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How to redeem the team meeting

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We've all sat through unproductive team meetings. At worst, they fill your day — and waste your time — so that there’s little time left to actually get meaningful work done.

Good meetings, however, can keep your team accountable and focused on the right priorities, all while providing a crucial forum for collaboration.

Yet the real problem is not with team meetings themselves, but with bad team meetings.

I’ll admit I was a long-time skeptic of having a weekly staff gathering — having spent an incalculable amount of my own time in unproductive meetings over the years — but have ultimately found that the pulse of the event really does become the heartbeat of the business as it moves forward.

In a growing business, meetings are inevitable. And the larger the business, the more plentiful the meetings tend to be. Throw in outside activities and volunteer efforts, and it may feel like you spend more time discussing what to do in meetings than actually doing anything.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to skip having meetings altogether. Meetings at their most basic level are about facilitating communication and solving problems — clearly relevant topics for any business. Not to mention the value of using them to keep everyone on the same page about key metrics and progress towards goals.

Entrepreneurship expert Gino Wickman makes the case in his book “Traction” that one of the most common problems for businesses is their lack of effective weekly team/staff meetings. Wasted time is just the most obvious problem. The more nefarious one is building a business that literally can’t get traction to progress toward its goals, because there’s no means for keeping everyone focused and on the same page.

Wickman suggests a 90-minute weekly staff meeting that provides for both problem-solving and accountability. His seven-item standing agenda is shown above.

The segue is simply the kick-off that gets everyone focused. It might include a check-in — e.g., “How’s everyone doing today?” — and ideally includes a chance for team members to share something positive, whether it relates to the meeting’s substance or not.

From there comes review of the scorecard, a summary of the key data or metrics for the business. This might include the number of new and lost clients (or assets, or revenue) for the month or quarter; the number of client meetings you’ve had; the number of client plans you’re working on, the number of prospects in your sales pipeline, or the number of transfers your staff is processing. Essentially, the scorecard reflects whatever key performance indicators that help you know where the business stands.

The third step is the rocks review. In this context, “rocks” refers to the famous Stephen Covey analogy. If you place the big-idea rocks in a bucket first, there’s room to fill in the gaps with pebbles and sand. Whereas a bucket filled first with pebbles and sand is packed so full it can’t hold any important rocks. To ensure effective team meetings, then, everyone should know what their big rocks are — their priorities for the week/month/quarter— and be able to quickly report their status.

Next comes client/employee headlines, such as notable news from interactions with the firm’s clients or other staff members. This could be pointing out something good, a problem to be aware of, or something that is otherwise noteworthy.

The to-do list section is a chance to review the status of the prior week’s action items. Because these are intended to be reviewed, and usually completed, every week, they should be bite-size. Notably, the primary purpose of this section is accountability — not to re-hash the details of each to-do list item, but simply to affirm whether they’re done or not. If not, they should be completed the following week. If a bigger issue is blocking completion, that can be discussed in the next section of the meeting.

Wickman then suggests focusing on IDS, an acronym for Identify, Discuss and Solve problems. This is where everyone comes together to actually resolve any issues that have arisen in the prior stages of the meeting. Notably, the first step to the IDS phase is simply identifying not just what the issues are, but which are most significant — given that a growing business may easily have more issues to resolve than there is time in the meeting to resolve them.

By prioritizing the most crucial tasks, however, the team will by definition be solving the most important problems first. As a fringe benefit, solving big problems tends to make other problems go away, as small issues are often byproducts of bigger ones.

This may lead to more to-do list items to be tackled for the following week, and some issues that get carried forward to the following week’s IDS phase — but only those that weren’t deemed important enough to be resolved in the current week. In the advisory context, this could be solving a software problem, onboarding a new employee, handling a complex client problem or brainstorming how to fix a process that isn’t working.

The conclusion of the weekly meeting should recap the to-do list items assigned for the following week, any unresolved Issues that may carry over to the following week’s IDS phase, and a brief discussion about whether any meeting outcomes should be communicated — e.g., a message to a particular client, a new initiative to all clients, or a new policy to be communicated to staff members.

