I have fallen behind in writing new posts as I have been busy working on the recently released Develop Great Managers podcast. I expect that this will now change as I find the right balance between the website and the podcasts. In the meantime, the backlog has grown. This particular topic has risen to the top as there can be a negative perception of meetings, which irks me.
I have often heard people in college say “I don’t want a job where I have to be in meetings all the time.” I have heard something similar from individual contributors (ICs – non-managers) stating “I don’t want to be a manager because they spend all of their time in meetings.”
Before getting into why that irks me, let me start by saying that I have been in a lot of frustrating meetings, where they felt like a total waste of time. I think that I have run some of those meetings, but this does not have to be the case. Quite the contrary, meetings can be incredibly productive and fun. They can be a place where great work happens, decisions are made, issues are resolved, and people are aligned to achieve incredible things.
For this to happen, it is critical that the meeting be well-run. That means there is a clear purpose, with expected outcomes defined, a well-thought-out agenda, with the right people involved, and where the participants are well-behaved.
The first and possibly most important aspect of a successful meeting is to be clear about the purpose – and then share this with everyone who is attending, in advance.
Here are some meeting purpose examples.
- Sharing Information
- Making One or More Decisions
- Creating Solutions
- Accomplishing a Task
- Building or Expanding Relationships
- Inspiring a Group or Organization
- Educating Others
The single most important reason to be clear about the purpose is that the attendees (at least most of them:)) will help in working to achieve that purpose.
Well Defined Outcomes
The outcomes to be defined need to be clear, motivating, and sufficiently detailed to describe what you want to achieve by the end of the meeting. They should be shared prior to the meeting if possible in order to allow the participants time to prepare.
In addition to helping the participants to be prepared for the meeting, defining and sharing the outcomes prior to the meeting will likely increase participation/attendance. The quotes at the beginning of the post, show the reluctance some people have to attend meetings. A clear and motivating outcome will increase the likelihood they will want to participate.
Thought Out Agenda
Before the meeting starts, and prior to the meeting if possible, write down and share the agenda. Here are the best practices for doing so.
- Provide Simple Meeting Details
- List of Topics
- Limit to 5 or less
- Owner of Each Topic
- One name if possible
- The owner will then feel responsible for driving the topic
- Expected Duration of Each Topic
- This helps set the expectation for the discussion
Right People Involved
This title may slightly oversimplify things. What is required for a successful meeting is that both the right people and the right number of people for the purpose need to be present.
The right number of people is very meeting-purpose dependent.
For meetings where the purpose is to make decisions, accomplish a task or solve problems, it is best to have a small number of people. A good deal of research has taken place on the perfect project team size. While it is somewhat task-specific, most agree that the number is around seven. That number works well for these kinds of meetings as they are similar to a project.
The actual makeup of the attendees for this kind of meeting is critical. Due to the small number, the owner of the meeting needs to think carefully about the experience and skills that need to be included as well as the personalities
For meetings where the purpose is to inspire or educate, the attendance can be much larger. This is because the outcome requires far less interaction, discussion, and alignment. It also affords a much more flexible mix of attendees.
Meeting is Well-Run
Once you have a clear purpose, well-defined outcomes, and an agenda – it all comes down to how well the meeting is run. No pressure!
Running an effective and efficient meeting takes practice. If you are not good at running a meeting, it is ok to have someone else do it for you. But when that happens, you have to give them the authority as they will need to direct the conversation, ensure the rules are followed and drive to the outcomes.
Here are the keys to running a successful meeting.
- Start and end the meeting on time
- Communicate the purpose and outcomes
- Walk through the agenda
- Share the meeting rules/etiquette
- Make sure someone is responsible for taking notes
- Provide a parking lot for topics that require more time
- Manage the agenda topics to the time allocated
- Ensure that people are getting time to participate
- Cut off discussions that are off-topic or should be added to the parking lot
- End the meeting with a summary and the next steps
Participants are Well Behaved
In addition to having a well-run meeting, there need to be rules that everyone adheres to. Often times companies have written down some of these rules as part of conveying their culture. Here are some examples to consider.
- Show up on time
- Come prepared and with a positive attitude
- Raise your hand (or take turns)
- Don’t cut someone off while they are talking
- Put your phone and/or laptop away
- Attack a problem or issue, not a person
- Stay on topic
- Limit side conversations
- Don’t feel like you have to weigh in on every topic
I think it is important to get people off of their phones and laptops in meetings. My preference is to let everyone know – if they need to check their phone or email, leave the meeting and return when they are done. When they return, it is important to avoid as much as possible, rehashing what took place while they were gone.
A Note on Virtual Meetings
Meetings used to be everyone in the same room. That is no longer the case. Most of the meetings that I held or attended in the last 15 years had participants spread across a number of different locations and in most cases geographies. Often times the meeting was completely virtual – with no “location” where the majority of the participants resided.
This adds some significant complexities. I will only go into a few of these as the topic is worthy of a separate post or two.
When running the meeting, there are a few additional challenges.
- Schedule meeting times that are fair
- This is important when there are multiple timezones
- It should not be the remote people who always end up impacting their personal lives to attend
- Announce who is on the call
- Ask that attendees turn on their cameras
- This helps with focus:)
- Call on remote people
- This will keep them more engaged
- It will help you to understand their interest and mood as you can’t read their body language
- Make sure the people in the room (if there is one) are close to the microphone
- Avoid the use of a whiteboard if possible
And when participating, here are some updates to the rules.
- Don’t multitask
- This is basically the same rule, but just easier to hide
- Make sure you participate
- It somehow seems easier to just sit and listen when you are not with others
- When you can’t hear, ask that people get closer to the microphone
Wrapping It Up
All of this seems incredibly obvious, but it is amazing how often these are not done. If you show up at a meeting for which there is no purpose, defined outcomes, or agenda, and it is uncomfortable or inappropriate to leave (which is typically the case), ask the meeting owner to create these before getting started. Even if the results are not perfect, it will be far better than starting with nothing.
When these are followed, meetings are incredibly productive. From my perspective, there isn’t anything more fun than that!