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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #5 - Three Common Ways to Derail the Tactical Meeting

By Michael Lorsch

Three Common Ways to Derail the Tactical Meeting

Recently, I was in a meeting with a person who said, “Meetings are such a royal waste of my time; I’d like my job so much better if we could eliminate them altogether.”

As he said that, I began to wonder…

Would he feel the same way if the meetings he attended were high impact decision-making sessions, where team members engaged in passionate debate and were compelled to make and keep commitments?

Probably not.

The meeting structure unveiled in Patrick’s book Death by Meeting has taken root in literally thousands of companies all over the world. This practical approach to meetings changes the way that team members interact and transforms meetings from the worst part of our jobs, to yes, even the best. The model suggests four types of meetings that help teams to create a level of “contextual separation” that is missing from most meetings. In case you’re not familiar with this model, the four meeting types are:

  1. The Daily Check in—a quick daily meeting where team members share what’s on their plates for the day.
  2. The Weekly Tactical—a review weekly of activities, goals, and an opportunity to resolve tactical obstacles and issues.
  3. The Monthly (or ad Hoc) Strategic—a lengthier and more substantial meeting to discuss, analyze, and make decisions on critical issues that affect the company’s long-term success.
  4. The Quarterly Offsite Review—an “offsite” meeting intended to review strategy, industry trends, competitive landscape, key personnel, and team development.

I was first exposed to this meeting structure when I was a team leader working for a large national non-profit organization. The meetings were pretty miserable. We used the typical “round the room report-out process” that left everyone disengaged and uninspired. Our meetings were boring, tedious, and ineffective. After reading and learning Pat’s model, I decided to give it a try with my team. At first, it felt a bit clunky. It didn’t seem to flow as well as I thought it should. I could tell my team members were getting a bit frustrated with the process and were about to abandon ship, returning to the old way.

The Weekly Tactical Meeting

Part of our initial struggle was around the weekly tactical meeting. This meeting is critical to the model, because it provides a forum to address all execution related questions for the week. The difficulty for leaders and teams lies in navigating the numerous tempting distractions and subjects that arise during the weekly gathering.

As a team leader myself and now as a consultant, I have learned that there are three team behaviors that tend to derail the tactical meeting. They include:

  1. The not-so-lightning round
  2. Losing the tactical context
  3. Lack of accountability for decisions and commitments

The Not-So-Lightning Round

The lightning round is supposed to be a quick overview of the three most important things that each team member will undertake in the week ahead. It is intended to inform the team literally of what each team member considers his/her most important focus for the coming week. Shouldn’t team members know such things about the members of their team? Of course. Instead, what tends to happen is the person giving the quick overview of their top three things begins to go on and on about each item. Remember, each person should be able to share their three priorities in 30 seconds or less. For a team of nine, this part of the meeting should be done in four and a half minutes. Now, while they are telling their three key activities, fellow team members should listen closely and consider some of the following:

  1. Can I support my team member with any of the items they mentioned?
  2. Do I have questions about the items- do I even know what they are talking about?
  3. Do I have some input I should share?

If they do have questions or need additional information, they should request for that item to be added to the agenda for the meeting. Simple. No more conversation needed (until, of course it comes up on the agenda).

Takeaway: Let the lightning round be like lightning. If needed, call items to the agenda and move on.

Losing the Tactical Context

The next issue that teams face is that once the team begins to work through the agenda, they allow the conversations to become strategic. Remember, this is a purely tactical meeting intended to be a venue for issues related to execution. If the conversation around the agenda item morphs into a purely strategic topic, then the conversation should end and the topic should be parked in the “strategic items” area. That way, the team can take up the topic later (or even later that day, if necessary) and give the topic focused time in order to reach a conclusion. Strategic meetings may require team members to gather additional information to make an informed decision.

Takeaway: Be careful not to engage in topics that are not intended for a tactical meeting. Send them to the strategic conversation parking lot, and move on. Teams should actively manage the Strategic Meeting topics as new ones are added. Separating the tactical from the strategic topics helps a team maintain focus on both.

Lack of Accountability for Decisions and Commitments

When my leadership team followed Lencioni’s meeting structure, we identified a person whose job it was to record all commitments—both team and individual. This way, we were ensured to have some real accountability going forward. If someone on the team made a commitment (i.e. “I’ll get copies of the report for all of you.”) then the person would record that commitment on the meeting notes. The next week, the commitments were read and reviewed as an accountability check. Very effective. It only takes a couple of those accountability checks for team members to get serious about following through on all their commitments.

Takeaway: Record all decisions and commitments to ensure accountability reigns.

Developing good meeting habits is one of the most important skills for any team that desires to be cohesive and effective. Teams that learn, commit to, and dedicate themselves to such habits can expect to be rewarded with meetings that are engaging, interesting, and focused on the right issues. They can be gatherings, where high quality decisions are reached faster than their competition.

So, for all those executives that would love to get rid of meetings altogether, I always tell them one of Pat’s favorite sayings, “We don’t need fewer meetings, we just need fewer bad meetings.” Using the Death by Meeting model gives leaders and employees alike the proper context and forum to make their meetings effective, even enjoyable.

If you are interested in the model, a tactical meeting guide and other free meeting-related downloads, click here».