One of the hardest parts of leading a good online meeting is the nagging feeling that people are answering email when you really need their attention, or not participating in the hope that you'll just make the darned thing end and we can all get back to our "real" work. To combat this feeling, many people make an understandable, but very serious mistake: they save the most important items for last.
I was working with a client lately when a very smart, experienced facilitator talked about how she tries to keep people engaged when leading virtual meetings. "I always save the most important discussion items for the end, that way they'll stay on the meeting until it's over," she said.
Now, if keeping people's butts in seats until the end of the meeting is your definition of success, I suppose that works.
It's not the best way to get their best thinking, however, and I suspect that's what most meeting leaders are really after. Here's why saving the best for last works against you.
You want people to be fresh and full of good ideas . How many of you can sit through a long meeting, listen to status updates that have very little to do with you, watch the clock praying for the sweet release of death, and then (when it's FINALLY time for what's really important) spring into action? Me either.
The longer a meeting goes without something value happening, the more people start to question its value. No matter how eager I am to participate, the longer I sit passively, the more my brain starts to fill with visions of my email inbox filling up, all the things I could be doing instead, and resentment at having my time wasted. By the time we get to the part I care about, my level of caring has dropped precipitously
If you really value people's input and time, let them know you're making the best of it. While most leaders will say that they want everyone's best thinking, the meeting agenda is often viewed as a window into your priorities. By putting the mundane first, you reinforce the (hopefully erroneous) notion that the meetings are more about routine than action.
You don't want people to limit their input because of time pressure. It's natural, especially online, for people to watch the clock. Most of us are overscheduled as it is, and you won't get robust energetic participation from people who know it's almost time for the meeting to end. They have somewhere else to be. If solving this project crisis is your top priority, then don't try and save time where it matters most. You'll find that the routine status updates are far less important, and can usually be done by email first.
It's about results, not your ego. This gets back to my class participant whose goal, it seems, was to keep people on the meeting until the very end. I know that I have to resist the urge to take "I have to go to another meeting so I'm ringing off now" personally.
The truth is, in a matrixed organization people have competing priorities. If we want to get the best effort from people, we can't put them in a position where they will tick off someone else just because you don't want to let them go. Better they feel good about what they've accomplished and know you want them to be successful.
What is the primary goal of your meeting? Is it brainstorming? Collaboration? Problem solving? Your team will appreciate your meetings more if that is the true objective and you lead your meetings that way. Don't save the good stuff til last.