There are many ways for a company to die, and many companies have met their demise due to poorly conducted meetings. In a sense, all activities within a company are an extension of its executive meetings, making meetings a true reflection of the company’s culture and management style. “Death By Meeting” by organizational health expert Patrick Lencioni is a book that discusses how to conduct effective meetings.
Among the globally recognized leadership gurus today, Mr. Lencioni is one of the youngest, in his early 50s, while most of his counterparts are in their seventies or eighties. He has published a total of 12 books so far, with “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” being his best-selling and most influential work. The book describes how a startup team can transition from a dysfunctional state to a path of organizational health.
In this book, the author portrays scenarios that mostly take place in meetings. As a result, many readers have requested, “Pat, can you write a book specifically about meetings? Because the most painful thing we experience in our organizations is meetings!”
As a response, Lencioni wrote “Death By Meeting,” a book that revolves around the protagonist Will, the son of Catherine from “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” and explores how to transform the current state of organizational meetings.
Many people challenge me when I talk about “organizational health,” saying that I am boasting about myself. They often ask, “Which American company do you think has a relatively healthy organization? Have you really worked in a particularly healthy organization? Are your success stories in the US unique?” People find it hard to believe that this framework applies to their own situations, thinking that only highly organized and high-performing mature companies can implement an organizational health system.
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I initially had the same misconception, and even I felt less convincing when discussing cases from large companies. However, I conducted a deliberate series of experiments in many small businesses, teams, and even non-profit organizations in China. In the end, I reached a conclusion about organizational health: the leader at the top level is the decisive factor in driving organizational health.
01-Three key elements for effective meetings at the top level
The efficiency of team operations is reflected in the efficiency of meetings because the most valuable and frequent time spent together as a team is in the meeting room. In fact, some companies have turned seemingly insignificant weekly meetings into engines that drive the overall operation of the company.
In the book “Breaking Down Silos,” Lencioni discusses three key themes regarding meetings:
- Clarity: The purpose of a meeting is to solve important problems that are worth gathering everyone together for.
- Alignment: It is not just about top-down communication but ensuring that decisions made by the top management team (TMT) are effectively implemented throughout the organization, ensuring consistent information flow to those on the frontlines.
- Integrity: The execution breakdown often stems from a lack of integrity in the overall system operation.
How can we put these into practice? Let’s analyze the weekly team meeting.
The translation of “meeting” is actually a bit problematic and gives the impression of routine and mandatory meetings. The typical flow of a weekly team meeting is as follows: last week’s summary, this week’s plans, boss’s comments, highlighting key points, providing guidance, and giving approval.
During the review and deployment phase, usually, each person speaks in turn. In this case, only the boss’s attention is consistently focused, while others can easily zone out. The so-called “death by meetings” primarily affects the leader, who must remain focused, control the balance between praise and criticism for each person, and provide insightful comments on each matter.
Such individualistic approaches inevitably lead to departmental walls. Even if you deliberately propose a topic for collaboration during the meeting, you will generally not receive a response unless there are conflicting interests or overlapping boundaries.
Lencioni categorized the agendas of daily meetings into four types:
- The first type is information sharing, which includes reporting and exchanging information, often taking up a significant amount of time.
- The second type is to clarify the most critical next steps.
- The third type is to engage in collective discussions on key tasks, find solutions, and reach agreements.
- The fourth type is for the boss to reassign resources. Although all resources are in the hands of department executives, it is the boss’s right and duty to allocate these resources.
Through analysis, Lencioni proposes “clarity.” Firstly, he eliminates the information sharing segment. With the availability of the internet and reports, as well as the opportunity for colleagues to have meals together and communicate face-to-face in the office, why waste two hours in a weekly meeting for information sharing? This not only represents a significant waste but also indicates a lack of daily communication within the company.
According to Lencioni, at the 15-minute mark before the scheduled end time of each meeting, all discussions should be stopped, and the decisions, resolutions, and actions taken during the meeting should be listed on a whiteboard.
The term “decision” refers to matters or opinions that are unrelated to the agenda and are spontaneously raised or assigned by the boss. Often, decisions can be easily misunderstood or overlooked. Some people may think that the boss has made a final decision on the spot, while others may perceive it as a casual remark. Therefore, all participants, including the meeting note-taker, should have the right to seek clarification from the boss regarding such decisions.
