For the most part, meetings are the black holes of the office universe. They start out as a galactic dance of massive egos – gaseous bodies spinning around each other – and eventually converge into a single gravitational force. Soon, the gravity of this cosmic abomination begins to suck into itself time, space, and every productive person within ear shot of the conference room. Once you’re in, there is no getting out. You’re stuck: Trapped in a vacuum of eternal blackness, accompanied only by your coworkers and a never-ending supply of PowerPoint slides, “humble opinions” and white board notes, each floating by just out of reach of reality. You have been caught in the office singularity event, and your only hope now is that the host will get hungry soon.
Needless to say, I hate most meetings. But I realize that they are an invaluable part of the organizational process; not all meetings turn into violent, astronomic events.
80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just ‘good,’ and about 1% approach greatness…
Some meetings – the really good ones – are actually very productive. In fact, a good meeting is probably the best way to communicate concepts, confirm that everyone is on the same page, and make well-informed, real-time decisions. Heck, on occasion you might even have the chance to be in a great meeting, a place where people work together to come up with innovative ideas and clever solutions that would otherwise not be possible. In keeping with the astronomy metaphor, those great meetings are where stars are born (i.e. Adwords, the iPhone, or even Justin Bieber). The problem is, 80% of meetings are violent black holes, 19% are just “good,” and about 1% approach greatness – not the best odds.
The Meeting is a Business Process
Regardless of how dismal they can be, meetings are invaluable tools in a successful organization. Although Basecamp, Salesforce, Evernote, and every other collaboration tool will try to tell you differently, a meeting – I’m talking real human interaction – is the most powerful form of communication possible. Discussing a problem or idea with other people in a real-time dialogue is exponentially more powerful than disguising monologues in fancy PowerPoint presentations. The best collaboration happens when people talk (remotely or in the same space).
The Profile of a Productive Meeting
Before I show you how Google Forms can help you improve the odds of having a successful meeting, let’s break down what a productive meeting looks like.
Everyone that is involved in the meeting has something to say or something to learn. One of my pet peeves when entering a meeting is seeing unnecessary participants. Every single person in a meeting should either have something to contribute or should need to know every detail of the meeting – unsolicited opinions are for pundits and fashion bloggers.
At least one decision must be made or a problem must be solved. Why invite six people into a room (that doesn’t include cocktails) if you don’t absolutely need their input to make decisions or solve problems. Before a meeting starts, know what decisions you have to make and what input you need in order to make those decisions.
The meeting should have a clear, well-defined agenda. Every single participant should be – well before the meeting begins – aware of the agenda and raison d’être of the meeting.
The solutions to 1, 2, and 3 seem pretty self-explanatory. One, don’t invite everyone and her secretary to your meeting – this is not a bat mitzvah; two, be ready to make some decisions and solve some problems; and three, think of what you want your meeting to be about and make sure is clear to everyone involved. All of this seems easy enough, but what it requires is a great deal of preliminary work. In fact, the work you do setting up a meeting is just as important as the actual meeting itself.
Meetings are NOT Lectures, Everyone has an Agenda
At some point in the last 10 years, “setting up a meeting” began to mean sending out calendar invites. As if having everyone in the same room would be enough to generate some cosmic levels of productivity. Well, the birth of a black hole is definitely a cosmic event, but it’s not very productive for an organization. In order to have a highly focused and productive meeting, you need to have a highly focused and productive agenda. That’s easier said than done.
It’s not always easy to know what the true focus of a meeting will be. Sure, you might have your agenda, but once you put five opinionated people in a room, a whole lot of new agendas suddenly appear. For an occasional narcissist like myself, this is completely unacceptable. Not to mention, it’s very unproductive . So, how does one manage to create a focused meeting with an agenda if the agenda is not easily predictable?
