The COVID pandemic hit like a tsunami. Then, just as we were coming up for air, a second wave hit, then a third. As 2020 recedes we have cause to hope, to believe we can catch our collective breath and get through this. Recently we learned two effective COVID-19 vaccines could be available by early 2021. We might be back in our workplaces by next summer. When we return – and many of us may not – our workplaces won’t be the ones we left when all this began. There will be fewer people in offices, fewer days each week. Much more will be done remotely. It’s not a stretch to say that this crisis has, and will continue, to transform how we work. This transformation has also created an opportunity to finally change one of work’s biggest, most time-consuming and energy-draining frustrations: meetings.
Before the pandemic, business leaders and consultants were already warning that we were drowning in meetings. Research we conducted at Mars, Inc. suggested people were spending up to 50% of their workday in meetings, taking them away from other responsibilities. What’s more, one quarter of those involved in meetings didn’t need to be there at all. Now it seems as if meetings, virtual ones at that, are our only way to stay connected to get work done. With people putting in as much as 2 additional hours per day from home, employee burnout and Zoom fatigue are real. For people working remotely, it can feel like all meetings, all the time.
If ever there was a time to make a radical shift in meetings, it’s now. There’s a simple tool we developed at Mars based on our research that helps teams make the most of the time they spend together and that generates enthusiasm and engagement for the work. All it requires is for teams to plan their meetings around “O2 deliverables.”
Breathe New Life into Your Meetings
Meetings can be engaging, life-affirming exercises in co-creation. If that sounds radical, think about the best meeting you ever attended. You probably left with a sense of accomplishment and pride wondering why all meetings couldn’t be like that. I once co-facilitated a supply chain leadership team meeting that left me feeling that way.
It was 2015 and the team had been through a rough few months. They were wrestling with why they had fallen far behind schedule on a critical project. This was before the pandemic but because it was a global team they were working remotely. A lot could have gone wrong with this meeting. It could have easily veered off into a blame game, exacerbated by the limitations of not being physically in a room together. But it didn’t. The meeting had a vitality to it. It was unusually interactive. The exchanges were informed and fact-based. There was conflict but they never lost focus on what they were trying to do together. The time flew by. The team generated the ideas and insight they needed to make changes. By the end of the meeting all seven of them were pumped. It was unusually productive especially for a remote meeting and I wasn’t sure why it had worked so well.
I followed up with the supply chain team leader the next week. She had designed the session with minimal input from me. I asked her how she had gotten it to work so well. I was stunned when she told me she wasn’t sure why, either. So, together we reviewed her largely intuitive planning process. She had framed a few questions to get the conversation going and guessed at a rough timing for moving through those questions. She invited me to “gently facilitate” but mostly she wanted me there to help them out if they spiraled into conflict. That turned out to be unnecessary. What she and I eventually landed on was strikingly simple. That meeting had two things going for it that most meetings do not. Based on her preparation she and the team knew precisely:
- What the meeting needed to deliver and
- Why it mattered, the impact the deliverable would have on them and the business
It seemed too easy. So, I tested an approach with other teams based on those two questions. While not every meeting I helped plan was as successful as the supply chain one, the results were similar. Problems were solved, decisions were made, and teams left energized and gratified. It turns out you can create compelling clarity leading to engaging, productive meetings by defining what I call O2 Deliverables.
Great meetings are 1) built around clear, tangible deliverables that 2) everyone at the meeting has a stake in addressing. These two elements form the basis of O2 deliverables that I use with teams today.
Each O2 deliverable includes an Objective and an Opportunity. The Objective identifies in a general way what is being created or achieved. For example, we might be
- Co-creating a plan
- Making a decision
- Identifying root causes of a problem
The second O, Opportunity, refers to the specific benefit we’ll get from the deliverable. We set this up as a “from–to” statement. For example, maybe we need to decide (the Objective) how we will move FROM having three packaging vendors TO having a single vendor (the Opportunity). In the case of the supply chain team, they had to identify root causes (the Objective) of the delay so that they could go FROM missing a critical commitment TO on-time, flawless delivery of the project (the Opportunity).
O2 deliverables create maximum upfront clarity about what a team must accomplish and what meeting success looks like. It also has other benefits. For instance:
- Before meetings it suggests who needs to be involved and who doesn’t. In the packaging vendors example, the team probably won’t need the entire team present for the decision. This frees up time for the HR and sales directors to get on with other work while enabling a smaller, more functionally appropriate group to make the decision efficiently.
- During meetings O2 deliverables act as a beacon that helps straying teams get back on course.
- Finally, when creating your O2 deliverable, you might realize that the work requires only one person to do it. No meeting needed.
A meeting may be built around one O2 deliverable – as with the supply chain team – or several different deliverables. For instance, your team may need 1) to do some problem solving, then 2) create a plan to implement your solutions and then 3) make a decision about who will take the lead. Each of the three deliverables needs its own O2 statement. O2 deliverables work whether you are tackling high stakes issues or projects or matters that are less crucial. The key is to take a few minutes while planning your meeting to clarify precisely what you must deliver and the impact it will have when you get it right.
Work-from-home orders and policies are likely to be with us for many more months and we can seize this moment to make long-overdue changes in how we meet. You don’t have to wade through day after day of tedious, exhausting remote meetings. For any meeting of 15 minutes or longer use the O2 framework. This one simple tool focuses collaborative efforts precisely where they are needed. Pandemic or not, use it to create meetings that deliver results and that leave people feeling buoyant and excited about themselves and their work. There’s no transformation more needed and no tool better suited to the task.
Written by Carlos Valdes Dapena.
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