The term “resolution” refers to the final conclusions or summarizing statements related to the agenda items discussed during the meeting.
The term “decision” is focused on the “strategy”. In the Terracotta Army, the driver of the bronze chariot holds a bamboo pole with a thorn to control the direction of the horses. Therefore, a decision is a significant decision involving directional adjustments. Although it may seem like a localized action, it actually affects the overall situation and needs to be separately identified.
When listing these three elements, it is necessary for everyone to interpret and discuss them in depth, ensuring that each item is accurate and clear, without any ambiguity. If the content is unclear but subordinates are expected to do things correctly, it not only shows a lack of responsibility but also wastes more time in correction.
Next, Lencioni emphasizes “alignment.” After the listing, interpretation, and clarification, all participants must make a commitment: not only to ensure that everyone’s understanding is aligned but also to commit to delivering consistent information to specific audiences within the specified time frame. There must be a unified time point for post-meeting communication. If the speed of communication varies, rumors will inevitably spread. It is also necessary to establish agreements on who the information should be communicated to, at what level, and who should supervise the process.
To achieve alignment, Lencioni shares an experience in his book “Death by Meeting”: the use of email for information transmission is not allowed, and face-to-face communication is required. Transmission is a one-way “I tell you” process, while communication is two-way, allowing the other party to ask questions, solicit opinions, observe reactions, and provide necessary explanations in a timely manner. Without two-way communication, alignment cannot be effectively conveyed.
Lastly, Lencioni explains “integrity.” He uses two ball sports as analogies for the integrity of the overall system operation. One is a team project in golf, where the final score is the sum of each individual’s strokes. In the context of a company, this means that collective performance depends on individual performance, and as long as everyone does their job well, good team results can be achieved without the need for collaboration. Overemphasizing division of responsibilities in this way will inevitably create organizational barriers.
Another example is basketball. A basketball team typically consists of 12 players, along with a head coach (who can be likened to an entrepreneur), assistant coaches, trainers, team doctors, and so on. However, during a game, only 5 players are on the court. Similarly, in a company, not all departments or employees need to be involved in solving a particular problem. Instead, it is necessary to strategically deploy resources and adjust the lineup based on the specific circumstances.
Furthermore, a basketball team doesn’t just play a single game; they compete throughout an entire season, facing different opponents. The head coach needs to consider the overall season when developing tactics and strategies. It is crucial for all team members, regardless of whether they are on the court or not, to maintain a high level of readiness and support each other, as they may be substituted in at any time. This is what Lencioni envisions as the holistic operation of a healthy organization.
02-Six steps of a weekly tactical meeting.
Having effective weekly meetings leads to a worry-free work environment. According to Lencioni, the prerequisite for a successful weekly meeting is for the boss to have one-on-one communication with each participant at least once during the week leading up to the meeting.
In this context, one-on-one refers to treating the other person as a complete individual, spending time together. During the one-on-one communication, the superior should guide the subordinate to express their most pressing concerns (such as work difficulties, personal skill gaps, etc.), listen attentively to the feedback, show genuine care and support, but refrain from directly solving work-related problems or giving excessive specific guidance. The ultimate goal is to achieve a discussion beyond work-related matters. The duration of a one-on-one meeting can vary, but it is important to allow the subordinate to speak more and listen less. Additionally, it is not only the boss who should have one-on-one meetings with the executive team, but each executive should also have them with their direct subordinates.
Through one-on-one meetings, executives can convey genuine information and ideas to the boss. As a result, there is no need to report modified or distorted information during the weekly meeting. If you find it challenging to have one-on-one meetings with everyone on a weekly basis, it is likely that the team you directly manage is too large and needs to be scaled down as soon as possible. Or you can use a meeting tool to help with this question, such as Huddles.app, it includes thousands of meeting template that you can choose.
For issues that cannot be resolved in one-on-one meetings, the weekly meeting is necessary, but it should be limited to tactical matters. The primary purpose of the weekly tactical meeting is to train and motivate participants, enhance their cooperation, improve their readiness to act at any time, and allow the head coach to determine who to deploy and which tactics to use.
