Some people love meetings. Most dread them. But one thing for sure, everybody hates a bad meeting.
You’ve been there. Those meetings have twenty people in the room, most of whom can hardly even hear each other talk. The meeting extends an hour past the schedule and ends without any definite conclusion. You’re left confused as to where the hell the last three hours of your life went.
Good meetings are quite the opposite. Discussion is focused. You’ve got just the right people in the room and everyone has a say in the matter. In the end, the decision maker makes a conclusion and everyone leaves feeling satisfied.
My former boss, Okada-san, was great at this sort of thing. He’d send us (usually just myself and a manager reporting to me) an invite for a 30-minute meeting related to a proposal we recently sent in. We scramble to gather data and make Powerpoints to support our case. Meeting time comes. We go straight into our presentation. Once we’ve made our case, Okada-san asks us one question, typically to the tune of “will this solve our problem?” We give him a confident “yes”, and he gives us the green light. All of that takes usually well under 15 minutes.
Did we get annoyed by the fact that we just spent days preparing for a meeting that lasted 15 minutes and involved 2 or 3 people? Not at all. We loved it! Not only did it save us a lot of time, it was validation that our preparation was effective.
I’ve personally received some kind words on the effectiveness of the meetings I own, so I thought I might share some things that I do (and that I notice other people do) that help make meetings more effective.
For facilitators and meeting owners
The following tips go to facilitators and owners of meetings. Your role in keeping a meeting on focus is as important as any, even in cases you don’t have much of a say in the final decision. Your objective, basically, is to make sure everyone, and particularly the decision maker, gets the most relevant information during the meeting.
- Have an objective and build participants and an agenda around it. The most important part of the meeting happens before you even enter the meeting room. Make sure there’s something that actually needs to be discussed and decided when setting the meeting. From there, consider specific topics that might lead to achieving your objective.
As for building your attendance list, Rands has a humorous take that actually makes a lot of sense to me. Ultimately, whoever helps move the agenda should be invited. If someone might have some input, it might be best to ask before inviting them.
- Deal with dead air. It’s often overlooked, but I find that dead air contributes to a lot of wasted time during meetings. A simple question is usually enough – “does anyone have any comments or questions?” And a rule that goes with it – “silence means no”. If no one is talking, it’s probably best to move forward with the agenda.
- Make assumptions, but make sure to communicate them. We’re not always comfortable voicing out our opinions. In meetings, what’s unspoken is just as important as what’s spoken. That’s where assumptions come in. Assumptions are naturally risky though, so when you do need to make one, it’s vital to confirm that everyone is in agreement.
- It’s OK to end early. In fact, it’s the best case scenario. If you can achieve your meeting objective half an hour early, everyone will appreciate you for it. Again, it seems like common sense but it’s surprising how people tend to feel that cutting a meeting short means it’s somehow less productive.
- Don’t overthink your closing. Endings can be awkward (trust me, it’s just as bad when it comes to writing posts like this). But it doesn’t have to be. While you want to create a good conclusion and leave an impression on attendees, there’s always an opportunity to reconnect later if you realize you’ve left some ends loose.
For meeting attendees
Yes, you do play a role in how the meeting goes. You can choose to be an observer, or you can choose to actively participate in making sure the meeting stays effective. Here are some things you might want to try:
- Inform your agenda before the meeting. Be considerate of the facilitator and avoid ambushing them with your own topics in the middle of the meeting. If there’s something you feel would be appropriate to discuss at the meeting, inform the facilitator or meeting owner and allow them to decide whether it’s a good idea or not.
- It’s fine to decline. We all love ranting about how we just got pulled into a meeting that wasted an hour of our time. But we forget we’re most likely in complete control over whether we join a meeting or not. If you’re unsure whether it will be useful to you, clarify in advance. If you’ve got something better to do, just decline. The important thing is notifying the facilitator, so they get some opportunity to convince you you’re actually needed.
Back to Okada-san. We had a monthly status meeting involving managers from all the R&D sites. He noticed a lot of the attendees were hammering on their laptops and pretty apparently not invested in the meeting agenda. He paused the meeting and asked everyone to leave if they had something better to do. He really meant it, too. An all-hands meeting is just that on the meeting subject, but really, any meeting is an at-will meeting.
- Review the material. And if none is provided, ask if it can be prepared in advance. This helps with tip no. 1 and no. 2, and it benefits everyone to have a solid idea on what will be discussed so you can get straight to the important points at the meeting.
I recently read about Jeff Bezos’ memo system that apparently makes meetings at Amazon super-productive, and while it sounds old school, it makes a lot of sense and is something I’m looking to try myself at some point.
General tips and tricks
These are some general things to understand about meetings and what you might try, either as a facilitator or an attendee, to get what you want out of every meeting.
- Be on time. This is simple etiquette. Respect other people’s time and they will respect yours. Starting a meeting late sets a tone of time not being much of an issue in the meeting and consequently leads to a tendency to waste it.
- Minimize (or optimize) small talk. There are meetings where you need to establish rapport but in most cases, you’re there to accomplish something serious. If small talk sounds like it would be beneficial, allocate some time for it at the beginning and before ending. But be careful about scattering it throughout the meeting as it’s much harder to control then.
- Take notes. Sometimes, meetings get derailed when people butt in with a question in the middle of the agenda. Taking notes helps you revisit your questions later on when it feels less likely to affect the momentum of the meeting.
Admittedly, it’s not an easy skill to master. But I find there’s really only three things you need to take note of – realizations, decisions, and action items. Realizations are optional and depends on whether you feel it will be important to you later and whether you’re likely to forget about it. Decisions are important especially if there’s been some debate, as these have a tendency to become cloudy later on. Action items – pretty self-explanatory why these need to go in your notes.
I’ll be honest – you’ll likely still hate meetings even considering these tips. But I bet they’ll finish a lot quicker and get more results.
And if it still doesn’t work for you, remember, it’s fine to decline!