Effective Meetings 101

There’s a feeling throughout the business world that meetings are a waste of time, yet they’re in no danger of disappearing. Research suggests that many workers spend at least 5.5 hours per week in meetings, and the number may be more than 17 hours per week for executives.

How do you organize an effective meeting?

The number one complaint is lack of focus. Lack of focus means lacking a clear agenda and defined goals, but also effectively choosing the attendees. Often this lack of focus is revealed by an ambiguous meeting style, where brainstorming, status-checking and decision-making are combined. The end result? Many meeting attendees feel their time was wasted.

Do You Need to Meet?

Many meetings are called almost out of habit. So before you even call a meeting, ask yourself two questions:

  • Do we really need a meeting? Or could an email or phone call suffice?
  • Who needs to be there?

The Agenda

An agenda listing all items to discuss should always be sent out before a meeting; 2-3 days in advance for small meetings and at least a week in advance for larger ones. Along with the agenda, any background or reference materials should be included.

The purpose for the agenda is not just to establish the goals of the meeting. It’s also to give people a chance to think about any decisions they may need to make, and to prepare ideas or necessary materials in advance.

The fewer the items on the agenda, the better. Most accounts say that more than three items is too many, and one item is best. Even if there are several items, by sticking to one topic the meeting will still be focused.

Chairperson

Someone needs to lead the discussion. In some cases it makes sense for the person calling the meeting to also chair it: it can help them stay on track with the topic they’ve chosen, and identify the most important questions.  However, when there is likely to be some disagreement, often the best chairperson is the most outspoken uninterested party: someone who won’t be too involved in the discussion itself, but who is able to get people to shut up and stay on topic. Roles of the chairperson:

  • Keep the meeting focused
  • Prevent digressions
  • Limit how long any person can talk at one time
  • Start and end the meeting on time
  • Ensure that quiet people are able to speak
  • Accomplish the stated goals of the meeting (eg. make a decision, take an action)

Meeting Styles

Many of the meeting styles that are common in organizations are ineffective. Status meetings can often be replaced, and just about any regular meeting (eg. weekly status meetings) tends to be a waste of time. If you really need to get together, you don’t need the excuse of a weekly meeting. Here are some meeting styles that work:

  • Stand-Up or Huddle: It’s a lot like a status meeting, but confined to a short time period of 10 minutes or less, just before people start wanting to sit down. This is an exception to the rule of “no regular meetings”: you can have Stand-Ups every day and actually see productivity gains. Since you only have 10 minutes, only members of a team working together should be invited, or occasionally guests who are involved in the team’s activities. The focus is on what you’re going to do in the next day or so.
  • Action Meetings: ONLY for making decisions. The idea is to present a problem, offer some background information, and make a decision of either YES, NO, or MORE INFO. If more information is needed, make sure it’s still an action. That means “think about it” or “do research” isn’t good enough, but “ask the User Interface team if they can add a status update icon” would be an action item. The hard part about action meetings? Avoiding discussions, lengthy opinions and especially brainstorming. If more discussion is needed, it should be part of an action.
  • Brainstorming: These are hard. The key to brainstorming is coming up with crazy ideas and avoiding criticism. Participants should feel comfortable making jokes and suggesting silly ideas, simply because unrealistic and funny suggestions often spark more realistic ideas. People who can’t help but ridicule or criticize during brainstorming sessions simply shouldn’t be invited back. Not everyone is great at brainstorming.
  • Nitpick sessions: Doesn’t sound like fun, but with the right attitude, these can be both enjoyable and very useful. This is the chance to call in the incessant critics and get some real feedback. Once you have a prototype that is soon to be ready, or a long-term plan becoming finalized, call in the nitpickers and find out early what might go wrong.
  • Planning sessions: The hard part with a planning session is sticking only to the relevant level of detail. If you’re planning out the year, choose the date for the yearly training seminars but don’t argue over which speakers to invite – just make a few suggestions. You can discuss the finer details when you get around planning the actual seminar.
  • Emergency meetings: You’re organizing a conference, and Friday afternoon you find out that your speakers for that evening are all going to be very late because of a cancelled flight? Sometimes when something new comes up, and plans fall apart, you need to have a short meeting to change plans and make new decisions. The style is similar to a Stand-Up but there’s more emphasis on finding quick solutions to new, urgent problems.
  • Cocktails: Sometimes what you need isn’t a formal meeting, it’s just a chance for co-workers to get together in a casual environment and chat. Whether it’s martinis, beer, lunch or coffee, keeping it “chill” often makes it easier for people to bring up topics and solutions. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen teams come up with, have come from these get-togethers. And don’t forget: the food and drink is essential.

The 1:1 Meeting Technique

The most effective way to hold a meeting is to stick to ONE meeting style and ONE issue. Limit the meeting to a brainstorming on the new marketing campaign, or an action meeting to decide which of the two product designs to use. Keep it to one style and one issue, and you’ll find your meetings are more productive by an order of magnitude.