Elise Keith has spent a good chunk of her career studying meetings. When I asked her why people hate them, I expected her to say something along the lines of “people hate bad meetings.” But instead, she said:
“People don’t hate meetings. People like to say that they hate meetings. People actually prefer to have at least one or two meetings every week on their calendar because it helps them know they’re relevant and connected to the group.”Elise Keith, founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings
As the founder of Lucid Meetings and the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization, Elise helps organizations create meetings with purpose—meetings that focus on intent, decision-making, and follow-through.
According to Elise, participants should enter a meeting knowing what value they aim to create in the time they have together. Meetings should be carefully and intentionally designed, and they should be a reflection of how you want your business to operate.
“When you think about everything that needs to happen in your business for it to succeed… You’ve got one or two choices. The default choice made in most businesses is that you leave it up to each and every individual how, when, or if that conversation ever happens. And your other choice is that you design the way your business works.”Elise Keith, founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings
Elise Keith is the founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings and the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization.
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Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!
[Voiceover] Welcome to The Future of Content, a podcast exploring how we create, manage and distribute content. Brought to you by Four Kitchens: We make BIG websites.
[Todd] Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. Every episode we invite a guest to explore an aspect of content and to make predictions about the future of that content. If you create, manage, or publish content, welcome, this podcast is for you. Today we’re talking about meetings. Yes, meetings: the sometimes reviled, often misunderstood, and usually inevitable blocks of time that fill our schedules. Our guest is Elise Keith, the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization, as well as the founder and CEO of Lucid Meetings, an organization that makes it easy for teams to run successful meetings every day. Welcome to The Future of Content, Elise.
[Elise] Thanks for having me, Todd.
[Todd] Absolutely. So first things first. Why do people hate meetings?
[Elise] Well, they don’t. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. People don’t hate meetings. People like to say that they hate meetings. Right? But in reality, people actually prefer to have at least one or two meetings every week on their calendar because it helps them know they’re relevant and connected to the group and part of everything. People are not particularly fond of walking into a room and having their time wasted by other people in pointless drivel. Right? So it’s not meetings necessarily, but having our time abused is not something any of us are wild about.
[Todd] How much of that feeling do you think is the maker versus manager schedule of interrupted blocks of time?
[Elise] What’s fascinating about that is that when you look at the maker-manager divide, first of all, that’s definitely more acute and if you get into really great big organizations where they haven’t done a very good job of designing how information flows. So you really do get into places where people can’t do their work because they’re being called into meetings all the time. That said, when you look in maker communities, at what happens when they adopt some name brand things like—They adopt Agile development or they go into Lean manufacturing. You’ll find that they are actually running more meetings that they themselves are scheduling. And they love them or mostly like them because of a couple of things. One, they don’t call the meetings. Right? And they know exactly—
[Todd] The stand-ups and retros.
[Elise] There are stand-ups and the retros and Scrums and Kaizen events. And when you’ve got that kind of specificity, “I’m doing the stand-up or I’m doing the Kaizen event,” you understand why you’re in the room, what you’re meant to do, why it matters to your work, and you’re actually working. Right? So it is part of the job of making. And folks are okay with that. So I think makers don’t like to have their time wasted and making it impossible to make, but meetings that help them actually get that making done better are very welcome.
[Todd] Well, speaking of meetings being better, tell me a little bit about Lucid Meetings and your role in that organization.
[Elise] So Lucid Meetings—We’re really a meeting innovation and solutions company. So we were founded 10 years ago, specifically as a software company. And our goal at that time was to help organizations that were having decent meetings find a way to simplify the administration of those meetings and make it easier to capture results. Because one of the things that we see—and that the larger research backs up quite nicely—is that people know how to have a decent meeting, and they make great promises and they come up with great decisions, but then they don’t write any of it down, and so it goes away. Right? So they’ve lost all that value and they end up having to rehash it all over again. So we—
[Todd] Right. What did we decide? Why did we decide it? When did that happen?
[Elise] Yeah, exactly. “Well, I wasn’t there.” “Well, I interpreted it this way.”
