Meetings don’t suck  — you do!

Meetings have an image problem. Ask around and I think you’ll find that almost no one likes them. 

The general perception is that meetings tend to start late, run long, and lack direction; meetings are usually unnecessary, often purposeless, and generally lack outcomes. 

Study after study has found that on average, meetings are run poorly, are unproductive, and are so unbearable that workers all over the world experience a phenomenon known as meeting-dread. Evidence even suggests that 90% of executives daydream in meetings on a regular basis.

But here’s the problem…, and your opportunity. 

Meetings can only ever be as good as you make them. They are but a reflection of how you run them, how you attend them, and how you participate in them. 

Meetings don’t actually suck! You do. Judging by the data, we all do. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Done right, meetings have the potential to drive and transform any project. Done right, meetings can actually make you more productive and not less. And, since any given meeting’s ability to reach its potential is really up to you, you have the power to change the meeting culture and make the transition from meetings that suck to meetings that are highly productive and even enjoyable.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist

Transforming the meeting culture in your company is simple, but it is challenging at the same time. It’s simple in that it only requires a few key changes. It’s challenging in that all cultural change is hard. 

Depending on your role, you may not have a lot of influence on how meetings are run across your company. But you do have control over how you schedule and run your meetings, and you get to decide how you participate in the meetings you attend.

There are a number of changes you can implement today that can make a really big difference. Check out these 10 simple strategies for better meetings, and for changing the meeting culture where you work.

1. Avoid unnecessary meetings

“When meetings are the norm — the first resort, the go-to tool to discuss, debate, and solve every problem — they no longer work.” 

Jason Fried

Before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself: is a meeting really necessary? 

Meetings are a major distraction in the workplace. Rather than scheduling a large gathering, maybe you can have a few quick one-on-ones. Maybe you can send an email update or a weekly newsletter. Maybe you can ask your team for a written report instead of a verbal update. Maybe you can communicate your message in any other way. 

Avoiding unnecessary meetings is the first step to building a new and more productive meeting culture.

2. Think hard about who needs to be in the room

“For every additional meeting participant over seven, the likelihood of making a sound decision goes down by 10 percent.” 

Michael Mankins

Getting the right mix of people at your meetings can be tricky, but effective meetings require the right people and the right number of people at the table, virtual or otherwise. 

When you have too many people in the room, the time it takes to make a decision tends to increase and the quality of any given decision tends to reduce. When you don’t have enough people in the room, it can be hard to make a decision at all. And, when a key stakeholder is missing from the room, there’s a high likelihood that you might completely miss something really important.

One way to get this right is to first really consider what you want your meeting to achieve and then make a list of the people you need to be present in the room to achieve that outcome. This approach is, in contrast, to simply inviting everyone without thinking at all, which is fairly common in most workplaces.

Another strategy is to ensure every person you intend on inviting will either a) get value out of attending your meeting or b) bring value to your meeting. This approach is in contrast to the norm, in which meeting creators generally only think about what value they themselves can get out of their meeting.

If the people you’re intending on inviting won’t help you achieve your outcome, or won’t get or add value to your meeting, leave them off the invite list and give them an update, preferably written, later if they need it.

If you ensure that only the right people are in the room, your meetings will be more engaging and achieve more.

3. Always use an agenda

“I’ve found that without an agenda guiding the discussion, it’s also common for attendees to ramble, or engage in simultaneous side-conversations — all outcomes detrimental to taking your company to the next level.” 

Cameron Herold

There are a plethora of benefits to having a meeting agenda. An agenda keeps the meeting on track, helps others to prepare, encourages participation, and ensures the most relevant and important topics are discussed.

Your agenda should include the purpose of the meeting or outcome you’re hoping to achieve, a start time, a finish time, a list of topics for discussion, and a time limit for each topic. Include this agenda in the meeting invite, or send it out as early as possible before the meeting. 

The people you work with want to spend their time on things that matter, so sending them an agenda will allow them to prepare in advance and use their time in your meeting as productively as possible. Seeing an agenda in advance will also give people the opportunity to decide for themselves if they need to be in the room, and opt-out if they want to.

During the meeting, it’s the job of your Chairperson to ensure your meeting keeps to the agenda. More on that in №5.

4. Start on time, no matter what!

“If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.” 

Lik Hock Yap Ivan

All meetings need to start on time, even if you’re still waiting for some attendees to arrive or call-in, and even if the latecomer is the boss. 

Not only will starting on time help you get through all the items on your agenda, but it’s also a sign of respect to the people who made the effort to be on time. Don’t waste their time. It’s precious. 

