Meetings are notoriously one of organizational life’s most insufferable realities. U.S. companies spend more than $37 billion dollars a year on them. Employees in American companies spend more than one-third of their time in them. And 71% of senior managers view them as unproductive.” – Ron Carucci, Harvard Business Review
Let’s admit it. If given a choice, we would likely opt for dental surgery over some of the work meetings we are forced to attend each week. I have listened to my business clients express their frustration about meetings for over two decades and here is a brief sampling of comments I have heard:
“We rarely have an agenda and if we do, we don’t stick to it.”
“We dance around hard topics and avoid confrontation. There is no real honesty and candid feedback is non-existent.”
“We have meetings to plan meetings…to plan meetings. Drives me crazy!”
“We often leave confused about who has responsibility for carrying out what we discussed.”
“There is little or no accountability.”
“Half the meetings I attend are unnecessary…an email would have sufficed.”
“There is no engagement or real discussion. We just review boring PPT decks.”
“The Type A’s dominate and nobody else gets to contribute.”
“I can’t believe we don’t assign a scribe to take notes in our meetings to be distributed to all attendees. This is why we have no accountability or alignment about what was said!”
When I probe for the reasons behind comments like these, I typically hear:
- “That is just the way we have always done meetings.” Status Quo
- “I don’t know another way to do it. This is how I was taught.” Training
- “My boss is not interested in changing and is not very good at managing our meetings or time in general.” Leadership
- “Nobody want to take the risk of being held closely accountable for results, so they avoid saying anything that sheds a negative light on their performance.” Politics & Self-protective Behavior
- “We are afraid of candid discussions about performance in our meetings. We struggle to give and receive feedback because it is always seen as negative.” Misperceptions about Candor
If these frustrations and their causes resonate with you and you desire change, I would like to offer a list of basic best practices to help get “meeting madness” under control, improve meeting effectiveness and create greater accountability. These suggestions apply to both meeting leaders (can be any of us) and meeting participants who are willing to speak up for a different approach (should be all of us).
Meeting Best Practices
- Do we even need to have this meeting? This is perhaps the first and most important question to ask. Can I get what I need without appropriating 60 minutes of my team’s valuable time? Would emails or a few phone calls achieve the same objective? Don’t be afraid to respectfully ask for the purpose of a meeting you are invited to and push back on attending if you feel it is unnecessary. Be tactful, but question if it is the best use of your time. Learn more about managing your calendar in: Living Life in Real Time (Advice for Busy Professionals).
- Is there a clear agenda? Don’t try to lead or even attend a meeting without a clear agenda, preferably communicated to everyone in advance. A lack of a clear agenda is one of the biggest contributors to dysfunctional, time-wasting meetings. No agenda provided in advance is why people show up unprepared or underprepared.
Agenda Example (for a virtual meeting):
- Our meeting time is 9:00 am-10:15 am on Thursday, July 19th via Zoom (link will be shared before the meeting).
- Our main objective is to assign responsibilities and specific deadlines for completing the ABC project.
- Expect to participate in a short brainstorming exercise on ways to maximize the success of the ABC project.
- Be prepared to share a status report on what specific people resources your team can provide to the project. Have this ready to share with everyone via ShareScreen-keep it to one page.
- Finalize specific task assignments with clear deadlines and clarification to ensure everyone understands what is being asked of them.
- We will plan the time and agenda for our next meeting.
- Start and end on time. It is maddening to start late or go past the stated meeting time because of tardy participants, rambling discussions or lack of focus on the main meeting objective. Busy schedules have little tolerance for poorly run meetings. A gatekeeper (the leader or someone else given this task) should keep the meeting on track to ensure timely completion.
- Assign a scribe for every meeting. Someone must take notes in every meeting to share later with the participants and everyone can take turns at shouldering this responsibility. Some of my clients utilize their Administrative Assistants for this purpose. This is a must if you want everyone aligned around the meeting discussion and expect to hold people accountable. IMPORTANT: Get the notes out to all participants within 24 hours of the meeting.
