What is Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting leadership fable about? How can you apply the tips in the book to make work meetings more productive and engaging?
Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting leadership fable follows a CEO named Casey who leads long, boring, and unproductive meetings at his company. After Casey’s company is acquired, he is forced to improve his meetings or he could lose his job.
Keep reading to learn about Lencioni’s leadership fable and how to lead better meetings.
Death by Meeting Leadership Fable
Meetings are the lifeblood of an organization—they are central to its success but are also often seemingly useless and too long. This presents a paradox—how can you make meetings more productive when your staff views them as pointless? The answer is to make meetings better. Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting leadership fable provides a roadmap to do so.
Author Patrick Lencioni illustrates how to make meetings more engaging and productive through the parable of Casey, a golf pro turned software developer who runs a sports gaming company called Yip Software. He’s a smart guy and generally a good boss, but he runs boring, unfocused meetings that deplete team morale. When he sells his company to become a subsidiary of a larger gaming company called Playsoft, a Playsoft executive named J.T. begins to attend Casey’s meetings and is shocked by the team’s lack of passion and urgency. It’s like they’re talking about a case study in business school rather than the future of their own company.
J.T. communicates to Casey that his job is at risk if he can’t focus his meetings better. Fearing for his livelihood, Casey huddles with his precocious assistant Will and devises a strategy to have more meetings and to fill them with movie-like drama. Just like in the movies, meetings have to have a hook—a good beginning that leaves participants willing to digest necessary plot exposition that might be a little slower. Consider discussing a budget: It sounds boring. But if you set it up correctly—by explaining the stakes in the line items and the competitors breathing down the company’s neck—people will be more willing to engage.
When J.T. returns to Yip to attend another meeting, he’s impressed by the transformation. Not only does Casey keep his job, but he makes his company more efficient and raises morale.
Casey isn’t the only executive who struggles to run productive meetings and engage his team. There are three significant issues with most meetings: A lack of drama, a lack of structure, and a lack of frequency.
Problem #1: No Drama in the Boring Meetings
Meetings are tedious. Given that most people sitting through meetings have other work that they could be doing, this is a huge issue, and it makes most employees resent meetings as a waste of their time. Meetings are tedious because there is no drama or tension within most meetings. In fact, most meeting leaders skirt tension if it exists.
To solve this problem, actively look for disagreement or drama. This keeps meeting participants engaged and leads to important strategic discussions. If two people have a disagreement, backed up by data, it’s helpful for everyone to hear it, because it engages them and helps them form their own opinions about the company’s decisions.
In the leadership fable, Will thought of it like a screenplay. Screenwriters develop conflict and resolution over two hours. There are different kinds of conflict—from man versus a system in a movie like A Few Good Men to man versus nature, an unseen enemy, and himself in Apocalypse Now. Like movies, meetings often last two hours, but they lack everything that makes movies enjoyable, when in fact, meetings should be more fun than watching a movie.
- You can interrupt the action at a meeting. If someone has a point that you disagree with, you can engage them in discussion.
- Meetings are more relevant to our daily lives. They determine, in part, what we’ll be working on, how happy we are at work, how productive our work environment is, how much money we make, and how long our hours are.
Find a Hook
In every good movie, conflict starts within the first ten minutes. This is called the “hook”—it’s what draws people into the movie and makes them want to keep watching. A good meeting works the same way. A hook can take many forms, but it should explain the stakes. As the meeting leader, explain that the company is under threat, or that it’s struggling to make a dent in a new market, or that a bad decision could lead to these problems. Or, if you don’t want to start on a negative note, explain how a good decision could make life better for employees, clients, or the world.
Employees need a reason to care. Finding a hook is easy, because as we’ve illustrated, meetings do matter. They decide the direction of a company.
After you’ve explained the stakes, look for disagreement. If there’s a group of reasonably smart people discussing an issue that they all care about (because of the hook), they’ll disagree on at least a small part of it. If you hear disagreement or even see on someone’s face that they’re unhappy with what’s going on, explore that. While people are often conflict-avoidant, when they do address an issue, they’ll almost always feel better, even if the ultimate decision doesn’t go their way.
Tell the team that you want conflict in meetings. However, people may still feel uncomfortable attacking their colleagues whom they respect. As a meeting leader, remind the team that what they’re doing is positive. Just a little bit of positive reinforcement goes a long way toward resolving tensions that could otherwise become personal and encouraging participants to have different opinions.
Problem #2: Poor Structure Creates Disengagement During Meetings
As we saw in the Death by Meeting fable, meetings are unproductive. They don’t yield any results that make people’s jobs easier or help the company make a big decision, so again, employees begin to resent them. This is because meetings are unfocused. People talk about various issues that don’t relate to one another. Most issues get short shrift while the team discusses others for far too long.
