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The 3 (and a half?) Types of Virtual Meetings

management virtual teams Apr 06, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

As we all scramble because of the COVID-19 outbreak of the coronavirus to move to virtual work that means virtual meetings.  Anything that has not gone well with our in-person meetings is going to go even more horribly with your virtual meetings.  Every distraction, every unfocused agenda item, every meandering conversation without conclusion or action, will be all the more so in a virtual environment.  So let’s use this time of COVID-19 driven separation to make our virtual meetings fantastic.  They can be a source of trust-building as discussed here.  They can even be a way to bring Joy at Work, even more so because so many are anxious about the future.  Now is the time for leaders to step up and be the voice that provides calm and guidance.  Meetings are the place we can do it!

Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings, the better. 
-Peter Drucker

There is significant risk in contradicting a renowned business philosopher like Peter Drucker and directionally I agree.  Businesses often have too many meetings, and it is a sign of bad organization, but well-run, well-constructed meetings virtual or not can be giant infusions of energy for the team.  Why?  Because humans are social animals and need each other in order to find meaning and purpose.   
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
-John Donne

So why do we bother to organize in groups called companies and then gather to talk about what we are doing in those companies?  Because we need to.  Because the work is about us coming together as a group to get it done.  So why not do it in a way that brings Joy at Work?  COVID-19 or not.

Some of the things to do are quite tactical like how to actually conduct a virtual meeting.  But before getting there, we should look at what kinds of meetings we can have.

The Decision-Making Meeting
One of the most powerful reasons for people to come together is to make a complex, group decision.  In academia, this is called a Multi-Objective Multi-Stakeholder decision.  There is much to be learned from what has been studied.  Here’s an example of an interaction that sets up this kind of meeting with commentary as to why each element is important.

Cassandra, the meeting organizer:   “Welcome everyone, this is a decision-making meeting and what we need to decide is how we will execute the rollout of the new system”
Note: At the very beginning of the meeting, Cassandra states what kind of a meeting this is and what the goal of the meeting is.  Both are critical to the meeting’s success.

Cassandra: “Here’s how we will handle the meeting.  First, we’ll discuss the criteria we will use to make an evaluation of the decision.  Then we will list out all of the alternatives.  Finally, we will evaluate the alternatives against the criteria.  Our agenda follows this sequence.”
Note: Cassandra clearly lays out the steps for the meeting and then connects back to the agenda.  Immediately after that Cassandra can set a few key roles for the meeting that will help it go well.  These are laid out here.

All of this can be done very effectively whether in-person or a virtual environment.   Cassandra needs to stay in control of the meeting, but not in the dictator sense, more the outstanding teacher sense.  An outstanding teacher maintains control in the classroom but that is in service to learning.  Similarly, Cassandra needs to stay in control of the meeting in service to deciding.  There is no joy in a poorly run meeting. 

The Planning Meeting
Once a decision has been made, there has to be a plan to achieve the decision.   Again, a structured approach to the meeting will greatly improve its effectiveness.  Here’s another example of the interaction.

Hector, the meeting organizer: “We need to create a plan to implement the new system.  We will soon be ready to implement the first component, but I want to make sure that we have all the risks identified and a solid plan to mitigate them and deliver this first component and then the rest of the new system as well as we can. 
Note: In setting the planning meeting up this way,  Hector’s layout can be used for any software delivery methodology, agile, waterfall, or any other.  

Hector: “Here’s how we will handle the planning meeting.  We will layout the critical activities for managing the change with the full group of stakeholders impacted, then all the activities for rolling out the technology and all process and policy changes.  Once that’s together, we will add in any other elements to complete the plan.  All this is spelled out on the agenda.”
Note: Like Cassandra, Hector describes the meeting process and then ties it back to the agenda. 

Now Hector can assign the roles in the meeting that will give it structure (a Conversation Leader to drive the meeting which could be Hector, a Time Leader, to keep the agenda moving, and a Visual Leader to take notes on what is said and present the materials).
There are a couple of tricky situations that can take a planning meeting off-course from completing the plan.  These situations relate to two of the other meetings.  First, there is often a desire to revisit the decision or alter it which may be appropriate but should be deferred to another meeting.  The planning meeting may reveal new information that could alter a decision, but without going through the decision-making process that evaluation shouldn’t be made on the fly in the planning meeting.  It will be up to Hector to complete the planning meeting or stop it and schedule a new decision-making meeting.