- Assign a “Yoda”. I borrowed this idea from best-selling author Keith Ferrazi: “We all remember the wise Jedi Master from Star Wars. A Yoda’s job is to notice and speak up when something is being left unsaid. The Yoda may also call out anyone whose criticism is unconstructive or disrespectful. If the Yoda has not spoken up for a period of time, the leader should interrupt the meeting and ask him/her if the group is missing anything.” FYI-the “Yoda” should rarely be the meeting leader…everyone takes turns and shares this responsibility.
- Encourage respectful candor/feedback in all meetings. I have written extensively on the lack of candor in business today. Meeting participants need to feel psychologically safe, empowered to speak up and give/receive candid feedback. For helpful best practices on respectful candor, please read and share this blog post with your team: A Road Map to Candid Work Conversations. I would suggest having a meeting that only focuses on the topic of the candor post as a helpful teaching session for your team. This post on feedback best practices may also be helpful: Best Practices for Seeking Feedback.
- Require clear ownership and strict deadlines for all action items. Nothing is more annoying than a time-consuming meeting that ends with no clear action or accountability. Action and ambiguity do not mix well. Insist on meeting participants taking clear ownership of their ideas/suggestions/duties and being accountable for committing to a specific date for completion. Include these commitments in the notes recap sent to all participants. If you are the meeting leader, set the right example by publicly sharing your own commitments/deadlines.
- Maximize meeting participation. What do you do if few people speak up or the loudest voices tend to dominate the meeting? If your goal is engaging in real discussions on important topics, try breaking the meeting participants into teams of two or three (no bigger) and have them go to corners of the meeting room or even better, other rooms/open spaces nearby. You can also do this virtually by using the chat room feature. Give them 15-20 minutes to brainstorm solutions on an important topic and report their “team” findings to the larger group upon their return. This is a great approach to engage more introverted meeting participants and usually yields useful ideas. Helpful Tip: If you are the meeting leader and doing most of the talking, re-think your approach. Share the stage, ask for input and see your role as the ‘facilitator” of great conversations rather than dominating the discussion. Also, let others on your team take turns as the meeting leader with responsibility for the agenda and follow up on accountability. This will ensure better team engagement.
- Kill (or radically reduce) the use of Power Point. I have a client who will only allow four deck slides in a meeting presentation. His instructions are to provide the highlights of what you need to share in a compelling/memorable way with only four slides. You can bring (or have available to share) copies with more detailed data if necessary for the meeting participants, but you have to make do with only four slides and a limited time to present. This approach created a lot of anxiety at first, but now his meetings are tighter, the right information is shared and people stay more engaged. You might also try eliminating meeting Power Points altogether as some of my clients have done…and they have never regretted their decision.
- Change the venue. If your team is in the same city, be open to meeting somewhere other than in the office. Go outside, meet over coffee or lunch, or combine the meeting with a fun team-building activity. If you are in Atlanta, consider meeting at ROAM (meetatroam.com) for a different vibe. The point is that sometimes changing the meeting location can have a positive impact on the mood and engagement level of the team. Give it a try.
We all recognize the importance of meetings and they will never go away. But, what if we found ways to meet less and spend more time doing the more important work our jobs require? What if the meetings we do participate in could be made more effective and engaging? If you want to give your teammates and organization a great gift, invest time in re-thinking your approach to meetings and being more creative. Ask for their input on making improvements and quit accepting the status quo. Even if you are only a meeting participant and not leading your own meetings yet, have the courage to make helpful suggestions for improving where studies show you will spend at least 1/3rd of your work day.
This is not the definitive best practices list, but all of the ideas I have shared have been proven to work for my clients who have tried them. Remember that meetings are for creating value, not playing politics, covering our backside, or simply because “that’s how we’ve always done things.”
If you can dramatically improve “meeting madness” for your team and your organization, the applause will be deafening.