They're a crucial part of the business process, but if your meetings are planned on autopilot, you're probably not sending the right message
Perry Klebahn has run a lot of companywide meetings since he took over as CEO of ailing bag company Timbuk2 in January, 2007. It's been a period of change, of difficult decisions, of executive departures, and he wanted to keep the 70 employees of the San Francisco company informed and engaged. But what he'd hoped would be an open forum for discussion turned into an awkward weekly event.
"People braced themselves for the meetings because they'd become a time to broadcast the latest changes," says Klebahn, who admits planning for the company meetings wasn't on his list of top priorities.
That's typical: For most business leaders, planning for a meeting amounts to making a list of agenda items or talking points. But the all-company meeting—or any meeting, for that matter—deserves more attention, even if you're not leading a company through a turnaround. That's because meetings play a powerful role in corporate life. They are both a reflection of an organization's culture and a means of reinforcing that culture. So in big and small and sometimes trivial ways, meetings send employees a message about the company, and if meetings are planned on autopilot, you're probably not sending the right message.
Klebahn was lucky —as a graduate of Stanford's product design program and a part-time professor there since 1996 (he's taught product design and several classes in the D-School, including a design-thinking "boot camp"), he's friends with two professors who were teaching a D-School course about applying design principles to business processes or systems. The idea was to treat an organization as a prototype to be refined and improved. In one project, for instance, students had worked with an airline to uncover and propose improvements to the passenger travel experience.
The professors—Robert Sutton, an expert in organizational behavior and author of, most recently, The No Asshole Rule, and Debra Dunn, a 22-year veteran of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) who held leadership positions in the marketing, manufacturing, and human resources divisions before moving to corporate HQ, where she helped drive initiatives such as the Agilent spin-off—approached Klebahn about a short, Timbuk2-based project for the class and homed in on the meeting as the right-sized problem. It was, says Dunn, "small enough for students to wrap their arms around and large enough that it would make a significant impact. Meetings have tremendous symbolic power."
"I was focused on saving the company," says Klebahn. "We had four warehouses and needed to shut down three of them. There were ergonomic safety issues in the office, and you don't talk about safety issues—you fix them. I just didn't think that much about the culture until Bob [Sutton] said to me: 'If you destroy the culture, then you destroy the company.'"
Room for Improvement
So on Feb. 6, 2008, Sutton, Dunn, and 14 students took a bus up to San Francisco to observe a company meeting. As Sutton recalls, most people in the meeting were standing or sitting on the floor. "The sun was glaring through the windows, forcing many to shield their eyes. You couldn't tell who was in charge. Some people were called on to give status reports didn't have anything to report," he says. "There was no mention of Timbuk2's product or its customers. There was no food. One person fell asleep."
Sounds disastrous, right? The D-School team couldn't have asked for anything better. "The meeting was so broken," says Sutton. "Everyone was remarkably unenthusiastic. Very few people talked. They just listened to these announcements by Perry and his executive team." Through their observations and follow-up interviews with employees, it became clear that the meeting—from its top-down format to its chairless location—was sending a clear message to the staff: We're so busy dealing with important organizational issues that we don't have time for you.
Suffice it to say this was not what Klebahn had intended. Two weeks after the class had observed the meeting, Klebahn and his management team met with the students to hear their proposed solutions, most of which focused on giving employees more control and a greater sense of ownership of the meeting.
Klebahn was quick to act on the ideas. Perhaps the single most important change he made was to delegate the planning and the running of the meeting to his office manager, Keri Sedor. As a practical matter, this allowed him to stay focused on big-picture issues, but it also shifted the dynamic of the gathering. Because Sedor is closer to the staff than members of the executive team, she's better able to solicit ideas or tap into issues that need airing. The Sedor-run meetings are also more collaborative, in part because employees feel comfortable asking her questions.
Some of the changes Klebahn and team made were small. They moved the gathering from the kitchen area to the lobby where there was more seating. They shifted from a weekly 30-minute format on Wednesday at 11 a.m. to a biweekly 90-minute gathering at 3:30, simply because that worked better for most people. Others were more involved. A bulletin board in the kitchen was turned into a sort of ongoing conversation about issues and ideas to be discussed. And to introduce some fun, at each meeting a randomly selected employee gets a custom bag, designed to reflect his or her personal interests or hobbies. "This ritual reinforces that we make stuff, that we're a creative company, that we care about individuals," says Klebahn. "It also gets lots of laughs."
For a complete list of the solutions the D-School team developed for Timbuk2, click here. The same principles will help any CEO or team leader improve—and probably rethink—their meetings. As Klebahn says: "It's radically changed our focus of what the meeting is doing. It's not broadcasting information. It's building a tribe."