Usually, meetings work as follows. The boss schedules them for two hours. Before the meeting, the leader sends out a disparate agenda that includes somewhere between four and seven items to discuss. She solicits feedback on the agenda but gets none. The first couple topics (not necessarily the most important) take up the lion’s share of the two hours, and the team rushes through the rest. The team makes no decisions and everyone leaves disappointed and defeated, if not outright angry.
- Someone is upset that the meeting went late.
- Another person is mad that the group didn’t address his issue in full.
- Another person was more frustrated by the administrative issues discussed and wanted more strategic talk.
- Yet another had the opposite problem and found that they spent so much time brainstorming that they didn’t have enough time to go through important logistics related to her job.
- Everyone is annoyed at the leader.
Think of these meetings like a stew filled with leftovers. The team chucks everything into the pot, without much regard or care for what’s going in. Because the meetings are inefficient, the leader attempts to schedule fewer of them, which makes them even more inefficient. The team discusses everything all at once.
This leadership fable says that to solve problem two, leaders need to develop multiple types of meetings, with different purposes, formats, and uses. There are four different types of meetings.
This is the shortest meeting. It happens for five minutes at the beginning of each workday and is purely logistical: Who is here, who isn’t, and what everyone is working on today. Often, at the beginning of implementation, team members don’t find this meeting important, because it’s so fast. But it is an essential building block to better and more efficient communication—make sure it’s clear that this meeting is required.
Never cancel the meeting and keep it to five minutes at most. Don’t address anything beyond simple logistics here—other, larger problems can wait for the other meetings. People don’t even need to sit down for the check-in.
This meeting happens every week or every other week and lasts for around an hour. 45 minutes is a shorter tactical and 90 minutes is a longer one. It starts with everyone taking turns explaining, in under a minute, what they’re working on. After everyone knows what’s going on with everyone else, you and anyone you deputize gives updates on some larger logistical issues—how the budget looks, whether the team is hitting their sales goals, what the team is spending on advertising, and on from there.
Only then does the team create an agenda—this way, the agenda is based on what is actually going on at the company as reported by everyone involved. Address short term tactical challenges at this meeting, like whether to increase advertising for the month or whether to hire someone new. This meeting is meant to resolve and clarify short term obstacles to the company.
These tactical meetings don’t get into long-term strategic questions. Those are reserved for the next meeting.
This meeting is about large-scale strategies decisions. It happens every month or so and lasts anywhere from two to four hours. Sometimes, the timeline can change if a big strategic decision must happen right away. In this case, you can call an ad hoc strategic meeting. In both the ad hoc and the regular strategic meeting, though, this meeting is the one that will likely involve the most conflict and the one that can thus be the most fun.
Only the most salient questions are at issue in the strategic meeting—limit the agenda to two to three big questions. A lot of strategic questions will likely come up in the weekly tactical meetings, such as whether to expand into a new market or who advertisements are targeting, but prioritize the strategic questions they deem most important.
Additionally, everyone must come prepared with research. Conflicts, as previously discussed, are the lifeblood of these meetings, but if people arguing with one another don’t have data to back up their points, the conflict isn’t productive.
The final meeting is the review, which takes place about once a quarter off-site. Many companies do corporate retreats already, but these can function much better. They shouldn’t just function as a getaway. Rather, they involve long, important discussions about the direction of the business.
First, executives consider the direction of the company. They’ll review their strategic meetings and ask if their decision-making process has led to positive outcomes. They can also think about new challenges to their industry. This is where executives can get together and discuss the direction of their business or a new competitor eating into their market share in depth. Additionally, executives should assess their own performance and the performance of important employees.
These meetings aren’t too structured—the team can go into the off-site review with a basic understanding of some topics that they want to cover, but they don’t need a comprehensive agenda or a cutoff point. They don’t need hours of PowerPoints that often dominate these sessions. Finally, don’t include outsiders, like the family of the participants. It might seem fun to socialize, but this changes how the team interacts with one another, which is counterproductive to success.
Problem #3: Too Few Meetings
The Death by Meeting leadership fable concludes with the fact that, in general, if there are too few meetings, executives spend most of their time answering questions about logistics. In a big company, this can entirely consume an executive’s day. So these four types of meetings can actually significantly reduce meeting-like logistical activity during the rest of the day. If everyone gets on the same page, things will run much more smoothly.
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- Why are meetings so important and detrimental at the same time
- The top 3 issues that commonly plague meetings
- Why a meeting where participants disagree can be a good thing