Notably, the total breakdown of Wickman’s weekly meeting template includes a mere 30 minutes on six of the seven phases of the meeting, and 60 minutes for the IDS phase, where the team problem-solving actually occurs. In other words, the meeting is one-third communication and accountability, and two-thirds problem-solving. And this split is deliberate, as the number-one failing for most meetings is the feeling that nothing is actually getting done. Doing real problem-solving in a meeting, however, provides a sense of progress and accomplishment.

I admit I long resisted adopting a formal weekly meeting process. Having lived through too many unproductive meetings, I was not eager to voluntarily institute a burden on myself and my team.

Yet ultimately, having finally made the transition, I now see the power of the standing weekly team meeting — albeit with a few tweaks to Wickman’s formula:

· Review weekly (and monthly) business data
· Review task list
· Weekly to-dos (clients, internal business projects, etc.)
· Monthly projects (my “rocks”)
· Reprioritize for the upcoming week
· Other business/staff issues

The meetings are scheduled for an hour, and although I don’t specifically articulate it in the agenda, time is really spent not just reviewing the task list, but digging into problematic to-do items.

Indeed, the whole experience, and Wickman’s book, have taught me that the primary problem with most meetings is that they leave no time for actual problem-solving. Instead, the whole meeting is usually spent just reporting. Ever attended a meeting where nothing substantive was talked about? Exactly.

For our purposes, data tracking comes directly from our business software — as well as some light massaging of the data in an Excel spreadsheet — and the weekly to-dos and prioritizing come from our team’s task management software (e.g., CRM or project management tools). As weekly meetings have become habit, we sometimes take a few minutes just to focus on how to make it easier to prepare the standard reporting for the meeting itself. We’ve also been working to automate reporting of some of our key business metrics.

Overall, by taking a few minutes every week to redirect the team’s priorities, I can ensure that we’re always working on whatever I truly believe is the highest and best use of the team’s energies.

Ultimately, you may decide to adopt Wickman’s weekly meeting agenda verbatim, or to craft your own. Whatever your path, I would argue the four essential areas for weekly meetings are:

Data reporting. What are the KPIs for your advisory business? If you’re not sure, start tracking a few (e.g., new clients, new AUM/revenue, lost clients, prospect meetings, etc.) and adjust based on whether you’re finding them meaningful. Discussing them in a weekly meeting context will quickly accentuate whether the data are relevant (and if not, what would be).

To-dos. This is crucial for accountability. What were the tasks from last week? Which ones are getting checked off ? Which are getting carried over? What are we adding? Ideally, this is directly informed by the assigned tasks in the task management/workflows from your CRM, but at minimum, keep track of key to-dos separately, just so you can report on them easily at the weekly team meeting.

Prioritizing. For me, this is about ensuring that the team works on whatever is most important for the week — which may vary from week to week, as some projects are paused and revisited later. From Wickman’s perspective, this is where you renew your focus on the rocks that have to be “piled” in the current month or quarter, to ensure the business is meeting its big objectives.

Problem-solving. Leave time — a lot of time — in each weekly meeting to actually solve whatever issues have cropped up in the intervening week, and preparing for the coming week’s priorities, as well as responding to any data tracking that caused concern. If you follow Wickman’s rule, this should be allocated two-thirds of your total meeting time.

Additionally, one of the biggest keys to the success of the weekly team meeting is scheduling it at a fixed time, and expecting everyone to honor that team obligation. Our weekly meetings are at 10:30 a.m. on Monday mornings — enough time for everyone to get oriented at the beginning of the day, including preparing the meeting agenda and the weekly data reporting — before discussing the coming week’s activity and obligations.

In my case, this was part of my broader personal initiative to regain control of my time and schedule by crafting a more rigorously structured, standard weekly meeting schedule.

Beyond helping schedule and manage time though, a standing weekly meeting forms the basis for accountability. When everyone knows that the weekly meeting is coming, and that everyone will be held accountable for their to-do items, things get done. The meeting effectively becomes the deadline for weekly tasks — and there’s nothing quite like the power of a deadline.

So what do you think? Do you use a weekly team meeting structure? When do you meet? How do you handle your weekly agenda? Please share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments section.

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