No More Bad Meetings
Too much time is wasted in poorly led or unnecessary meetings. In fact, this problem is so common that it is a challenge to find an article about meetings that doesn’t begin with the acknowledgement of how common an experience bad meetings are!
Jokes aside, the consequences of bad meetings are significant. In ‘Death by Meeting’, Patrick Lencioni writes:
“Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organization, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism.”
As a meeting participant you have limited options for improving the quality of the meetings you attend. But when you lead a meeting the experience of all who attend is shaped by you.
I know I can improve in this area and so this year I have resolved to lead better meetings. As Bill Hybels says, “everyone wins when a leader gets better” — and when a leader gets better at running meetings time isn’t wasted, frustration isn’t caused and the mission advances.
Here is a summary of best practices that I am adopting in my pursuit of better meetings.
Before the meeting
- Get clarity on the purpose of the meeting. Answer the questions “Does this require a meeting?” and “After this meeting, what will I want people to have learned, achieved or solved?”.
- If a meeting is required, don’t hold it in the morning. This is a time when many people are most productive and able to get deep work done — it shouldn’t be taken up with meetings.
- Make sure the right people will be there. Who has a valuable contribution to make? Who are the decision makers? Make sure they are present — it is a waste of time to meet without them. At the same time, ensure that no one is there who doesn’t need to be there — this is a waste of their time and doesn’t add anything to the meeting.
- Add some variety to the format. Familiarity breeds contempt (or at least disengagement)— and a break in the routine helps people to participate in a fresh way. This could include asking a guest speaker or topic expert to share, eating food together, watching a short training video, working on the team culture, etc.
- Distribute the agenda in advance. For people to contribute well they need time to prepare. Obviously, this needs to happen once the right people have had the opportunity to contribute to the agenda.
- Call people in advance if needed. This could be to encourage particular people to share, or to remind others how important it is for them to be there.
- Arrive early. This is the time to set up and test any technology and troubleshoot any issues.
At the start of the meeting
- Start on time. This is both respectful and contributes to ending the meeting on time (also respectful).
- Lead the meeting with energy and enthusiasm. If you’re not motivated to be there, why should anyone else be?
- Remind attendees about the purpose of the meeting and when the meeting will conclude. This will provide clarity and focus.
- Explain how you want attendees to participate. For example, you might want to encourage people to speak up if their view needs to be heard.
- Set (or remind attendees of) ground rules for constructive engagement. Here’s an example from Joshua Kerievsky:
- Review outstanding actions. It’s important to hold people accountable to their commitments otherwise progress is compromised. As Paul Axtell says, “Don’t let non-performance go unchallenged, but do it gently.”
At the start of each agenda item
- Clarify the goal for the discussion at hand. Liane Davey explains this well: “If your goal is idea generation, say so, and facilitate the discussion appropriately. If an item requires a decision, be clear on the decision criteria and the process.
- Clarify who gets to make the call. More from Liane Davey: “Specify whether everyone gets to vote or whether one person owns the decision and is looking for recommendations. “Barb owns this decision, so I’m going to ask Barb to halt the discussion when she has what she needs to make the call.””
At the end of each agenda item
- Stop talking when there is agreement. Move on if there is no disagreement —there is no need to spend time going around the room agreeing with each other!
- Work through disagreement. Don’t let disagreement lead to a delayed decision or worse — another meeting! Find out why people disagree or are unconvinced and ask them “What would it take to get you on board?”.
- Check for completion. You can ask: “Is there anything else someone needs to say or ask before we change topics or adjourn the meeting?” or “Is everyone ok with where we ended up?”. This is an opportunity to head off at the pass any future “but I didn’t agree to that…”. Speak now or forever hold your peace!
- Close the discussion. Don’t just move on to the next agenda item — finish the conversation well “to ensure alignment, clarity on next steps, and awareness for the value created.”
- Confirm the next steps. If it is unclear, ask the question “What exactly will we do by our next meeting to ensure progress?” Paul Axtell suggests capturing actions in the format “Do thing X by time Y or call.” That is — every action has a person responsible who will do it by a certain date or they will call to explain the delay. He also suggests setting a due date that is before the next meeting — this way if there are issues you can work through them before the meeting.
At the end of the meeting
- End with a ‘closing round’. This was suggested by Ev Williams who explains how and why this is beneficial:
“The closing round is worth doing, because it gives everyone, in a sense, a “last word” — the chance to get something off their chest that they might otherwise carry around or whisper to their colleagues later. It creates more mindfulness about what just happened — and how things might go better next time. And it lets you know where the group is at emotionally, as well as potential issues to follow up on that weren’t strictly part of the proceedings.”
- Remind people to communicate if one of their action items becomes at risk of non-delivery. As you will have gathered by now, identifying and following through on actions is a non-negotiable.
- Reflect on the value of what you accomplished. You could ask the question: “What are the most important things we accomplished in our time here together?”
After the meeting
- Get a summary out ASAP. This is a chance to capture the key discussion points and resulting actions and due dates.
- Assign someone to follow up on the action items. This could be you, or it could be someone else — but it’s important that someone does this.
Leading meetings is a skill that can be developed with practice and as you improve you are serving the people you lead. The potential impact is significant — as Patrick Lencioni observes:
“For those organizations that can make the leap from painful meetings to productive ones, the rewards are enormous. Higher morale, faster and better decisions, and inevitably, greater results.”
Learn to lead better meetings
Do you want to lead meetings that get results? My friend Ben Crothers over at Bright Pilots is launching a new online platform to help you. These training classes are interactive and real-time and led by Ben — a meeting facilitator with years of experience.