[Todd] Can you fill me in? Can you recap?
[Elise] Exactly. Exactly. “I thought we said…” “Oh, you meant me?” “Mm-hmm.” So all of that.
[Todd] Who’s action item is that?
[Todd] Yeah, okay.
[Elise] Actually, on the research front, I’ve just learned about a study where they went into a company and they had two teams. Team A was the control team and Team B was the test team. And they ran their meetings, but Team A ran them the way they’d always run them, and on Team B, they had them at the end of every meeting, make sure they’d written down all of the action items and then send them out by email afterwards. And that was it. That was the only change. And after the course of several months, they saw a dramatic and specific performance gain on Team B. It made a huge difference. They were completely crushing Team A. And so I asked—
[Todd] Just simply managing the content of the meeting by writing it down and sending it out.
[Elise] Yes. We agreed to do this. And following through on it.
[Todd] And what does the follow-through look like?
[Elise] Well, in that particular case, they wrote down the action items. “Fred will update the reports by Thursday.” And then they emailed them out where everybody could see it. And then when they come in the next meeting, you pull those up and say, “Hey, did this happen?” That’s it.
[Todd] That’s it. Yeah.
[Elise] That’s it. I mean, it’s crazy simple. Right?
[Todd] How much of that is the accountability that somebody has knowing that when they go into the next meeting, they’re going to be asked, “Did you do that thing that you said you’d do?”
[Elise] Yeah, that’s a good question, right? I think that some of it, for sure, we certainly see that with clients when we do. And I bet you guys see this with clients, too. Right? So you work with a client in a meeting, and everybody agrees that something is going to happen and you write it down somewhere. And then everybody looks at that list of things they’re going to be asked for the night before the meeting. Right? Or if you’re working with a client, they’ll look at it the minute they walk in the meeting and put it in front of your face because between those things, they’re doing 100 other things. And that’s what they found. I asked the researchers. I’m like, “So was Team A— I mean, did you guys sandbag this test? Is Team A the team that you really wouldn’t have wanted to be on anyway?” And he said no. It wasn’t anything to do with them being lazy or disingenuous or less competent, less intelligent, the nature of the work, it wasn’t anything like that. It was just simply that we are all so busy. Right? And we go into these important conversations and we make our decisions and we make these promises to each other that we fully intend to keep, and then we walk into another conversation and it slips, we lose it, it just gets lost. So that’s a huge content thing around meetings. And the other thing that happens there in that last five minutes is when you say, “Hey, Todd, you’re going to send me the link to this recording when it’s done by Friday, right?” You can say, “Well, actually, it’s going to be out in five months.” Right? And we can have an honest conversation about what we’re really going to do.
[Todd] So I’m curious. Before we launch into things about the structure of meetings and content and things like that, what got you so interested in the subject of meetings so as to pursue it professionally in this way?
[Todd] And to address a problem that every organization— I mean, 100% of organizations have meetings, and they can all be better all the time. What a business opportunity. I love it. Well, let’s dive into the idea of the content lifecycle of meetings. I’m curious, what kinds of content go into preparing for facilitating and following up on good meetings?
[Elise] So meetings are really a microcosm of all of the other communication that’s going on in your business, right? So the first piece of content that you need to be able to articulate and share about any meeting is why it’s happening, so the purpose typically stated as a verb, like, “We’re here to make a decision” or “We’re going to do a kickoff workshop to make the project go,” or whatever it is, and then the desired outcomes. So, “And then this is what we will explicitly get when we are done with this meeting.” And with those two things in place, then you can build out the rest of that content. So if you’re here to do this and by the end you want to come out with these, these decisions, these plans, whatever, you know what kind of content you need to share with people in advance so they can come in prepared to actually do that. Let’s say you’re going to [make] a decision on the new playground design. That’s the purpose of the meeting: We’ll pick which playground design to go with for our local neighborhood park. Well, in advance, people need to have a sense of what those options are. What’s the budget? What’s the timeline? What are the criteria? Right? So there’s all of that stuff in the prep work. And then the meeting itself, as somebody who’s going to facilitate and lead it, you want to plan. “Given that I’ve got this group of people, we’re starting here with this intention and we’re trying to get there. How do we go from A to B?” And that plan is typically expressed and shared with others as an agenda. And an agenda, a lot of people think agendas are a list of topics. That’s the worst possible way to think of an agenda. It’s by far the least useful.
