We love to complain about meetings, but the truth is that meetings are the lifeblood to much of our work. Using meetings productively and efficiently can be instrumental to keeping critical projects on track—and even more essential to a project that’s fallen off the skids back online.
What can make meetings challenging is that they don’t run on systems or software or mechanics—they run on people. Every business ultimately depends on the interaction of real-live human beings—humans with complex brains, diverse abilities, and sophisticated (and sometimes messy) emotional lives. Those complicated human beings are simultaneously your greatest asset and most challenging liability when it comes to building a great organization—and nowhere is the dynamic more on display than in your meetings. As a management consultant, I can tell you that I can get a decent sense of how effective any organization or team is simply by sitting in on one of their meetings.
So given how vital effective meetings are, it’s notable how little time we actually dedicate to developing the people skills and systems to make the most of them. That’s why some of the most rewarding work I do often comes down to helping teams make their meetings as productive as possible.
Ed Catmull is the co-founder and president of Pixar—the incredibly successful production company responsible for groundbreaking films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up.
Like any company, Pixar has had its share of challenges. There were years of work advancing their story-telling and animation skills and technology before they achieved their first box office success in 1995 with Toy Story. They also had to learn to navigate the same management pitfalls that any rapidly growing organization needs to traverse.
In his book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Catmull recounts many of the management lessons and breakthroughs he learned as they grew Pixar from a small division within a graphic imaging company for medical devices into the Hollywood powerhouse they are today.
One of the challenges was, predictably, how to have effective meetings.
We’ve all experienced less than productive meetings. The maladies are numerous: unclear objectives, poor time management, the inadequate capture of outcomes, dropped communication after the meeting, etc. I’ve written about many of those themes in the past and will again in the future. But in this post, we’ll focus on a particular meeting objective: How do we use meetings effectively get a project that is not on the mark back on track?
What Catmull and his team developed at Pixar was a special sort of meeting for this purpose—something they came to call the braintrust .
At Pixar, a braintrust is called situationally—whenever a movie doesn’t seem to be working quite right in one way or another. Catmull’s book is filled with lots of great anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes issues that tripped up the makers of many of your favorite movies: a scene may not be having the emotional effect that it needed, a character might seem bland, an action-sequence might be leaving audiences confused and overwhelmed, or a bit of animation might not be coming across as realistic.
Whatever the problem, the folks at Pixar would frequently call a braintrust to get it back on track.
The attendees of the braintrust varied depending on the situation—the primary criteria was as simple as this: Who has got a good head on them and might be able to make some contribution to solving this problem? Almost always, the director and producer were in the room, but not because of their rank—in fact, rank should be eliminated in the braintrust (more on why this is the case a little later). What matters most is that all the attendees are invested in making things better and have perspective that might be useful.
Through a series of trial and error—closely examining what worked best in their most effective meetings—the folks at Pixar ultimately came to realize that the braintrust has two essential elements:
1. The braintrust has an expectation of absolute candor.
2. The braintrust has no power.
First, let’s talk about candor. Candor has a very specific meaning. It’s subtly different from honesty. The word “honesty” comes with loads of moral implications and the defensive baggage that can accompany it. “Can I be honest with you?” will almost instantly get anyone’s hackles up. It can be akin to warning someone to suit up with their emotional armor—whatever follows is likely to hurt.
Candor, on the other hand, implies directness and clarity. It means that whatever I’m about to say I believe to be true and can be of some use to you. Setting an expectation of candor from the very beginning frees up participants to bring their best stuff.
As a meeting facilitator, letting participants know explicitly that your expectation is that they not withhold or candy-coat, you’re much more likely to get valuable perspectives on the table.
Of course, actually achieving candor requires more than just stating the expectation. Teams must constantly reinforce the expectation by restating it on a regular basis and affirming the courage of expressing a candid opinion, especially when it is an unpopular one. Candor is not automatically achieved, but it is paramount to achieving a highly successful .
The Braintrust Has No Power
The second essential element of the braintrust is also a subtle shift in expectations and just as critical as the first one: The braintrust has no power.
