Talking to a prospective client the other day, he told me he’s ambushed by meetings.
This C-level leader works in a young company with an open work space. Someone periodically pops up and asks a question or recommends a solution to a problem. As a company leader, he cares about how that solution fits with others. Does it reflect our customer proposition? Does it offer value? is it feasible? But the conversation continues, others chime in, debate ensues, “And a meeting breaks out!” he said. He’s getting exasperated by those outbreaks. My colleague Rick Lent is right when he says that if you want to lead, you need to use meetings to get important work done. Hating even unanticipated meetings isn’t really an option.
The C-leader reminded me, a little wistfully, that he had worked at Kayak, where the CEO keeps meetings small. “If there’s a bunch of people in the room, I’ll stick my head in and say, ‘It takes 10 of you to decide this? There aren’t three of you smart enough to do this?'” That’s Paul English, co-founder and CTO of Kayak. To create focus, he’s imposed an artificial limit on people in a room. It’s a rough and ready way to force this question, “Who needs to be present to do this work wisely and well.” That’s one of Rick’s deceptively simple planning questions.
“I just hate design by consensus,” English continues. “No innovation happens with 10 people in a room. It’s very easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work. I don’t want that because new ideas are like these little precious things that can die very easily. Two or three people will nurture it, and make it stronger, give it a chance to see life.” Rick recently showed how other technology leaders are using simple, effective meeting strategies like his.
Of course, small meetings make some things easier. Numbers matter. But English also sees small meetings bringing together supporters rather than critics. And that’s important when innovation is the goal.
But there are other assumptions built into his small meetings principle. First, that the people nuturing an idea are responsible for bringing others on board. For that to work, managers must welcome ideas even if they disrupt the hard work they put in to deliver consistent and repeatable process. And that also means that innovation and other measures of success trump predictability.
Small meetings aren’t the sole answer. But they’re part of the answer to the questions: How do we innovate? How do teams take responsibility for promoting strong ideas? and How do we take action as fast as possible? So when you solve your meeting “problems,” they’ll reflect the values of your organization. If you hate your meetings today, are they sustaining some unspoken values?
If you’re ambushed by meetings, you can use those Rick’s principles as jujitsu by asking some of the planning questions. When you’ve given it a try, I’d love to know what happened.