[Todd] Why is that?
[Elise] So here’s what happens. There are a lot of meetings out there that are called things like “staff meeting” or “team meeting,” right? Which tells you who’s invited but not what they’re meant to accomplish. There’s nothing there about what that team is meant to accomplish. Right? So let’s say you get something like a team meeting, and then somebody is assigned to do the agenda for the team meeting. So they look at the team meeting on the calendar, then they’re like, “Okay. I got to do the agenda. Well, I’ve got this group of people. Well, what does that group of people need to talk about? Well, there’s the upcoming picnic and then there’s the decision we need to make about the Board thing, and then there’s the vacation time, and then there’s this project, and then there’s this,” and you get this what we call a laundry list. This great big old list of possible things we might talk about. None of which have, “And this is why we need to talk about it in a meeting. This is what we’re going to get by having talked about it, this is why this is useful and valuable for us as a business.” It’s just, “Hey, here’s all this stuff, and we should probably talk.” Whereas if you go and you say, “Okay, we’re here to achieve this goal, and by the end, we’ll know we have achieved this goal because we will have in our hot, sweaty hands these agreements and this set of plans.” Then the agenda is, “Okay, what’s the journey we’re going to take between here and there?” And often if you phrase that as a series of questions to be answered. Right? “Well, what are our options? Well, what do we think? Which option is the best? Well, what do we next need to do about those options? Well, who are we going to tell? All this and you’d know how to walk through it.
[Todd] Well, let’s take a quick break. And when we return, we will talk with Elise about content resiliency.
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[Todd] Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Elise Keith, author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization and one of the leading voices in designing effective meetings. So I’d like to talk about the concept of content resiliency. What is it and why is it important?
[Elise] Okay, so when we are talking in terms of meetings, what we’re really trying to get at here is institutional memory, institutional retention, right? So I mentioned earlier that study where they took the two teams and Team B wrote down their agreements and shared them out. So that is an example of content resiliency, where the content is the results you’re getting out of that meeting. “Here’s what we agreed. Here were the insights. Here were the key cool ideas. Here are our promises.” And because they wrote them down, they were able to use them. And that helped that particular team be more effective. Now what we see when we work with organizations that are great at meetings on a regular basis, right, they’ve got a habit of being effective at meetings, is that they take it much farther than that. They don’t just stop with like, “Hey, let’s write down the action items.” Right? They write down things like, “These are the different kinds of meetings we run to be effective in our business and how we run them.” So you’re going to have your first call with a new client, let’s say, and you want to make sure that they understand kind of the budget constraints, but also the opportunities and all of that. You’ll have a way, you will have designed that experience. And you’ll have the content there to do that. And then as you go through that, you’ll write down, “This is what happens,” you’ll capture those notes. When you do that as a habit in a way that is in some kind of system of record where everybody on your team can see it, all of a sudden, what you’ve done is you’ve made your business, the business value of all those meetings, something that belongs to the business and isn’t just trapped in each individual’s head. And also something that’s completely transferable or resilient in case you have something like half of your team is stuck on a cruise ship in Asia. They’re being quarantined or something like that.
[Todd] Right. And we should note that we’re recording this in early March and this is very much top of mind. This is happening.
[Elise] This is a big deal. It’s a big deal, right? And the thing is, right now we’re facing pandemic and we are getting a flood of attention with people going, “Oh my gosh, we need better ways to work remotely.” But it’s not just whether or not you can come together in person that matters. Right? Really, at any point, you should be designing for resiliency in your communications. Because you don’t need a pandemic to have somebody switch jobs.
[Todd] Right. Yes.
[Elise] You lose key stakeholders or you move them from one role to another, or— I was working with a client this morning and they had snow and wind come through and half of the team had to go out and take over downed power lines. So what had those people committed to doing? What were the promises that they owed delivered to their clients and the rest of their stakeholders that were due that day?
