👑 Make Meetings Matter
11 Suggestions for Successful Meetings
Have you ever looked around a meeting at the number of attendees — or today’s current Zoom video squares — and wondered: how much does this cost? There’s a way to estimate that likely significant amount, thanks to this Meeting Calculator in Harvard Business Review.
While financial cost is one factor, what about the potential post meeting impact on productivity, emotions or creativity? Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, the authors of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work” illustrated this “thank you” card to show the feelings many attendees may have experienced after a “bad” meeting.
When you multiply these costs times how many meetings per week, month or year, that’s a lot of unproductive time. Research in Harvard Business Review summarizes that “on average, executives spend nearly 23 hours a week in them [meetings].” As this trend moves through the org chart, how many hours of meetings do their direct reports attend and so forth?
Take a further look at this research of 182 senior managers in a range of industries:
“65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.”
It’s very clear that “not all meetings are created equal. Some meetings engage, inspire, and clarify, while others leave us confused, depleted, and annoyed because we just lost two hours (or more) of our precious lives,” according to research from the d School at Stanford.
Ok, enough meeting therapy, let’s focus on change — how can we make meetings matter? There’s been a lot of research, books with epic names — Death by Meeting — prestigious articles, blog posts and twitter threads published over the years. While there’s not one solution to this question, I curated some of the top suggestions that I’ve learned along the way from inspiring sources and personal experiences to hopefully help make meetings matter:
1. Why Meet
The most important part of the meeting begins before it even takes place — to determine the reason for the meeting.
Atlassian, the makers of collaboration tools such as Trello, Confluence and Jira created this flow chart called “Why Do You Want To Call A Meeting,” with candid recommendations of when to meet and when not to meet, you should instead:
“eat a donut, no meeting!” or “don’t be lame, no meeting!”
To prepare for the meeting of your dreams, the d school at Stanford, led by Nadia Roumani the Senior Designer of the Designing for Social Systems (DSS) Program developed this design-thinking worksheet with great prompts. Here’s a look at the first two steps:
2. Establish Meeting Norms or “Zorms”
Now, in our extended digital state, it’s important to establish modern meeting norms, also known as “Zorms” since so many of us are using Zoom to meet. Stanford organizational behavior professor Bob Sutton coined this term in a Stanford Magazine article with some examples:
“Join meetings with video on and audio muted, use the hand-raise feature when you have a comment or question, introduce yourself before speaking, and use the mute button when you’re not speaking.”
While these might seem very kindergarten-esque, aligning on how to meet can change the feeling of a meeting. Think about the way we prefer presentations or how we ask questions, all of this can set the right tone and feeling for meeting success. Asana, the project management tool company, established a “Meeting Manifesto” with an illustrated guide for how to make meetings count.
3. Establish a Purpose
Scheduling start-up Calendly is built around helping people schedule meetings more efficiently, saving you the back and forth of schedule tetris — when you share your availability, but the other person doesn’t confirm fast enough, and you have to start from scratch.
Calendly offers these recommendations:
“If you aren’t sure yet about the goal of the meeting or if you can accomplish the goal by any other means of communication, then cancel the meeting. If you have a one-sentence, outcome-driven purpose for each meeting that you hold, you’ll see better results and be more efficient with your time.”
McKinsey categorizes three types of meetings. It’s important to distinguish the goal with each of them:
4. Invite the Right People and Give Them a Role
Who is in the room can make or break the meeting. Less is more, even the occasional “tourist” — the term McKinsey refers to guests — can be a distraction. Business Insider shares a story about how Steve Jobs “ran meetings with a similar minimalism [to his designs]. He hated when they were too big because too many minds in a room got in the way of simplicity.”
In order to minimize the attendance list, consider specific roles for participants. The suggested roles could follow this decision matrix defined by McKinsey or the system your organization uses.
Decision maker(s): Vote on action. They hold responsibility. There should be as few as possible.
Advisers: Assist with the decision making by giving input.
Recommenders: Manage the analyses, explore the options, show the pros and cons, and ultimately recommend a course of action to the advisers and decision makers.
Execution partners: Get involved in implementing the decision. They ask clarifying questions.
There’s much to be said for inviting people to join a meeting to learn more during their on-boarding or training. Don’t discount the potential of additional voices who might observe and add value.
5. Organize the Meeting Around a Decision
In order for people to feel a sense of accomplishment from a meeting, it’s important to write out the key decisions you want to make in a meeting.
This Harvard Business Review article references the style of Tom Wilson, the Chairman, President and CEO of The Allstate Corporation.
“He used to end each major meeting with a simple chart. For each significant decision there were three boxes: “Yes,” “No,” and “Defer.” Under the latter, there was space to indicate the date to which the issue would be deferred and what additional actions or data were required to move to a “Yes” or “No” at that time. This helped drive clarity and closure and made his meetings more efficient and decisive.”
Consider this decision chart for future meetings, even your one on one meetings. It could transform your feeling of productivity.
