Meetings can be a major time suck. But they’re also an important tool for driving discussion and decision-making. Here’s how to maximize the value of your meetings while minimizing creep in the number and length of meetings over time.
If your meetings tend to be unstructured, don’t feel like you need to overhaul everything at once. Start with 1–2 changes and build out from there.
Before the meeting
The purpose of meetings should be identified, agreed upon, and clearly stated prior to adding new meetings or shifting their structure. Each meeting attendee should be able to answer the question ‘What is the purpose of this meeting?’.
Every meeting’s purpose should be in service of the company’s goals and priorities. Why is this meeting important to have / what is the potential impact to the business?
In general, meetings should be 25 or 50min (1 hr, 15min or 1hr, 50min if longer is needed). This allows buffer for back to back meetings to check messages and take care of personal needs.
All meetings must have an owner.
The owner provides a stated purpose and agenda. This person should also drive the agenda and manage time during the meeting.
If a meeting doesn’t have a purpose and agenda and you cannot immediately come up with one, cancel or reschedule the meeting.
Agenda & prep
The owner distributes all relevant documents before the meeting so participants can prepare and meeting time doesn’t have to be used to bring everybody up to speed.
Alternatively, make it clear that the beginning of the meeting will be allocated for document review so attendees know how they need to prepare.
Make sure all points on the agenda are prepared. The meeting owner usually does this.
Slides & materials
Use slides only when needed. Streamline them and keep information focused.
Pre-reads should be sent at least 24 hrs prior to the meeting.
For key decisions, consider structuring a narrative (Amazon style) rather than using powerpoint:
- Define the problem
- Define the impact
- Define assumptions
- List all possibilities
- Specify a recommendation
- Generally — engage all stakeholders, be prepared, keep a written record for major changes
Decide whether meetings are laptops-open or laptops-closed and try to stick with it.
Similarly with phones and tablets — ask attendees to step outside if they need to do something on their device.
During the meeting
Review any relevant action items from the last meeting. This reminds everyone what happened last time, and holds team members accountable.
Start each meeting by sharing the agenda. Ask if anyone would like to make additions. If additions are made, add them visually into the agenda based on priority. This prevents meetings from being pulled off course by additional discussion items surfacing unexpectedly.
Time-box each topic for discussion to ensure time is used efficiently.
While the meeting owner will usually manage time, it is everyone’s responsibility to keep meetings on track.
Put topics in a ‘parking lot’ as needed to revisit later or take offline. But, be sure to follow up on parking lot items later.
You don’t have to use the entire scheduled time. If you have nothing left on the agenda to discuss before the scheduled time is over, end the meeting early.
Built trust before, during, and after meetings. If debate is ineffective or not constructive, assess to identify whether it is a trust issue.
Challenge, but also champion. Be intellectually honest and direct.
Give everyone a turn. Collective intelligence increases when everyone gets a chance to contribute. Encourage and ask folks who are not speaking up to share their thoughts.
Watch for non-verbal cues on how others are feeling. Tone of voice, expressions, & body language, all speak volumes. If someone is feeling upset or left out, acknowledge and work to repair.
When there is conflict, ensure it is ideological (focused on ideas), and not personal attacks.
Acknowledge and celebrate successes, no matter how small.
Have fun. Be enthusiastic about each others’ ideas. Joke around, don’t be afraid to laugh.
If the purpose of the meeting is to make decisions not just provide a status update, restrict the number of attendees to only the most essential stakeholders. Otherwise, it may be difficult to reach a decision.
Use a decision-making framework like the RASCI model to clarify ownership, commitments, and action items / next steps.
If you need to make a decision urgently, don’t wait for a scheduled meeting. Assemble the right stakeholders and make the decision as soon as possible.
Ensure there is agreement from necessary stakeholders around decisions made.
For action items, establish:
- What is the action item?
- Who is the owner?
- When is it due?
- How will we follow up?
After the meeting
Have someone document and share with everyone the decisions and action items / next steps coming out of the meeting so they are clear commitments.
At the end of meetings, have everyone ‘rate’ the meeting.
- Ask: “How much value did you get from this meeting?” 1 = low value; 2 = some value; 3 = high value
- Have everyone indicate their answer visually by holding up fingers
- If the rating is high, what can you apply to other meetings? If it’s low, should you consider discussing via email next time, or are there individuals who do not need to attend the meeting? If the rating is in the middle, how can you improve value to attendees?
Avoid meeting overload
Always be on the lookout for meetings that are no longer as effective as they should be (see below for more on when to cancel meetings)
Declare one or two days a week as meeting-free days. Except for in-team meetings, no other meetings are allowed. This practice enables everybody to have uninterrupted time to focus on their core work.
When to cancel meetings
Meetings often outlive their usefulness. Sometimes the format can be changed to make it useful again, but other times, canceling the meeting is the right move. They are expensive in time and resources, so always be on the lookout for unnecessary meetings that can be canceled.
Here are some warning signs of meetings that need to be canceled:
Attendees complain about the meeting in one-on-ones or hallway chats.
People stop showing up, or show up inconsistently, or send a more junior person in their place.
People use their laptops, phones, or other devices during the meeting.
No decisions are being made in decision-making meetings. This could also mean the meeting owner needs some training.
There are no follow-ups from status meetings or useful discussions originating from them. These meetings can often be replaced with an email.
In general, it’s important to measure the cost of meetings against their benefit, and take action accordingly.