. Multipliers.

And here’s how it went:

He played his poker chips deftly and achieved two important outcomes: 1) He created abundant space for others. Instead of being Matthew’s strategy session, it became a forum for a diverse group to voice ideas and cocreate the strategy. 2) Matthew increased his own credibility and presence as a leader.”
— Wiseman, Liz. Multipliers.

Consider limiting your own speaking with poker chips. And if you have meeting participants who take up disproportionate space, help make them aware of how they’re making it harder for others to contribute.

Debate is healthy. Through debate, we surface more information and more considerations, so that we can take better decisions.

But sometimes debates get tense in unhealthy ways. Or sometimes, in fear of conflict, debates are avoided altogether to the detriment of the team.

So what can we do?

Separate between “big debate” meetings and “decision” meetings

“Lower the tension by making it clear that you are debating, not deciding,” wrote Kim Scott, previous CEO coach and author of Radical Candor. She suggests separating between debate meetings and decision meetings on major issues to:

  • lower tension
  • slow down key decisions
  • foster a culture of debate

Separating between debate and decision meetings lowers friction because it clarifies the goal of the meeting.

At least part of the friction and frustration in a lot of meetings results from the fact that half the room thinks they are there to make a decision, the other half to debate. The would-be deciders are furious that the debaters don’t seem to be driving toward an answer. The would-be debaters are furious that the deciders are refusing to think things through carefully enough, to consider every angle of the argument.
— Scott, Kim. Radical Candor. Kindle Edition.

Surface alternatives first, before arguing the pros/cons of each

It’s hard to keep a debate focused. The key is to surface alternatives first, before arguing for the different alternatives.

Imagine you’re discussing geographical expansion for a product line. Before discussing whether to expand into Germany or not, lay out the alternatives. What about expanding into the U.K. or the U.S.? What about not expanding at all? Are there different degrees of expansion within each region?

You then identify the most relevant options before you dig into the details of those options.

Ask participants to argue the opposing view

We enter debates with our own preconceptions. We get locked into our own opinion. Confirmation bias makes us seek out the evidence that favors our own point of view.

Asking participants to argue the opposing view helps break these psychological tendencies. It brings empathy and nuance to the debate.

While debates are healthy and wonderful, not all kinds of debates are desirable.

Imagine that you want an important decision to pass, but you don’t know where participants stand ahead of time. Then it’s risky to raise the topic.

5 people around a table. One person asks “What do you think about cutting this product line?” One person thinks “Great! Let’s make changes now.” The other three participants look highly skeptical. One of the skeptisks wonders “Why is he asking?”

In high-stakes scenarios, you should speak with stakeholders 1:1 ahead of time so you know where they stand. Then you can plan accordingly.

You don’t want them or yourself to be surprised at your high-stakes meeting.

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