We must break the habit of having a predetermined theme or agenda for every weekly meeting. The boss is far removed from the front line and may not be aware of the state of grassroots employees, so there is no reason to finalize the theme before the weekly meeting. On the contrary, the theme should come from the participants, and each person should come to the meeting with their own questions. They are not spectators or listeners but actors, and it is very likely that they will play a leading role in this tactical meeting.
Specifically, Lencioni divides the weekly tactical meeting into six steps.
Each participant states their top 2-3 priorities for the week. Each person should take less than 1 minute to quickly describe their current tasks. During this process, no explanations, breakdowns, or discussions should take place. The identified issues should be listed on a whiteboard.
Only a qualitative review of the overall progress towards the organization’s goals for the month is needed. Use colors like red, orange, yellow, and green to indicate the speed of progress for different projects. Identify the parts that everyone agrees should be marked as red. The purpose of this step is to find the theme for the weekly meeting, not to create pressure or assign blame.
Lencioni introduced the concept of a “parking lot”: if a problem cannot be resolved within 15-20 minutes of discussion, it should be considered a strategic issue and not discussed in the weekly meeting. Instead, it should be addressed in a strategic special meeting.
Lencioni suggests selecting only 2-3 tactical issues for the weekly meeting and leaving other issues to be resolved later. Trying to address six or seven issues in one meeting will likely result in those issues being discussed again in the following week because they were not resolved
During the official meeting, each agenda item must be decided within 15 minutes. Many tactical issues can be resolved in three to four minutes. In fact, many tactical issues boil down to simple yes or no questions. As long as everyone enters a state of focus at the same time and accepts the concept of “disagree but commitment,” decisions can be made efficiently.
“Disagree but commitment” is the philosophy of Intel, where individuals express their disagreement but commit to fully supporting the decision. “Disagree and commit” is the philosophy of Amazon, where individuals express their disagreement but still fully support the decision. In Amazon’s culture, Bezos believes that when we disagree and commit, it doesn’t mean we think our viewpoint is wrong. Instead, he says, “It’s a genuine expression of disagreement—honestly held views—and it’s the team’s opportunity to weigh my view and make a decision, quickly and genuinely committing to act in the way that is determined.”
Even if a decision turns out to be wrong, it’s only for a week. This low-risk aggressive decision-making approach should be adopted in the weekly meeting. The U.S. military has a saying, “Any decision is better than no decision.” If no decisions are made in the weekly meeting, it would be better not to have the meeting at all, and it would also create a habit of treating the meeting as a mere formality.
There needs to be an agreement on communication regarding the decisions made, both internally and externally. When making this agreement, the entire discussion process should be ignored, and there should be disciplinary requirements.
The meeting minutes should only include four sections and can be compressed to one page.
- The first section should record the meeting topics, the 2-3 issues discussed during the meeting.
- The second section should include confidentiality agreements, which are crucial but often overlooked. It should clearly state which statements from today’s discussion can be shared and which cannot, specify the level of confidentiality, and outline the consequences of leaking information. This creates a sense of security and encourages active participation and lively discussions.
- The third section should list all decisions made.
- The fourth section should clarify communication responsibilities and specify who is responsible for communicating with whom.
Such meeting minutes have a significant impact on the following work. They can be used as a reference during daily check-ins and morning meetings to ensure that everyone’s daily tasks align with the minutes.
03-Gradually taking off the department hat
The effective participation of the boss in meetings relies on the questions raised by the attendees, which should come directly from the front line. Otherwise, meetings can easily turn into academic debates.
There is another type of meeting that resembles an early morning court session. The boss, like an emperor, rarely holds meetings. When a meeting finally takes place, it begins with “report if there are any issues, otherwise adjourn.” Only when someone raises a question do discussions commence. However, due to the boss’s limited information and the short duration of the meeting, it is impossible to make final decisions. After the meeting, people often blame the boss for being indecisive.
To summarize, as Lencioni puts it, the biggest problem with meetings in organizations is that they become a chaotic stew. Many companies fail to differentiate between different types of issues and hold meetings based on experience and imagination rather than purpose.
In reality, weekly meetings serve as tactical meetings to address and differentiate between tactical and strategic issues. Unsolvable issues identified during weekly meetings naturally become the focus of monthly meetings.
Whether monthly meetings should include business analysis largely depends on the industry. For example, Dell, as a direct sales company, conducts business reviews on a weekly basis.
