When I receive an invitation to a meeting, I usually have the reflex to check if I am available. In fact, with the tools that I’m using, I know it almost instantly. So, I don’t have to really think about it before clicking on Yes or No. Actually, when people wish to invite me to a meeting, I often tell them: “My calendar is up to date!”

Does that sound familiar?

Is it really the reflex to develop?

I would like to add a degree of nuance and offer observations regarding this reflex in order to increase the usefulness and productivity of meetings. I think we should ask ourselves the following questions before checking our availability:

  • What is the purpose of the meeting?
  • Is this meeting relevant?
  • Is my presence required?
  • Why am I invited?

Before verifying my availability, I believe that the most important is to know the intention of the organizer, the purpose of the meeting. However, I noticed that others do not necessarily feel the same way. The majority of people that I questioned, and that I invited to my meetings, do not ask themselves these questions. In fact, they believe that someone else must have thought about it for them.

Here are a few answers that I get when I ask people if they know why they are attending my meeting:

  • “I don’t know.”
  • “It’s not clear.”
  • “I guess you’re going to tell me now.”
  • “I was told to be here.”
  • “My manager invited me, so I accepted; that’s it.”
  • “It’s certainly indicated in the invitation.”
  • “Nope, as always!”
  • “I’m not quite sure.”

For the few who have a vague idea, I ask them to tell me what they remember, to sum it up. I constantly notice signs of embarrassment and forgetfulness. I get nuggets of information that are not really (or not at all) related to the meeting’s purpose. Rather than acknowledging that they simply don’t know, some of them even add a few buzzwords to embellish what they are saying. Then, I get that they do not really know the original goal of the meeting, and I also understand that they are not sure why they are at the meeting.

At this stage, it would be easy for me to repeat my intention, thus synchronizing those who are present, but it would be too easy. In my opinion, people are expecting the person organizing the meeting to explain everything in due time. This reaction is based on people’s capacity to attend a meeting without knowing why. Thus, if I do what is expected, I’d only perpetuate this lack of questioning about the purpose. I find interesting that people are accepting to face the unknown, but not to the extent of not being interested to know the relevance of their presence. It shows a lack of accountability, and even disengagement, rather than simply accepting to step into the unknown while being fully present.

I ask people: “Don’t you ask yourselves why you are invited to attend this meeting before accepting the invitation?” The reactions I get are similar to the previous ones: a shy smile, vague answers, and the common excuse that their manager required their presence. I find that one too easy, because when I talk with these managers, I rarely hear that it was an obligation.

I understand that certain meetings may be compulsory in certain contexts. I also believe that it is perfectly acceptable to seek to know the goal of such meetings. In fact, I think it is normal to discuss this matter beforehand in order to maximize the relevance of our presence to a meeting. I am way more motivated attending a compulsory meeting when I know the reason for my presence … especially if it messes up my schedule.

What is happening when we do not know why we are there?

If the meeting’s purpose is not explicit, then people will invent it. When there are gaps in a story, people often have the reflex to fill in the blanks. These blanks leave room for interpretation and create confusion. People come to the meeting with an idea in mind and have probably prepared themselves accordingly. Therefore, at the beginning of the meeting, we lose time getting everyone on the same page.

It is quite possible that some of the people whose presence we’d really want will not show up even though they accepted the invitation! I’ve attended numerous meetings where we had to wait for a specific person to arrive for the meeting to begin, which considerably reduced the amount of time left. I’ve also observed meetings that were aborted even if a majority of people came on time. The organizer often knows that a certain person needs to be present, but it is not explicit.

If the intention is presented only at the beginning of a meeting, people that are invited to attend do not have the information allowing them to see the relevance of their presence. Thus, the invitation is incomplete. If we do not know why we are attending a meeting, how can it be efficient and relevant?

Adopting good reflexes

For the organizer:

  • Define the purpose before sending the invitation.
  • In your invitation, indicate the meeting’s purpose, goal, or objectives. Why will we be there? What will we be seeking to accomplish? Certain meetings are exploratory, while others are for finding a solution or for informative purposes. Explain your motivations.
  • People rarely read the description of an invitation. Therefore, you’d better write your intention in the subject line. It is also the subject line that is displayed in the mobile versions of an invitation.
  • Question future participants in order to check that everything is clear, that you are inviting the right people, that the duration of the meeting is adequate, etc.
  • Repeat the purpose of a coming meeting when you talk to people about it.
  • Repeat the purpose at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Repeat the purpose to maintain focus during the meeting.
  • Start the meeting on time to show respect for other people’s time.
  • When the goal is achieved, end the meeting even if it is ahead of time.
  • Finish on time. If you are running out of time, schedule another meeting. Thereby, you respect other people’s time, and they may have other commitments after your meeting.
  • Try to finish five minutes ahead of time. This way, you all have time to leave the room and it will give room for the next group to settle in. Use a timer, if necessary.
  • Find tips in Daniel Mezick’s The Culture Game book.

For the participant:

  • Find out what is the purpose of the meeting before checking your availability.
  • Ask questions! Be curious.
  • Do not take for granted that someone has thought of everything before inviting you.
  • Do not blindly accept any invitation.
  • If you notice that the organizer has forgotten something or if their intention is not clear, inform them; that will do a big favour to everyone.
  • If you cannot attend the meeting, decline the invitation and inform the organizer. If your attendance is compulsory, the organizer will be able to postpone the meeting.
  • During a meeting, if your presence does not seem relevant, inform the group and ask whether or not your presence is still required.

With your team, discuss and set the ground rules for your meetings. It is an excellent topic for a retrospective.

Finally, knowing the purpose helps trigger several efficiency and relevance mechanisms, resulting in a good meeting where we simply do what is necessary. With a purpose that has been defined beforehand, the organizer can then lead the meeting based on the goal’s value rather than hoping to get the value counting on the fact that inviting people to a meeting is enough.

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dave jacques

Dave is sure that Agility can help people improve their work as well as themselves. He is committed to the satisfaction of his clients and he always has the desire to add value. He pays particular attention both to the know-how and life skills. Furthermore, he contributes to the development of these two facets.

Trainer, Scrum Master (PSM 1, MSC), coach, leader, analyst, developer, Dave has worn many hats, often simultaneously, during his interventions in system development. In addition to Agility, he loves tea, writing, and aikido.

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