Making meetings matter

by 30 Apr 2012

In my last article I tried to convince you that we need to be cultivating wisdom at work. I promised a change you could make that wouldn’t cost you time or money (though actually making this change will take some serious commitment and practice). Here’s my bottom line on this. At every regularly held meeting, everyone in the room should learn something. At every regularly held meeting, something new should be created – a new idea, plan, product, solution. At every regularly held meeting, most people should agree that it’s not a waste of time.

If these things are already true for you – fantastic! If you’re not quite there yet, here are some ways you can think about creating more value from your time together.


Most meetings go wrong before they’ve even begun, as people prepare for them in the way they’ve always prepared (and thus get what they’ve always gotten). This is basic stuff but rarely done: we all collect ideas for a meeting, but we rarely know what kind of ideas they are: is one idea an informational item for one person to tell the others? Is it a discussion item that some person or group wants to gain advice or perspectives about before making a decision themselves? Is it a matter that this whole collective needs to decide on? Tag every possible agenda item with its designation.

If you’re going to grow wisdom at work, informational items should be handled outside of meetings. Generally, when someone comes to the meeting with an informational item, others ask questions in which the asker is interested, others might be totally disinterested, and no one can particularly change (or else it would have one of the other tags).

So many senior teams use (waste) their collective time on informational agendas because the person who would have to type up the information doesn’t have time to do that, and the others don’t read memos from one another anyway. Commit as a group to do that prework, ask questions off-line. This creates better relationships, and it leaves time for people to grow.

Question curiously

Now that you’ve got an agenda and you’ve done your prework, it’s time to change how you show up with one another in the meeting room itself. This is a time to ask questions rather than make points, to open up to curiosity rather than defend perspectives, and to remember that everyone in room has a different and helpful viewpoint. Since you’re no longer just sharing information, you can begin to surface assumptions, create things together, notice the patterns that are holding you all back.


An oddly-missed step in many meetings is to agree on whatever action plan came out of the meeting. This is something many people somehow collectively fear to make explicit. Who agreed to do which things? What exactly is it that person is supposed to do? By when? What are the conditions for the satisfactory completion of that item? Who judges? This step is the low- hanging fruit of meeting productivity. If everyone does this consistently, even if meetings don’t grow wisdom, they’ll be more productive.

Review learning

Just as groups should review the task assignment, it’s really helpful for them to take a few minutes at the end of every meeting to review the learning that the team has done together. Again, this helps make solidify the learning as well as creating more of the culture that learning and growth are part of what goes on in your organization. If someone hasn’t learned anything, the meeting was at least partially a failure.


Human Capital readers have the chance to win a ticket to the invite-only Wisdom at Work conference, the second annual conference by The Leadership Circle in the Asia Pacific, in Sydney on Thursday 17 May from 8am – 1pm, at which Jennifer Garvey will be a Keynote speaker.

To enter, simply email the editor at for your view on what wisdom means. The winner will be judged by Jennifer.

Entries close 30 April 2012.

About the author

Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger is a facilitator for The Leadership Circle, and will be a Keynote at The Leadership Circle’s invite-only Wisdom at Work conference in Sydney this May. A global leader in the applied adult development field, Jennifer teaches and speaks about leadership at places like Lucasfilm, the Commonwealth Club, and the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. She uses theory and practice knowledge to help individuals and teams transform themselves and their organisations, and she writes about these ideas (her new book is ‘Changing on the job: Developing leaders for a complex world’). Jennifer earned a masters and a doctorate from Harvard University. For further information email her at

For information on The Leadership Circle, please visit