Meetings suck – my tips to make your meetings better (or at least less worse)
[not sure that sentence even makes sense, but I liked the ring of it]
I hate meetings. I wish I didn’t talk as much as I did. I waste too much time. And these are all things I strive to improve.
Time is one of our most precious commodities and many of us spend the majority of our time at work in meetings. This is especially true if you’re in a leadership role, because as you deal with more and more big picture topics, you tend to spend more and more time in meetings facilitating the flow of information. And meetings can quickly start to play the role of time thief, as we sit there talking and feeling like we should be “doing”.
If you scan Twitter on any given work day, you’re bound to find more than a couple people complaining about how their interminable meetings are the thing standing in the way of their ever getting things done or making real progress on their work. And in a lot of cases, they’re half right. While meetings are necessary to keep people informed and working together, it’s also true that often they are run inefficiently, they don’t convey information effectively, and they waste precious time.
When I moved from the role of software engineer to manager the change from doing real work to talking about work was a huge contrast, and I have made it my mission to always look for ways to minimize my time spent in meetings (and this is especially true for meetings that aren’t necessary, useful, or fun).
Thankfully wasteful meetings don’t have to be the course du jour. No matter what kind of meetings you’re involved in, you can do a lot to make that time more productive. In fact as you can make everyone’s time more useful by simply being prepared.
What does a good meeting look like?
Part of the reason people hate meetings so much is because they can feel like a huge time-waster if they aren’t run well. So before we look at how to prepare for an effective meeting, let’s first determine what makes a bad meeting bad, and a good meeting good.
Problematic, time-wasting meetings can look really different (no one paying attention, the same person going on and on, or everyone sitting around confused and befuddled talking about the same thing as the last meeting on the topic), but they almost always occur because of the same two factors:
- They lack structure or purpose
- Leaders come to them with unrealistic expectations
These two problems are, at their root, both problems of communication. In both cases, the person running the meeting has not made their needs clear to the meeting participants, causing the people involved to arrive either unprepared or unable to perform the desired tasks.
A good meeting starts and ends with good communication. After all, the whole purpose of having a meeting is to share ideas and unify goals, by having the right people bring their unique perspectives and information together. Therefore, a good meeting has a clearly defined goal and a clearly defined list of participants.
Meetings that are held “just to check in” or “because it’s Thursday” are usually a waste of time because they don’t have a clearly defined goal for participants to prepare information for. And meetings that are all-department or all-staff tend to be less useful since the odds are really slim you actually need every single person from a department (let alone the whole company) to convene on an issue. At a productive meeting, everyone who is there is there because their input or knowledge was needed on a specific topic.
Every attendant should have an agenda in advance that details the expectations of participants during the meeting. If people are expected to bring suggestions or solutions, it should be clear.
And since check-ins and overviews can be done easily over email, in-person meetings should be reserved for topics that require a face-to-face interaction. This means brainstorming, problem-solving, and big picture discussions and goal-setting.
How to prepare to run a highly effective meeting
Running a good meeting is not impossible; it just takes attention to the right details. However, it is worth learning how to do well, because it will set an example (making you look good), and it will make better use of your time (and time is money), and everyone else (helping those around you, which is nice).
Set a goal
If you do nothing else, identify what the goal of your meeting is. Is it to solve a problem on the latest deployment? Is it to provide a space for peers to network and get to know one another? Is it to develop a technology strategy for your newest product feature? If you know what you want to end up with at the close of the meeting, you’ll be way more successful in determining how to draw that result from the group (and make sure you have the right set of people to achieve it).
Answer who, what, where, when, why, and how.
As noted above, the most important part of effectively preparing for a meeting has to do with defining *why* you are having the meeting in the first place. After that, determining *what* actions you need everyone in the meeting to take, and when, and how, are the most important to define and share.
When people feel like their time is being wasted in meetings, it’s often because the discussion feels like it is without context or direction for the listeners. This means the wrong people have been brought in (or key people are missing), timelines are not defined, goals are ambiguous, the conversation isn’t focused, or the metrics for success are unclear.
That’s why before every meeting it’s important to identify:
- Who needs to be there
- What you want them to do
- When and where they need to do it
- How a successful result will be achieved.
Determine what kind of meeting this is
Are you bringing together your engineering team to brainstorm the company’s approach to the next big product, or are you organizing a structured discussion on process improvements? Different meetings have different needs, so make sure you’re preparing for the kind of meeting you’re having.