6. Set the Meeting Time
Calendars default to 30 minute increments. Try making a meeting in less than 30 minutes. I like this idea of an 18 minute meeting, inspired by TED Talks. In Forbes Magazine, Carmine Gallo, the author of Talk Like TED, writes the following recommendations:
“TED talks are memorable because no speaker is allowed to talk for more than 18 minutes on the TED stage. It doesn’t matter if your name is Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, Bono, or Tony Robbins... TED curator Chris Anderson said it best, ‘Eighteen minutes is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.’”
He goes on to remind us about how much can be said in 18 minutes, citing how President John F. Kennedy inspired a nation to go to the moon in a 15-minute talk and how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his “I have a dream” speech in 17 minutes.
While meetings aren’t speeches, perhaps if we started thinking about them in this way, it could change their impact? If that method doesn’t work, here’s another chart of meeting times to consider:
7. Draft an Agenda
There’s a lot to potentially talk about in a meeting. The more those topics are mapped out in advance, preferably in bullet points, the better.
Indeed offers several best practices when drafting an agenda:
“Some meeting agendas simply list a topic as a phrase, for example: “rental equipment.” However, you can clarify each agenda item’s purpose by phrasing discussion points as questions. For example, you could write, “Under what conditions should we consider renting equipment instead of buying it?” These prompts can ensure you are inviting discussion and gathering all of the information you need for each agenda topic.”
The science behind that approach is confirmed by research shared in Harvard Business Review by Steven G. Rogelberg, the Chancellor’s Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
“Ultimately, a questions-based approach to agendas can bring focus, engagement, and better performance to your meetings. If you have never tried this approach, give it a go. It’s OK to experiment, reflect, learn, and tweak your approach. This work will not only help make meetings better, but will also build a broader team culture of learning, taking reasonable risks, and non-complacency.And remember: if you can’t think of any questions to be answered in a meeting, that may be your sign that a meeting is simply not needed. Give back the gift of time to would-be attendees. They will thank you.”
Finally, I like Asana’s Meeting Agenda Template, in particular, because it can help with tracking follow-up items. More on that topic in #11.
8. Share and Prepare in Advance
In addition to sharing the agenda, any materials should be shared before a meeting. Invite attendees to comment on them to increase engagement or ask them to bring one takeaway and start the meeting by inviting them to share.
For larger meetings with many speakers and a bigger attendance, I believe in drafting talking points to ensure that the speakers know the key messages they need to deliver.
In addition, if you are speaking during a meeting, prepare your thoughts in advance so that they can communicate the message you hope to convey.
9. Facilitate Well and Stay on Time
The facilitator can make or break the meeting. This person manages the direction of conversation, invites participation in an inclusive way and keeps everyone on time.
The conversation is guided by asking strategic questions based on the agenda, but then a facilitator must read the room to keep the meeting going in the right direction. If no one is talking, the meeting host invites participation. If someone is talking too much, the facilitator can graciously guide them in another direction. If you go off topic, the facilitator can bring you back.
Atlassian refers to facilitators as the builders of trust
“by asking questions that prompt a deeper discussion, even when you think you know the answer. Questions like “Why do we think that’s true?” or “Can you expand on that?” or “How could we measure that?” demonstrate humility and curiosity on your part, which sets the tone for the rest of the group.”
In Slack’s guide to effective meetings, they recommend:
“if you can have a designated facilitator to keep things humming along, even better. ‘Smart facilitators are key to successful meetings,’ says Jaffer. ‘They keep people on track, are not afraid to interrupt, call out participants for being off-topic, and summarize the to-dos and next steps.’”
My secret to keeping meetings on time is a friendly Xylophone that I’ve had since I was six years old, but only recently started to use for meeting management. It makes a nice sound that reminds the presenters to move forward.
10. Give Attendees Roles
In addition to decision matrix roles, there are other ways to empower people in a meeting so they aren’t tempted to check social media or multi-task on another project.
If you need to incentivize note taking, take a look at this Scientific American:
“research which shows that writing notes by hand helps people learn more, recollect facts better later, and gain a deeper understanding of the material than when they type notes.”
Other meeting attendees can have speaking roles and other ways to stay engaged in the conversation.
11. Assign Action Items and Deliverables
From my perspective, this is the most important part of meetings — what happens at the end.
In Slack’s guide to effective meetings, they recommend:
“sum up the meeting with notes and action items. Make these notes accessible to everyone who attended the meeting. Consider sharing notes with others who couldn’t attend. Or better yet, record meetings and send out a link to the audio or video afterward. This is particularly valuable for team members working remotely or companies with a globally distributed workforce.”
In addition, “assign action items or things to follow up on to specific individuals whenever possible. It’s also helpful to schedule a deadline or a time when someone will check in on progress.”
Now, all of this takes time to be done well. So, why not do a calendar audit to see what meetings you need and what meetings can be removed. From there, build in the time to prepare for meetings — start with 15 minutes one-two days before the meeting.
If you find yourself in a meeting that you haven’t had time to prepare for, take a few minutes at the start of the meeting to map out the goals and questions, it won’t be perfect, but it will be a step in the right direction.
The sign of a good meeting organizer is being open to feedback at any time. Don’t over survey, but do invite direct or anonymous feedback to find out if meetings were meaningful, a good use of time or how they could be better.
Let me know what suggestions or sources you would add to this list. Feel free to reply or add a comment.