Imagine this scenario: Six people gather around a table in the conference room for their weekly staff meeting. They sip coffee, chat about football, politics or the family vacation, enjoying the opportunity to have a relaxed, informal conversation with their colleagues. Eventually, they begin to discuss business-related matters, but with no clear purpose and no tangible results. One person starts checking email on his cell phone, another writes on her laptop. After an hour or so, the participants get back to their desks and the “real work” that awaits them there.

What´s wrong with this picture?

This was not a meeting. It was an extended coffee break. There is no apparent leadership. No one is taking responsibility for making good use of the group´s time. People tune out or “do their own thing.”

I often share my thoughts about the importance of agendas in meetings. Agendas are a way of communicating to participants the reason they have been called together and what they are being asked to contribute. Agendas can help make meetings much more efficient and productive. Nevertheless, sometimes people resist having an agenda. They feel that is a straight jacket, limiting rather than encouraging their participation. They would prefer to “just talk.”

Maybe they are right!

In high pressure environments, or when the group is enmeshed in a conflict or facing difficult decisions, an old-fashioned conversation may be just what a team needs.

Now imagine this scenario. The same six people enter the conference room and the leader says, “I know we are under a lot of pressure because of [a current challenge]. In our recent meetings we have either avoided this topic or gone around in circles, failing to reach a conclusion. Today I suggest that we take this opportunity to ‘just talk’ to each other about how we perceive the issue. Work in pairs, small groups or all together, as you wish. No set agenda. No expected results.”

“To improve the odds that something will change, I ask the following:

  • Give each other your full attention. This means cell phones and laptops off.
  • Seek to understand each other, not to convince them of the rightness of your point of view.
  • After 45 minutes, stop to reflect on what everyone has heard.
  • Feel free to leave if you do not want to contribute to the conversation.”Any questions?”

What changed?

The process was altered with a clear intention and some guidelines to support participation. There is no guarantee that this ¨just talk¨ strategy will work, any more than we can know in advance if a written agenda will move a group to useful outcomes.

Key message: If you do not have a clear purpose and process for convening a meeting, just let people do their other work – or take a coffee break.