That means that no decisions will be made during the braintrust. While removing decision-making power might seem counterintuitive to a productive meeting, it’s actually essential and here’s why: without a prohibition against making decisions during the braintrust, the director or other key participants can’t help but spend precious meeting time defending what’s already been done. It’s virtually impossible to listen and defend at the same time.
By relieving the of any power and deferring and delegating decisions to the key responsible parties at a later time, all participants are able to listen more effectively. Relieved of the concern that the process is going to get overtaken by consensus or the loudest voice, there is no need for the director to defend or to argue. With this protection of his or her authority and autonomy in place, the braintrust paradoxically allows them to be much more vulnerable. They still retain their role as the primary decision-maker, but now they will make their decisions with a deeper understanding of more diverse perspectives.
Simultaneously, this deferment of judgment also promotes more candor from the whole group. The focus of the meetings centers on and direct communication of insights. Nothing reinforces a willingness to be candid the experience of others receiving your viewpoint with open minds and ears instead of the usual rebuttals and push-back.
Wait, Really? No decisions?!
Don’t get me wrong, many meetings could benefit from more closure and more decision-making. In certain situations, however, it’s often far more productive to delay the decision and focus on creating the most constructive debate possible by sharing as many diverse opinions as possible.
The problem with many meetings is that objectives aren’t clear at outset. Most agenda items should fall into one of 3 camps:
- Sharing information to raise the awareness of the team.
- Discussing a situation for the purpose of achieving a decision and resolution as a team.
- Gathering input and perspective from the team so that one of its members can make a better-informed decision on their own.
Unfortunately, most teams don’t clearly articulate which of those 3 buckets each item on their agenda is falling into. The resulting situation is ripe for confusion and wasted energy.
Jane may start the conversation wanting only to raise the awareness of the group. Jose responds assuming that Jane brought the information forward so that they could make a group decision. Jerry eats up 10 minutes of the 30-minute meeting sharing his thoughts thinking that he’s being helpful, while Jane is starting to panic as more and more chefs pile into her kitchen. All Jane wanted to do was provide a quick 60-second update. 30 minutes later the team is still discussing—unclear about what their real objective as in the first place.
The braintrust works because it makes it clear from the very beginning that it is an agenda of the third kind: This is Jane’s call. She is going to make it later, not during this meeting. We’re all here to equip her with as much insight as we can so that she can make the best decision possible.
A Note About Rank
By removing the braintrust of power, we temporarily disrupt the counter-productive hang-ups that can come with rank. We tend to equate rank with titles when titles actually communicate two separate pieces of information: rank and role.
Roles describe what I do and what I’m responsible for. Rank describes how my importance compares to your importance. When it comes to chain-of-command decision-making, rank can be a very useful piece of information. For example, in most companies, it is important for a director to understand that a CEO has the prerogative to overrule a director’s decisions. Of course, any CEO should be intentional about how and when they exercise this rank, but still, the authority is always there and it’s valuable for all parties involved to understand it.
But when it comes to promoting constructive and candid conversation in a braintrust, rank can become a liability. Participants of lower official rank may be hesitant to share candid opinions, especially unpopular ones if they are afraid they might diverge from higher ranking participants.
On the other side of that coin, high ranking participants can sometimes withhold valuable perspective for fear that lower ranking members will be overly deferential and adopt the high-ranking opinion—even if it was not the best one on the table.
For these reasons, all participants must work to shake off the hang-ups that might come with their titles. High-ranking members should remember to call on and encourage participation from everyone in the room—actively inviting opinions contrary to their own. Lower-ranking titles should be mindful of the expectation for candor and be willing to take the risks it requires.
Ultimately, It’s About Building Effective Teams
No matter what work you’re in, we all benefit from the wisdom within our teams—and effective meetings are key opportunity to leverage that wisdom.
There is not one among us who has the best answer—everyone on the team likely has a part of the best answer. Using the practices of the braintrust can be transformational when it comes to using the diversity within your team most effectively.
Of course, your ability to leverage the braintrust will be a reflection of your team’s strengths: trust, respect, leadership, accountability, communication, camaraderie, etc.
These are skills that can be both utilized and developed in the braintrust and in every other interaction as a team. The most effective teams identify systems and initiatives that actively hone and develop these strengths because the outcomes of your projects depend on the effectiveness of your teams.