Example: creative brainstorming session usually take a while, with many people working together and using lots of energy. This means people need to be able to move easily throughout the room, they need access to tools like whiteboards and laptops, and they’ll need food and beverages to keep them going. And remember brainstorming isn’t about coming up with 1 idea, but 100 ideas – focus on quantity to get those creative juices flowing. I love Ideo’s rules of brainstorming and circulating these rules ahead of time can help get things started faster and ensure people are ready for what lays in store.
By contrast, a meeting about department budgets will require a private space where participants are told exactly what they are expected to bring and know about, so the discussion can move efficiently and productively. And if you are forced to have a boring meeting, make an effort to make it both efficient and perhaps even interesting.
Think about time
How long does this meeting have to be? Lots of companies have instituted stand-up meetings for their daily or weekly check-ins to keep them timely; if people have to stand up for the whole meeting, they’re less likely to go off on a time-wasting tangent. This is also a great tip for interview debrief meetings.
For longer meetings, think about breaking up your agenda into specific time slots. 15 minutes for Topic X, 30 for Topic Y, and 5 minutes for questions at the end, etc. That way, if participants start to go off track, you can bring them back by saying, “It seems like we’re drifting onto Topic Y, so let’s make a note of that and get back to Topic X for now.”
And meetings should really be no longer than an hour unless absolutely necessary. People get antsy and need a break after about 90 minutes anyways, and well-organized meetings should be able to hit their key points and get everyone back to work before then.
Get in touch beforehand
Before the meeting, always send an agenda to the participants. This helps them not only block out the right amount of time on their calendar, but also lets them know what will be expected from them and what, if any, work needs to be done in advance to make the meeting productive.
If you’re going to ask for solutions to a problem, be sure everyone is notified that they’ll be expected to bring some with them. Otherwise, you’ll force people to think on the fly, which all but guarantees the ideas won’t be fully-formed or useful.
A good agenda doesn’t need to be long or detailed but should have:
- An objective or clear purpose.
- Prep work, required reading, relevant email discussions, etc. If you send out a lot of information be sure to highlight what parts are “required reading”. People are busy and don’t have time to read pages of information so distill it down to the key parts and leave the rest as an exercise for those who want more details.
- Information on who is required and who is optional.
Always send a reminder too, since people do forget, and if you’ve invited the key people who need to be there, you don’t want one of them to be missing. I use Boomerang for this – when I schedule the meeting I will just setup the reminder email too.
Maintain order and focus
If you publish an agenda then follow it. Sometimes people (and I have been guilty of this more than once) can derail the conversation into another direction. If this happens set up a parking lot for unrelated ideas. The act of writing the person’s comments down will help them to feel heard, but simultaneously allow you to keep the discussion focused and on track.
If you can I would also suggest banning phones, tablets and laptops from meetings. It doesn’t do any good to have a meeting if those in attendance aren’t engaged in the conversation and discussion.
And if you are leading the meeting I would either suggest delegating someone else to take notes (and that can be the exception to the “no device” rule) so you can focus on the discussion, or if you must take notes try to do so on a whiteboard where you can stand up and lead the discussion (this is my preferred method even though it means extra time to type up notes afterward).
Know your final questions
Before the meeting starts, you should know what questions you need answered by the end of the session. That can be anything from who will take on a specific assignment, to how a problem will be solved, to if a particular conflict has been resolved.
Actually writing these questions down ensures they get addressed; just feeling like you’ve reached resolution doesn’t always mean you have. It’s easy for groups to feel like they have reached consensus without ever actually settling on practical solutions or actions to take. Be sure to go down your list of questions and make sure there aren’t any issues you need to address or revisit. These are great things to write down on a board where everyone can see, and are worth sending out in email afterward too.
Make it fun
One thing I have learned since I started speaking a year or so ago is that powerpoint full of text and people droning on aren’t very much fun. People want to be entertained. If you want people to listen to what you have to say try to do more than tell them, engage with them. This is true for meetings too. If people come to your meetings and you make it efficient and fun – then you can have a real winning combination.
I try to do this with entertaining pictures, silly jokes, or even just making people get up out of their seats. For example, if you want to get people’s ideas don’t just go around the room – have everyone write down 2 ideas on post-its and get up to put them on the whiteboard. It brings people out of their shell and makes the meeting more interesting for everyone. Get creative, get physical, and don’t be afraid to try something a little different.
It can be difficult to get groups of busy people together, so make sure the meeting covers what it needs to. Having to bring the group together again to go over the same topics because all of the problems didn’t get solved the first time is a surefire way to make participants feel like their time is being wasted, which in turn makes future meetings less effective.
Do you have other ideas or tips that have worked well for you? How do you prepare for and run an effective meeting?