[Todd] I don’t know. They’re not here, right? They didn’t show up.
[Elise] Oh dear, the team is gone. Right. And so when you have a resilient meeting process, anybody on your team who has basic familiarity can step in and lead the meetings that are coming up. Right? So there’s this terrible idea that people think that the person who has positional authority needs to actually also lead the meeting. No, not at all. Not at all. If you’ve got a decent structure, anybody can do it. So you get resiliency that way.
[Todd] In fact, I wonder, just as a sidebar, there’s this phrase that got stuck in my head, and I found that it applies to me, but it doesn’t apply universally to everybody. And so sometimes I get in trouble by assuming it’s the case with everybody. And it is “those who facilitate cannot participate.” I am the kind of person who can’t do both. I can’t facilitate a meeting and be equally rooted in offering my opinions and being part of the act of discussion while also keeping everybody on track in all of this. Which is why we have frequently in the past assigned the concept or the role of facilitator to somebody else so that the people who need to talk kind of sit and talk and the facilitator can wrangle them. Well, I’ve learned that there are people who can do both and it’s just their skillset or toolset or whatever. But to what degree does that notion of facilitation versus participation play a role in content resiliency?
[Elise] I think it’s an opportunity, right? So you’re right. Some people can do it, some people can’t. Some people could do it but shouldn’t because then you’re getting into all kinds of things about human dynamics, really, right? And neutrality and power and the psychology of inclusion. And we’re talking about content here, but the whole talk could have been about psychological safety or employee engagement. All of those things are things that come into meetings, which is why my book is about it “eing where the action is.” It’s ideal if you can have someone separate from the positional leader do the facilitation for a couple of reasons. One, it allows the leader to stay into the content, right, and making sure that they’re guiding that decision to being strategically aligned, right? So they’re pulling out the best value. Because often they can see things that other people can’t. They have that broader perspective. But second, it builds leadership capability and resilience in the rest of your team. So in the groups that we see that do this the best, they rotate facilitator responsibilities every month. So somebody new is facilitating the meeting every month so they get that experience.
[Todd] And it’s not per meeting, they have to really settle into that role for a little while.
[Elise] Yeah, yeah. If you do it per meeting, you can learn some things that way, but it becomes a “oh, well, whatever” one-off. And that’s not how we develop skills, right?
[Todd] Yes. And then it’s going to take however many people’s cycles to get back to you, and you won’t have— Yeah, that makes sense. Makes sense. I’m curious, how has team, organizational, corporate culture, all of the above impacted the need for content resiliency?
[Elise] Well, I think there are a number of things that have happened, especially in the last decade, that are increasing people’s awareness of this requirement and their desire to get good at it. The number of people who are actually good at it isn’t there yet. That’s the next step. But a couple of things. One’s increasing complexity. And I’m sure everybody talks about increasing complexity, but we’re all interconnected, the parts are moving, the economy is unstable. Even “best economy ever,” but kind of not, right? So all of the increasing complexity and the dynamic shifting nature of things mean that understanding what the heck’s going on and what you’re meant to do and what you promised to do is more important than ever, and having clear ways to figure out what you ought to be doing next, right? That’s a lot of what you’re doing in meetings, also helps. There’s also the generational shift and the shifting expectations about what it means to work together as teams. People expect to be developed and they expect to have a say.
[Todd] And you’re saying this is relatively new?
[Elise] In the last decade, it’s become much more prominent, right? They expect to be— They expect to have a voice. They don’t have built-in loyalty to companies necessarily, right? And often there’s a dramatic increase in remote or at-home or flexible work environments. So you’ve got this workforce that’s become gig-based and lightly connected, right? So if you’re happy, you’re very fluid, right? So as you get this very fluid workforce, how do you know what the organization independent of the people has promised?
[Todd] Yep. It’s no longer like, “Oh, go ask Sally down in the basement. She’s been doing this 30 years. She’s got it handled. She knows where that is. She can find it in the records.” Right? It needs to be accessible and known to anybody because you never know when we’re going to have to work from home suddenly due to pandemic or changing work culture or expectations or whatever.
