Last Thanksgiving I drove down to Hilton Head and back. I brought a few audio books to pass the time. One of them was Death by Meeting, which sounds like the title of an Agatha Christie mystery. (In fact, I brought one of her stories to listen to, as well.) But this book by Patrick Lencioni is about how to solve the mystery of boring, unproductive meetings.
Whether your insurance office is big or small, you participate in a variety of meetings. Some probably go better than others. Hopefully yours aren't boring, but they can probably be improved.
When I got home from my trip, I was excited to apply the things that I learned in this book - and they instantly changed our meetings for the better! And I'd like to share what we learned, with you.
Most of Lencioni's books begin with a short fable, followed by a summary of the model that the book teaches. This was the second of his books that I read. In this case, the fable probably wasn't as necessary or helpful as it was in his other well known book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team. But that's mainly because the model itself is clear, simple, and powerful even without a story.
Here I'll share my main takeaways from the book. But I highly recommend that you get yourself a copy, study it, apply it, and enjoy the results.
The main reason the book was so meaningful to me is that I could relate to the challenges that he described. He cites two main problems with meetings:
Has this happened to you? You're in a meeting talking about a situation or problem that needs to be fixed. During that conversation, a related - but farther-reaching - question arises. You discuss this bigger picture issue, but by the end of the meeting you haven't solved either the short- or long-term problem.
I've been there too many times.
Lencioni calls this "meeting stew." The problem, he says, is that we try to make one meeting perform too many different functions. Very short-term items (what needs to be done today), get thrown in with near-term projects and problems, plus big-picture strategic topics.
Because you're all over the place with your topics, your meeting lacks focus. You can feel things meandering along . . . to nowhere.
The solution to meeting stew
The answer to this problem is to hold four distinctly different types of meetings.
He summarizes the meeting types and objectives for each of them in this document. They include recommendations such as not having agendas for the weekly tactical meetings. (!!!) You can read why in the book. I'll just say that I'm a planning-type of person, and it seemed odd at first to go without an agenda. But it works!
Our IHT Insurance Agency meetings have improved dramatically as we've focused them on tactical (read: task oriented) or strategic (read: principle oriented) subjects. If a tactical meeting brings a strategic topic to light, we set it aside for discussion at a future strategic meeting.
For example, while discussing (in a tactical meeting) a particular service issue about one of our insurance companies, someone might ask what our long-term strategy is for working with that company. In the past, we probably would have stopped talking about the service issue and started talking about the overall strategy. But then neither topic would be thoroughly discussed, and we'd feel frustrated afterward.
Now, instead, we would identify that this was a good topic - but a strategic one. So we'd write it down for a future strategic meeting. These have become a lot of fun, too, because we're able to work on our big-picture goals without getting bogged down by day-to-day decisions and challenges. We still work on those together. We just address them in different meetings.
Lack of conflict
Just as a TV show or movie needs conflict to be interesting, meetings need to have productive conflict to be engaging.
Productive conflict isn't about arguing - although we often disagree. Rather, it's about having an openness to each team-member's ideas, and being willing to speak honestly to each other about things.
When you can talk frankly about important topics, without hurt feelings, you can wrestle decisions to the ground, get behind those decisions, and make visible progress on your goals.
My own realization is that there is a difference between productive conflict and drama. Productive conflict is when people can openly discuss things TOGETHER, as described above. It's productive because it leads to clarity and better decisions.
But to me, drama is what happens when people don't openly talk in meetings. Instead, they complain - before or after the meeting - about what was said, or about the decisions that were made. They talk behind people instead of directly to people. Hurt feelings or misunderstandings are commonplace. People feel divided from each other, rather than united by their interaction.
So be sure to aim for productive conflict, but be sure to avoid drama!
The meeting model in practice
Our meetings weren't bad before we acted on the ideas from this book. In fact, they were quite enjoyable, and our team was already comfortable with productive conflict. But we have a new enthusiasm as we work together on things that really matter. We're better at making difficult decisions. We've improved our long-term strategy and our daily interactions.
We haven't figured out how to do daily check ins, because we are spread between two offices. But Lencioni's meeting types have given us new focus. We're getting more accomplished than ever - and we're having even more fun doing it.
Because of this audiobook, my Hilton Head drive turned out to be one of the most productive experiences of the year for me. (Perhaps I should go to the beach more often . . .)
How effective are your business meetings? And what have you done to make them more effective?
IHT is a multi-state insurance agency with dozens of branches across the eastern and central United States.