The Pre-Meeting Questionnaire
First, let me say that the “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” is not necessary for every meeting. Sometimes, you know your colleagues well enough (and you’re all professional enough) that a meeting plays out like a John Coltrane jam session – each attendee hits his or her notes at all the right times, and beautiful music is made. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.
Usually, you end up in a meeting with a bunch of amateurs and all you can do is pray that you’ll eventually be released from the vortex and get back to the business of working. For those occasions, a “Pre-Meeting Questionnaire” might just save you from such a catastrophe.
The idea behind the questionnaire is very simple: send out some questions to those that you wish to invite to the meeting, and get a feel for what their agenda might be. This sounds simple enough. The hard part is making sure to have questions that do not insult potential attendees but do get them to reveal their agendas.
I like to use a simple introduction to my questionnaire that explains the need for such a document and then I jump right into the questions. Here is sample:
I’m looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. In order to put together an agenda for the blah blah blah meeting this afternoon, I’ll need some input from all of you. Please answer the following questionnaire so that I can make sure to account for any specific concerns or ideas.
At this point, I usually have a link to an online questionnaire that they can use to keep track of their responses. Why the questionnaire? Well, if meetings are a business process, then we should treat them like important ones. The online questionnaire tracks and simplifies this preliminary step. More importantly, it adds gravitas to your meeting.
Using Google Forms to Discover the True Agenda of a Meeting
Firstly, you should know that Google Forms is free. This is an important distinction because I don’t like paying for things if I don’t have to. To use the product, all you have to have is a Google account and a web browser. Simply log into your Google account here: www.google.com/drive. If you you don’t have a Google account, you can sign up for one there.
Once you’re in, simply press the “Create” button on the upper, left-hand side of your browser. Select to create a new “Form” and voila! You’re in the the new form wizard. From here, you can easily add questions to your form, save your form, add text to the top of the form page, and send a link to your form to anyone that you wish.
Some Canned Questions I Like to Ask in my Pre-Meeting Questionnaires
Does “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” affect your team/department? If so, how and how often? (Usually, this is a resounding “yes!”)
Does this “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” work the way it’s supposed to? Why not?
Based on your judgement, is this “problem” getting worse?
Based on your judgement, is this “solution” working?
How does this “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” impact our organization as a whole?
Obviously, you would have to change the “project/decision/process/problem/outcome” to reflect the subject of your meeting, but the idea is pretty straightforward. At first, you might get some push back, but eventually, people will appreciate having more effective meetings. I like think that everyone, like me, loves an efficient meeting. Every minute you save by finishing early, is a minute you’ve earned to be unproductive elsewhere. After all, nba.com does not check itself.
This is actually a difficult question to answer. The acronym itself stands for Small and Mid-size Business, but what that means is pretty vague. According to the small business administration (government), depending on the sector and the size of the market share of a business, a company making $20 million a year can be categorized as a small business. I know a lot of small business owners that would consider that a pretty large sum.
Most of the organizations that consider themselves within the SMB sector, are actually micro-businesses. If your business was just demoted, I’m sorry. Here are some guidelines that I like to use. They’re based loosely on the European Commissions guidelines as well those used at Big-5 consulting houses.
Small Business: Between 5 and 50 employees (excluding sub-contractors); revenues NOT exceeding $15 million per year
Mid-size Business: Between 51 and 250 employees (excluding contractors); revenue NOT exceeding $50 million per year
Yes, you do. Lists and todos are for grocery stores and dentist appointments – real processes require real, logical steps. If you aren’t already putting together workflows and ordered lists, then you (A) don’t know what these are or (B) think that winging it is just a better way of doing things. For those of you that believe in the Gospel of Wingin’ it, I say this: sometimes, you’re right. Sometimes, it really is just better to wing it and play it by ear – improvise. But sometimes is not always, and even Miles Davis needed sheet music from time to time to get him started.