[Elise] Right, right, absolutely. So if you look at the places where they’ve got gig workers on all the time, freelancers are coming in and out. They don’t have every single freelancer invent from scratch how to do important things, right? There are information systems in place, there are patterns, there are structures. Well, as more and more of what we’re doing has a fluid workforce coming into it, how do you structure the key critical meetings you need and have some resiliency on surfacing those results so that you can pass your audits, so you can make your commitment, so that you can thrill your customers, right?
[Todd] Yeah. Absolutely. One last question for you. How has technology impacted the need for or the challenges of content resiliency? What’s the role of technology in this?
[Elise] Well, the technology is both our best of friends and worst of enemies, right? Because I mean, part of the reason that content resiliency or record resiliency around meetings is so much more important today than it was before— I mean, it’s always been a really good idea, but it’s become really, really critical now that the incessant, noisy influx of new information increases the risk that the critical thing we promised to do gets lost.
[Todd] Interesting. We’re just being bombarded because of technology with information all the time, and so it’s very easy to just suddenly, 10 seconds after you agree to something, “I just got that email. Now I’m thinking about that. I didn’t write down what I promised I would do. It didn’t enter some kind of permanent space.” Is that one of the things that you’re getting at?
[Elise] Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. And you’ve got email coming in— You got email, you’ve got your chat, you’ve got your Twitter. So you’ve got multi-channel, bombardment and requests. I write a column for Inc. Our job is to make whatever that looks like be the most important thing you need to pay attention to right now. Right? And four or five hundred words, it probably isn’t going to change your life. It was probably more important for you to stay focused on something else. But that’s the business model of information right now. So if that’s the business model of information—
[Todd] Meaning the business model of information is to get you to just pay attention to the thing they want you to pay attention to, engagements, all of that?
[Elise] Absolutely. Clicks. It’s clicks, clicks, clicks, clicks, clicks, right? Clicks, downloads, clicks.
[Elise] Yeah, yay. So they got clicks, downloads, clicks. And yet you are creating this critical business asset, which is— My customer told me this awesome story about how to rock their world, right? Or they’ve promised to do this project with me if I can turn this part around in a day. Or this is at risk because of this. That’s the make-or-break stuff. And it’s getting the same play as everything else. And in fact, most of the time, nobody’s even writing it down. Most of the time, it’s not even getting caught.
[Todd] So the main takeaway then, in terms of a well-run meeting that actually results in value, is you have to make sure that you write down what you decide to do, who’s going to do it and when, and you actually follow up on it.
[Elise] That’s the “making sure that value gets out.” Now, upfront, the flip side of that is walking into that meeting knowing what kind of value you’re meant to create so that when it pops up, you can spot it and remember to write it down.
[Todd] Right. And all of this requires thinking ahead, planning—
[Elise] It’s a design problem. It’s a design problem. And here’s the deal. When you think about everything that needs to happen in your business for it to succeed, right, so you think through all the conversations that need to happen between your team members and your customers and your clients and your suppliers and all that. I mean, you just sit there and go make a mental list. And it’s this huge list. It’s this huge list of conversations that need to happen. And then you look at that list and you realize for every single one of those conversations, you as a business leader or a team leader, have a choice. You’ve got one or two choices. The default choice made in most businesses is that you leave it up to each and every individual how, when, or if that conversation ever happens. And your other choice is that you design the way your business works.
[Todd] Fascinating. Let’s leave it there. I love that. It’s a whole other challenge, but it— I certainly, I’m thinking about meetings already in a very different way and counting all of the many mistakes that we commit on a regular basis.
[Elise] Yeah, little steps. Little steps.
[Todd] That’s right.
[Elise] It’ll be great.
[Todd] Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Elise, and to everybody listening. Until next time, enjoy your content.
[Voiceover] You’ve been listening to The Future of Content, a podcast from the Web Chefs at Four Kitchens. Hosted by Todd Nienkerk. Produced by PJ Hagerty. Theme song is PAFRATY by DJ Listo. Find us on Twitter at FoCpodcast and get in touch by email at email@example.com.