Second, there can be a strong tendency to want to brainstorm possibilities and not move to specifics of the plan.  A well-run brainstorming meeting can be a useful way to bring out possibilities but it should be done separately.  Like the decision-making meeting, the planning meeting needs to converge to a final answer.  Brainstorming meetings are diverging meetings that open up the frame of discussion.  A planning meeting is about closing the frame to the specific actions that need to be taken to achieve the goal.

The Brain-Storming Meeting
Brain-Storming meetings can be both productive and truly fun, but they, like the other meetings, need to be structured for them to work well in a virtual environment.  The difficulty with Brain-Storming meetings more than any of the others is that there is significant value in building on each others’ ideas.  A virtual environment makes that difficult because people are not able to pick up on the social cues that allow for a group interactive discussion.  The structure of the meeting is critical to making this happen in the virtual environment.  Here’s an example of the interaction.

Helen, the meeting organizer: “Today we get to engage in a creative session.  I love these brain-storming meetings!!  The goal today is to come up with all of the ways in which we can use change management engagement tactics for all the stakeholders of the new system.  I’m sure other ideas will come up for other elements of the rollout plan, but we will note them in a parking lot and then come back to our specific focus, engagement tactics for the change effort.”
Note: Helen is setting up the meeting as an energizing activity but is making the topic fairly narrow: engagement tactics as part of the change effort for the new system.  This helps ensure the energy is channeled into a specific area.  

Helen: “To start, I want you to write out the ideas that come to mind for engagement tactics.  We are using a definition of engagement tactics that is ‘tactics that have the stakeholders involved and active in the process of change.’ There are other tactics we need to work out but let’s stay on the topic of engagement for this meeting.”
Note: Helen is using a proven method, well documented in the academic literature, of having people silently write out their own ideas first and then share them with the group.  This generates a deeper and more diverse set of group ideas.

A brainstorming meeting can be hard to keep focused but is a powerful way to use the collective brainpower of the group to understand a fuller set of possibilities.

The Information-Sharing-and-Discussing Meeting
Here’s the “half” meeting which the title of this piece suggests.  It is the slippery-slope of meetings.  The “why-did-I-just-waste-an-hour-here” meeting.  Sadly, it is the one most frequently scheduled meetings but should be the one most judiciously scheduled.

Meetings should never be used solely to pass information
Ashamedly, I was well into my career before this dictate became clear to me.  It took a deeply thoughtful and persuasive person to point this out.  What she said was, 
“Why would we invite people from all over the country to come and then subject them to dozens of PowerPoint slides?” 

It was brilliant!  But I had spent so many years with these meetings I hadn’t really considered it.  It was just...the thing to do.

These meetings are rampant in business culture.  It’s not surprising.  We come together in organizations to get work done.  It makes sense that we should get together in groups and talk about what we are doing.  If we are spread out in many locations maybe even more so.  How else will we maintain social bonds so important to human interaction?  

Use a passive medium for passive information
Yes, certainly those are all good things, but an information-sharing meeting with no other purpose than to pass information is a very poor, even destructive way to do it.  The answer for information sharing is to pass the information in a passive medium such as email, messaging systems like Slack, Intranets, shared file systems, even posters, but don’t make people sit through a recitation of a bunch of facts.

If the goal is to get a dialog going about the facts, then that is a totally different meeting.  In this case, the meeting organizer can set up the meeting to deliver the facts quickly or even before the meeting and then have a discussion about them.  What is critical to this process is that the meeting organizer needs to state clearly what the purpose of the meeting is.  If that is not done then participants will gravitate to one of the other three meeting types individually.  Chaos follows shortly.

I count this as only a half meeting because it is a type that should be very rare.  I’ve seen it best used when really big announcements, usually bad news, need to be shared and the leader needs quick feedback on how the news will land.   

Final Thought
The one most important idea in planning any meeting is purpose.  Ask yourself why you are having the meeting and what it will take to achieve success.   Do that and your meetings, virtual or not, will improve with each iteration.