For those of you that have no idea what a workflow is or have some vague notions of diagrams, charts, graphs, cats, cogs, and gears with arrows sticking out them – fear not. You probably already know how to diagram a workflow. In fact, you probably did this in grade school when you were learning how to brainstorm or every time you played Candyland. You certainly don’t need an MBA and you definitely don’t need an expensive program. All you need is the ability to draw and a list of ordered steps. A workflow is nothing more than each of those steps, laid out in one place, with arrows connecting them in order. The value of a workflow over an ordered list of steps is that you can visualize the process more easily, and you can add some basic logic to your steps, i.e. if my mailman delivers my Netflix DVD today, then I go to step 3, otherwise, I go to step 4. (You’ll see what I mean when we get to an example below.)
Step One: Figure out steps two, three, four…
Some people like to just jump into the drawing part of the process – putting squares and arrows down on paper. I think it’s best to just start with an ordered set of steps. The process I will workflow as an example is “A low-key Friday night.” My steps are laid out below:
A Low-Key Friday Night:
Commute home from work
Pick up some groceries
Arrive at home
Get the mail
Cook some dinner
Open a bottle of wine (or beer)
Wash the dishes
Watch a movie
Read a book
Go to sleep
This seems like a pretty discreet and simple set of steps, but as you’ll see once we put these steps into a workflow, there is a world of logic between each item.
Step 2: Put it in a “Drawering.”
Now that we’ve got the steps down on paper (errrrrr… on screen), we need to start drawing. Each one of these items can be represented by an individual box, or circle, or whatever graphical representation you would like to use. There are all sorts of diagramming standards, but we don’t really care about any of them. Right now, we just want to get started with workflows.
The tool I like to use for drawing out workflows is Google’s Draw. I’m no Google fanboy, but they definitely make some useful products. Most importantly, the app is free and it’s easy to use. You can drag and drop all sorts of shapes and easily add text within the shapes by double clicking. You can access Draw using Google Drive clicking the “Create New” button. Get access to Google Drive, you’ll need a Gmail account (or any Google account). If you don’t already have one, you may sign up here: www.google.com/drive.
As you can see above, I used Google draw to just create boxes that represent each of the steps in my new workflow. So far, this doesn’t look like much, but in the next step, I will add the actual logic to the workflow. Note that the first box is a different color than the other boxes – I consider that the entry point or starting point into my workflow (i.e. the first step).
Step 3: That’s pretty illogical.
At this point, we need to stat adding some logic to our workflow diagram. So far, all we’ve got are actual steps, but in between some of these steps are decisions that determine which step we will take next. For instance, if there is a Netflix movie in the mail, then a movie will be watched, otherwise, it looks like a quiet night with a book. (Obviously, we could also watch TV, but except for NBA playoffs, Friday nights are generally pretty crappy.)
As you can see from the example above, the workflow of the evening is beginning to make a lot more sense. The logic I added accounts for the availability of a movie to watch as well as whether or not I purchased all of the necessary ingredients to make a nice dinner. The one thing it doesn’t account for is that wine is usually paired with a movie or a book, but we can always chalk that bit up to “wingin’ it.”
What’s the point again?
Obviously, my example is somewhat nonsensical. If you need a workflow to step through a Friday evening, then you don’t really understand the point of a Friday evening. However, by using the same process above, you could easily create workflows for some of your more intensive business processes. Say for instance you have a sales department. It would be good to know how leads are generated,and how they are processed once they come in contact with your team. You could map out each individual person’s workflow or the entire process from beginning to end. Heck, you could even make a workflow about how to make workflows (feel free to use this guide as a base) – a kind of meta-workflow… trippy.
The whole point of documenting processes is so that you can more easily understand what is going on. With the “Low-key Friday night example” above, it’s obvious what’s going on – I’m going to turn off my phone, eat something delicious, and get blotto. However, in a complex organization, it’s somewhat difficult to know how things work. By documenting workflows, you can better understand how an organization works, how you can improve the process, and what sort of technology you can use make everything run more smoothly.