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Run Meetings Like a Marine

One evening last week my husband, Michael, was telling me about his marathon meeting day. We shared some of the same frustrations about how many meetings can get packed into a day. Then he said something that brought me up short: “It’s not so bad as long as there aren’t too many Information Brief meetings. Nobody likes those.”

By Kristen McAlister

I blinked. Twice. I stared at him.
“What’s an Information Brief meeting?”

We ended up having a revelatory discussion—one of my favorite types, actually. A compare-and-contrast about how the civilian world gets business done versus how the Marine Corps does it.

As my husband transformed before my eyes into “Marine Mike,” I couldn’t help but laugh in deep appreciation as he began to outline, with animated conviction, that Marines have only three types of meetings. End of story! 

When planning a meeting, Marines know the type and the agenda up front.

At this point, I stopped laughing and started taking notes. I asked the obvious question: “What if you can’t decide what type of meeting it needs to be?”

Michael answered, “Then why are you having the meeting? If you aren’t clear on something as simple as the communication structure and the agenda, then you shouldn’t be having the meeting.”

As I thought about all the pointless, agenda-less, meetings I’ve sat through that produced no follow-up, I couldn’t argue.

Here’s the rundown from my notes (and Marine Mike) on Marine Meetings.

Information Brief

In Marine terms, the Information Brief is also known as the “Shut Up and Listen, I need you to receive information” meeting.

These types of meetings are great for conveying top priorities, delivering information in a clear and concise manner, and answering any subsequent questions about the direction being given. These are most helpful any time there are policy or procedure changes or annual information reviews, such as benefits updates.

As autocratic as this type of meeting sounds, it is often a much better option than simply sending out a mass email. In the age of digital communication, we still need to convey information verbally when it is mission-critical and confirmation of understanding is needed.

These are the types of meetings most of us groan over and despise. They are, however, necessary and appropriate at times.  If you must hold an Information Brief, make it clear up front what it is about, how long it will be, and (based on Marine Mike’s experience), conduct it in the morning, when everyone is in “receive mode.” (In the civilian world, it may take coffee, donuts, or bagels to provide an added incentive  or “perk” to keep everyone listening.)

Working Group Meeting

Walk into just about any company and you will hear someone complaining about how things are being done poorly or could be done better. In the Marines, there’s a system to talk about what isn’t going right and what can be done better in a constructive way.

The Working Group Meeting is exactly what it sounds like. Such a meeting involves two-way communication, information exchange, sharing new ideas, working through problems, and brainstorming. The goal is to actually get work done. The meeting may also produce outcomes and action items, such as testing out new ideas and providing feedback to the group at a later date.

Some of the best ideas may come from meeting participants who are outside of management or the leadership team. People who actually do the work should be included in these types of meetings to share their perspective. The Working Group Meeting is an open forum that allows everyone to throw around ideas without trying to come to any specific conclusions or decisions. When you aren’t yet focused on the specifics of how to do something, you can remain open to all the possibilities.

A few tips to make Working Group Meetings as productive as possible:

  • Someone should be assigned to take notes
  • Any outcomes and action items should be assigned owners and timelines
  • Assign a time limit to the meeting up front

Board Meeting

It may come as a surprise that Marines have Board Meetings, but these aren’t just for Boards of Directors or Advisory Boards.

Marine Mike describes these meetings in short, staccato rhythms. Decisions. Decision briefs. COAs (I had to ask as well – Course of Actions). These meetings are “where the rubber meets the road,” and they require the most focus, the most discipline, and the most documentation.

During Board Meetings, all points of perspectives are reviewed, decisions are made, and the course of action to execute the decision is determined. Three key components support the outcomes of the mission-critical Board Meeting:

  • What is being done
  • By whom
  • By when

Someone is also appointed to take responsibility for reminding everyone of the timelines and following up, whether that review takes place at the start of the next meeting or offline. (See a prior post on Accountability, if you are shaking your head thinking, “this would never end up happening in my company.”)

As Marine Mike described all of the above, a light bulb went on for me. I could clearly see where business meetings go so wrong so often. In the civilian world, we too often come together intending to have a Board Meeting but end up holding a Working Group meeting instead. Nothing ever gets decided on or accomplished.

A clear agenda of what decisions need to be made prior to the meeting will help those of us in the civilian business world keep our conversations centered and on task. If you aren’t sure of what these are, then you likely aren’t ready for a Board Meeting and should plan a Working Group meeting instead.

Marine Mike left me with one final thought about meetings and making them productive as can be: The Number One rule of Marine Meetings is that nobody walks in without a pad and pen (or the digital equivalent). That’s right—everybody in the meeting takes notes, even if they aren’t the official note-taker.

The Golden Rule: If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen, and it won’t happen.

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