The Spiral Meeting

by Merrick Rosenberg

Have you ever been to a meeting that has spiraled out of control? You had an agenda. You defined a meeting leader and a scribe to take the minutes. You even had donuts (always a powerful draw to get people there). And yet, the meeting did not accomplish its intended objective.

One of the biggest complaints by managers is that they attend too many meetings. As Ashleigh Brilliant stated, “Our meetings are held to discuss many problems which would never arise if we held fewer meetings.”

Perhaps there would not be a need for so many meetings if the meetings that were held were conducted more efficiently. Many meeting leaders create agendas in which they define the topics that will be addressed. If they are wise, they define the amount of time to which each topic will be limited. However, they miss the next step, the most valuable step of all…they fail to define the nature of the topic in question.

Keeping the meeting on track
Every topic on the agenda should be designated in the following manner:

Level 1: Information – Provide updates, progress report, issues, etc.
Level 2: Discussion – Provide input and opinions on the topic
Level 3: Decision – Determine next steps and actions
Simply put, the most important function of the meeting leader is to keep people within the time limit for each topic and ensure the meeting does not spiral into a higher-level discussion. For example, meeting topics coded as Information are not topics for Discussion. Topics coded for Discussion do not need to achieve resolution by reaching a consensus Decision.

This is the key reason that meetings spiral out of control. Meeting leaders need to vigilantly enforce the level of interaction that takes place for each topic. It’s very easy to start discussing a topic that was purely informational. In fact, it happens quite innocently. One person interjects a one-liner. Another person replies with their opinion and before you know it, the Informational topic is a full-blown Discussion. The three-minute update has just consumed twenty minutes of the meeting.

It’s also just as easy for a topic coded as Discussion to expand into a lengthy conversation and even then, never reach a conclusion. The meeting attendees leave the meeting feeling like they did not accomplish anything, and yet, all the meeting leader wanted to do was take the pulse of the group on a specific topic. Pre-coding items allows people to feel like they have accomplished what they have set out to do at the beginning of the meeting.

Flexibility with conscious intent
When I share this strategy with teams whose meetings regularly spiral out of control, someone inevitable counters that sometimes, the nature of the information warrants a discussion. Or the group realizes that a decision is imperative, even though the topic was meant only for discussion.

Flexibility is the key. Meetings do not need to be so rigid that the meeting leader cannot adapt as needed. However, if a topic needs a higher level of interaction, make the decision consciously and adapt the rest of the agenda items accordingly. Perhaps, the group should stick with the agenda and either place the topic on the next meeting’s agenda or a special meeting may be in order to deal with that one issue.

Keep meetings on track
Most people know what it’s like to attend a meeting that has lost its focus… it’s frustrating and time-wasting. Keeping meetings on track takes energy and courage on the part of the meeting leader. Yet, in the end, meeting attendees appreciate a meeting that accomplishes its goals.