Generally, business analysis meetings are held quarterly, known as Off-set meetings, which are different from On-set internal meetings. Weekly meetings are conducted under time pressure, while quarterly meetings require a calm and sufficient amount of time to make decisions, away from the company and without time constraints.
Off-set quarterly meetings typically include four dimensions of content:
- Conducting business analysis: This involves strategic reviews, examining the progress and analyzing performance based on the numbers.
- Team retrospective: This process focuses on individuals, where each member of the executive team engages in criticism and self-reflection, evaluating their performance and collaboration over the quarter.
- Key position discussions: These discussions focus on critical positions outside the executive team that have a significant impact on the company. The capabilities and qualities of the current personnel in these key positions are evaluated. As a leader, it is not necessary to be familiar with everyone in these key positions, but it is important to know their names in order to observe and guide them better during work interactions. This part of the meeting is crucial as it directly determines the effectiveness of decision implementation.
- Industry research and analysis: Experts can be invited to interpret industry trends, or discussions can be conducted among participants regarding industry development and competitors.
Looking back, from weekly meetings to monthly strategic meetings, and then to off-set quarterly meetings, the focus is on gradually removing the department hat. During weekly meetings, we use a six-step method to ensure that participants don’t wear their department hats, although they still tend to unconsciously approach discussions from a departmental perspective. By the time of strategic meetings, participants engage in higher-level discussions around strategic issues, and some of the department hats are taken off. During quarterly meetings, everyone leaves the company’s usual environment to focus on people, the company, and the industry for discussions, without any departmental identity or elements. As a result, all department hats are completely removed.
Here’s an additional point to consider: Can the last weekly meeting of the month replace the monthly meeting? Can the second quarterly meeting serve as a semi-annual meeting? Lencioni’s answer is no.
It is crucial for the boss to provide all participants with a stable expectation regarding the meeting schedule. Once the date for the monthly meeting is set, everyone knows that the strategic meeting is coming up and will not rush to address strategic issues during the weekly meeting. Similarly, once the date for the quarterly meeting is set, people will not conduct strategic reviews every month. This allows everyone to clearly differentiate between issues of different natures and have a clear understanding of daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals and tasks.
04-Team collaboration is not just a virtue, but a choice.
Meetings are an important manifestation of team work, and ultimately, they must return to the source – the boss. The boss must first understand: I have so many employees, and I can directly give orders. Do I really need an executive team?
As Lencioni said, “Team collaboration is not just a virtue, but a strategic choice for organizational leaders. You choose, and the team is formed; you don’t choose, and the team doesn’t exist.” Some industries and companies are different, and they may not need an executive team. Instead, they may need assistants and secretarial teams. For example, in technology companies, the boss is both the technical leader and the largest shareholder, and establishing an executive team may actually reduce efficiency.
On the other hand, the boss must also understand: what kind of team do I need? After figuring this out, you need to have an open and honest discussion with the top management team (TMT) to see what kind of people the team is lacking, and then carefully select and recruit them.
The most dangerous situation is when you hire a bunch of people that the company doesn’t really need and let them join the executive team. I have been to a company where the boss had a military background and he admitted that his ability to manage people was very poor.
Throughout his career, he hired people with extremely strong technical skills but who were even worse at managing people than he was. After a while, he had to let these people leave, and the company still couldn’t find the right people it needed. As a boss, you must realize that when recruiting team members, you are recruiting for the company, not for yourself. If you hire people you personally like, you will constantly hire and constantly lose them. But if you hire people that the company truly needs, you will find that hiring one person will bring stability.
There are generally two ways for new people to enter the TMT: either they enter directly or they are trained and then enter. In fact, you don’t need to be entangled in this, it’s just a tactical issue within the team, like in a basketball team.
The real strategic issue is whether you, as the boss, truly pay attention to your existing and new team members. Have you invested enough resources? As long as you pay enough attention and invest enough, it will often be easy to integrate new people into the TMT. But if you lack attention and investment, you may not even have new candidates, and no matter what you do, you will feel constrained.
Author: Matthew Syed
Well-known management consultant and columnist for The Times. He has published several best-selling books in the field of business management consulting, including “Black Box Thinking” and “The Illusion of Talent”.