Cross-Team Meetings Don’t Have to Be a Waste of Time

By Matt Dallisson, 08/01/2021

There is a frustrating familiarity about meetings with other departments, with an outcome you can predict even before the conversation begins: Heads will nod, there will be vague statements or a call for more data, and then unfailingly, you’ll repeat the same conversation repeated next time. Eyes roll, progress stalls, yet no one calls out this waste of words and time.

In my work with executive teams, I’ve found that one of the biggest challenges my clients face is the struggle to work across silos, for many reasons. For one, there is a tendency to quickly unite on an agenda common to their team and cleave from another group’s goals. Many teams also work under misguided assumptions of a zero-sum game. To garner more headcount, project approval, or attention, they feel they must wrest it away from their colleagues who report up through another branch of the hierarchy.

Meetings are a manifestation of this insecurity. On the one hand, meeting attendees don’t want to be called out for not behaving according to company values of collaboration and generosity. But on the other, they don’t want to budge from their turf. So, they engage in covert friction disguised as conciliation, using coded terms like, “Let’s get back together and review this with more data,” or “Thanks for the feedback, we’ll look into it.” Focused on internal politics, organizations neglect customers and cede market advantage to their competitors.

Fortunately, there is a quick, simple way to extract more juice from each meeting — to solve problems faster, reduce repetition, and be more productive. It’s a technique I call claiming.

When I switched careers from engineering to HR at Microsoft, my job required me to present frequently to the CEO and C-suite. Having switched fields, I had much to learn on the job, including how to walk away from meetings with executives representing different divisions with agreements that stuck. Through trial and error, I came up with the five-step process of claiming — a process that efficiently lays claim to meetings and their outcomes. Over the last 15 years, many of my executive clients have made claiming a regular feature of all meetings. It has helped them streamline conversations, be more strategic about meeting outcomes, and reduce confusion and disagreements across previous divides.

Here are the five elements to achieving a great claim:

Create context.

To avoid digressing into previously discussed topics or dueling agendas, open your meeting with a single summary. For example, “When we last met, we discussed the problems with the release of Widget X. It lacked a logical sequence and sufficient planning. Our test team was unable to plan a verification cycle and the developers had started chasing the next shiny object instead of fixing existing bugs. As a result, we missed our major selling window by a month. We agreed to meet again after each team had a chance to think through their process, entry, and exit criteria for each milestone.” By recapping the central theme from the previous conversation and the consensus reached at the end, you put everyone on the same page at the start.

Announce the problem or opportunity.

Participants agreed to attend this meeting, but they may need to be reenlisted to prioritize the topic or project amid other tasks crowding their minds and calendars. Secure your audience’s attention by clearly stating the pain caused by not tackling this topic right now. For instance, “The path to every one of our product releases is littered with calendar collateral — creating delays, disappointments, and disparaging cross-team chatter. By bringing people from each team together, we can address this issue and court customers and challenge competitors. We need to start this now given the competition’s latest press release and so we’re faster to market with Widget Y.” When this step of the claim process demonstrates importance, urgency, and a specific payoff for everyone present, attendees are immediately attentive.

Enter with the exit in mind.

To warrant investment, the problem is usually daunting and will not be resolved in a single discussion. Start by creating the exit criteria for the current meeting to be successful — how you define what success looks like for this meeting and what you want to accomplish during the given time. For example, “The purpose today is to review our collective road map together and identify what’s missing or inaccurate.” Specific outcomes keep everyone focused and allow you to capture deviations in a list for future consideration.

Guide their gestures.

Explain to participants on how they should contribute to the objectives laid out in the previous step, whether that means to ideate, debate, decide, define, declare, or deliver resources. Absent direction, people might start to brainstorm and diverge when your goal is to converge on a decision; they may get lost in the details of one idea when you want to surface as many as possible; or worse, they may check out and cede attention to email because they were not specifically called on to contribute. For example, “We’re looking for people to brainstorm and suggest options outside your department.” Also be clear about what the meeting is not about, such as, “As a reminder, we’re not here today to make any decisions, rather to generate as many ideas and reveal as many pieces of missing information as possible. Our next meeting will cover key decisions to finalize the road map.” When attendees know exactly what to do, they deliver more results and are less likely to multitask.

Invite their input.

Even after the first four steps of claiming a meeting, there may be items on a participant’s list that they want to discuss or may be distracting them. Open the floor to their thoughts before diving into the topic at hand. For example, “Is there anything else we need to cover at this meeting or capture on the parking lot for a different discussion?” This reassures everyone that their concerns will be addressed either in this or a future conversation, and they can refocus on the highest priority agenda item.

Despite your best intentions to get your meeting off on the right foot, there will be times that conversation will take off in its own direction. Toward the end of the meeting remember to reclaim your session. Check the discussion against your initial claim to see what was achieved and what wasn’t. In addition to the obvious follow-up of naming owners and dates for action items, is there any additional discussion needed on the items in your exit criteria? How will the process progress from brainstorm to decision? How will you keep people involved or informed? By bookending your claim on both sides of the meeting, you ensure follow-through on the goals you took care to claim at the outset.

Before you convene people from different groups again, ensure no portion of your session will remain unclaimed. Prepare ahead to conduct meetings that will mend problems and augment efficiency rather than losing your aim, wasting time, and undermining morale.

This content was originally published here.

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