A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of running a small, fast-growing business is the direct correlation between thought and action: a chance 90-second morning elevator ride with a colleague produces a decision before the doors open, action before lunch, and results to discuss in the elevator ride back down that evening.
With a small, tight team, the business grows to the rhythm of ‘think it, do it, done’. But as the business grows and complexity creeps in, the ability to link thought to action, and action to results seems to wilt.
If I had a dollar for every time a business leader has said something to the effect of ‘When I put my foot on the gas pedal, the car doesn’t go forward any more‘…well, you can complete the cliche as well as I.
The main reason leaders in a growing business lose the ability to translate their decisions into real change centers around the growth of that dreaded institution, the meeting. Here’s why that happens, and four steps to fix it:
1. A meeting isn’t a decision.
Remember the days when ‘meetings’ were chance encounters in the hallway (or in elevators)? When you couldn’t have gotten five people in one room if you’d tried, because the team was so small – and too busy actually doing stuff?
And now…well, now it seems like your agenda is utterly dominated by meetings. Formal and informal, virtual and in-person, postponed, rescheduled, overlapping and above all, interminable, meetings appear to have become the very bedrock on which your organization sits.
And in the midst of these endless meetings, it’s easy to believe that just by having them, by the very act of getting through them, we’ve accomplished something. Which of course we haven’t – because a meeting isn’t in itself a decision, it’s just a meeting.
Keep a log for the next week: how many of the meetings you participate in produce clear, agreed, meaningful decisions? More to the point, how many of the meetings you sat through could be abolished without harm (and perhaps great benefit) to the organization’s overall decision-making ability?
2. A decision isn’t an action.
Getting meaningful decisions out of interminable meetings is so difficult – and so rare – that on the few occasions it does happen, guess what happens next?
Yup – giddy at the triumph we’ve just accomplished, the participants (especially Visionary leaders) rush to the next meeting, carrying with them an inner glow of achievement. Except that, at this point, nothing has yet been achieved. And until the decision is translated into action, nothing will.
Pull out that meeting log again: How many of the decisions you’ve been party to this week were translated into delegated actions, with a specific individual held accountable to report back on implementation in an agreed timeframe?
3. An action isn’t a result.
Here’s the dirty little secret of decision-making in a meeting-dominated environment: our schedules are all so crazy-busy, in order to make our lives easier we make a subliminal pact with each other. It goes like this:
In our world of over-scheduled overwhelm, actually completing delegated actions on time is deemed an achievement. As a result, reporting on the completion of actions equals success.
So relieved (and surprised) are we to hear someone report back on real, honest-to-goodness front line activity, that little time is spent discussing whether or not the actions produced a result.
Back to your meeting log: In how many meetings was time spent dispassionately analyzing actions taken, to better understand the actual results of those actions?
4. A result isn’t change.
Finally, how often have you watched a group of people in a meeting fall on a documented result (an increase in customers, say, or a reduction in inventory) like an oasis in a parched desert?
And yet a result is just that – a single event, one which may or may not be sustainable and repeatable.
The purpose of meetings – those that actually have a purpose, that is – is to effect change, and change can only be measured over time. Yet, buoyed by the rare sense of having accomplished something with just one result, so often we allow our meetings to drop items off the agenda because we managed to make one thing happen, one time.
How often can you say in a meeting ‘Looky here – we effected real, material change in our organization by doing this‘? You may need to keep your meeting log for somewhat longer than a week to measure that one.