Starting without the latecomers will be a shock for people at first, particularly if a number of people are still to arrive. But, latecomers will quickly learn to be on time in the future, and those who are typically always on time will appreciate you for valuing their time and attention.

5. Every meeting needs a chairperson

“If then it’s not that the things you pursue or avoid are coming at you, but rather that you in a sense are seeking them out, at least try to keep your judgment of them steady, and they too will remain calm and you won’t be seen chasing after or fleeing from them.” 

Marcus Aurelius

Meetings, if done right, will require moderation. Meetings should include sharing opinions and making decisions, both of which can take the meeting off-track if not monitored. As such, you’ll need a steady, impartial hand to correct course, connect dots, and ensure decisions are made and outcomes achieved. 

A chairperson’s job is to keep people on-topic and on time, so make sure whoever is sitting in that seat has the confidence to wrangle the group into line, to close out agenda items in the interest of time, and to ask for a prompt decision to be made.

6. If it’s not on the agenda, don’t discuss it

“An effective meeting is like Burning Man: there are no spectators — only participants!”

Sarah Goff-Dupont

You want to finish your meeting on time, right? Well, this one hack will give you the best chance of achieving that end.

The exception to this rule is that topics that are not on the agenda can only be discussed if:

  • There is a majority-agreement that the topic is important enough to be added to the agenda for immediate discussion; and 
  • That an existing agenda item gets dropped to make time for it.

Make sure to keep a list of off-agenda topics to be discussed either off-line or at future meetings and make sure you follow up.

7. Kick people out of your meetings

“Just because I was invited didn’t seem a good enough reason to attend.”

Greg McKeown

Not everyone needs to be in the room for the entire meeting. Give people the option to stay or leave once the topic that concerns them has been discussed or if no other topics on the agenda will bring them value.

With advanced notice of the agenda, and with the organizer’s blessing, some people may even be able to arrive at the meeting only in time for the agenda item that concerns them and leave straight after.

Allowing people to come for the agenda items that concern them and leave when they’re no longer able to receive or add value will result in meetings that are intensely focussed on high-value topics and decisions and will give your meeting participants the chance to maximize their own productivity. Win-win.

8. Don’t keep minutes, create actions

“The faster we make our ideas tangible, the sooner we will be able to evaluate them, refine them, and zero in on the best solution.”

Tim Brown

Unless your meeting has some type of compliance built into it, like for example a meeting of the board of directors or a meeting of senior executives that requires a formal record-of-conversation, forget about keeping minutes. No one needs a play-by-play of what was said and by whom and few people read them anyway. 

Instead, keep and distribute a list of action items. For each action item, include a deadline and allocate a single meeting attendee who is accountable for the task’s completion and who will report back to the group on their progress.

9. Travel light

“Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”

Cal Newport

Technology can enhance or hinder a meeting’s effectiveness. Your laptop and a platform like Zoom or Whereby may be essential for your next virtual team meeting, but that extra window you have open so you can respond to email during the meeting is not. Just like at any other time during your working day, distraction comes at a high cost.

Responding to email or even just reading messages on your mobile phone during a meeting can cause major issues in your team. One study found that when you use your mobile phone during a meeting, most people around you will find it annoying or even disrespectful. Technology distractions slow meetings down and reduce engagement by participants.

Keeping people focused on the task or agenda item at hand is key to facilitating a productive meeting that finishes on time. And, using the opportunity to really engage with one another is likely to pay dividends down the road. 

Really think about what tech is necessary for your meeting to be effective. It’s unlikely that you can hold meetings that are completely tech-free, but you should try to keep them as digitally-minimalist as possible.

10. Finish on time, no matter what

“Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.”

Harvey MacKay

One of the biggest complaints about meetings is that they run late. And since most of us are regularly booked in back-to-back (to-back-to-back)meetings, meetings that run late are a big cause of people arriving at meetings late. It’s a vicious cycle that compounds throughout the day.

When it’s time to wrap it up, please just wrap it up. If you didn’t get through everything you needed to, learn from it. Maybe you had too many agenda items. Maybe your chair could have done a better job facilitating and keeping things on track. Maybe you just needed a longer meeting. Either way, learn your lessons and do it better next time.

Every one of us has a limited amount of time in our day and lots of important work to do, so do whatever you need to do to finish on time. 

Meetings don’t have to suck. If they do, it’s only a reflection of how they’re scheduled, how they’re run, and how people participate in them.

All the steps above are geared toward getting you and your team in and out of your meetings on time while achieving what you set out to achieve. Try to incorporate these principles into your meetings and over time you and your team will be more effective, more productive, and make better decisions.

Meetings may even become something you look forward to.

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