We’ve all likely sat through meetings where

  • there was lots of talk and no action
  • the leader and one or two people talked the whole time
  • emotions were negatively charged and the conversation spiraled into sparring
  • no one showed up prepared or engaged
  • accountability was lacking walking into and out of the room
  • siloed factions polarized the conversation into stalemate
  • decisions that were made at the last meeting had to be revisited because everyone understood them differently

These conditions are endemic in our organizations these days and cost organizations and all of us that work in them dearly. The sense of spinning our wheels when we have urgent matters to work on is doubly painful. And those of us who’ve had to suffer through such kinds of meeting cultures have grown so allergic to them that we may go out of our way to avoid them as much as possible, further contributing to broken communication. It’s a negative spiral that’s doing no one any good.

Mission driven organizations cannot afford to bleed time and energy like this. So what’s to be done?

The first step in correcting this kind of meeting death spiral is to recognize that underneath how meetings go is an implicit set of agreements about how we will communicate. This set of agreements around how we communicate I call an ‘organizational operating system’. All organizations have them already but are not conscious of them, nor the impact they have and the point of leverage they represent.

Most of our current organizational operating systems are built unconsciously based on habits we’ve learned over time. These assumptions include such things as ‘only the leader should build the agenda’, ‘we’re all good people, we can just talk this out’, ‘Jane’s a quiet person, she just doesn’t have anything to contribute’, ‘everyone should be able to get their work done without having to be reminded’, or ‘structure crushes innovation and creativity, if we just talk we’ll get to our new solution’.


The trouble with these assumptions about how we should communicate together is three fold:

  • We all hold different assumptions around what our operating system is and those assumptions can clash, leading to further dysfunction.
  • Each one of these assumptions holds a partial truth, but when held as the whole truth (which is what happens when we can’t see our assumptions) we actually miss the place where those assumptions could actually provide their value.
  • When our communication operating system is based on assumptions and habits, we cannot see where the holes in our operating system might be, and will therefore keep spinning our wheels as an organization.

In our research into organizational operating systems and what makes for effective, efficient and engaging work communication, here are a few key areas where our operating systems can be readily upgraded:

  • Establish explicit decision making protocols including who has authority for making what decisions.
  • Build an agreed upon structure for meeting flow which allows for the various kinds of conversations we need to have with each other in meetings.
  • Incorporate a collaborative accountability system by reporting out on key projects and recurring tasks as part of the meeting process.
  • Generate your agendas and all the items to cover, from all those present.
  • Process each agenda item to clear outputs.
  • Record all the outputs of your meetings in a transparent and accessible location.

The most effective communication operating systems are one’s that are employed organization wide, not just by one or two teams. That said, when you are implementing a change in your operating system, it works well to start with a pilot team and expand from there.

If you are looking for more resources on effective operating systems, please check out our free resources page. We’d love to hear your questions and what you find works, just use the comments field just below.

And just to lighten your day, enjoy this hysterical short video on conference calls!