Three Ways to Make Meetings Great Again
67% say meetings distract from getting work done.*
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina has become the Anna Karenina principle.
There are a few ways to succeed, but many ways to screw up. Which is one reason meetings suck.
Two reasons meetings suck:
#1. The person at the head of the table.
Meetings suck in many ways, but success hangs on the person running the meeting.
Squandering the time and talent of people is the greatest evil of organizational life. Anyone who thinks they can just show up and run an effective meeting is incompetent, over-confident, or lazy.
An unprepared chairperson should lose a week’s pay, or some other form of painful humiliation.
#2. The head-turning problem.
Meetings suck when heads turn to the head of the table instead of toward each other.
The point of a meeting is to capitalize on the skill, talent, and perspective of the people at the table.
Yes, some operational meetings seem to require a talking head at the front. But even operational meetings can be organized in a way that requires others to talk, if they are prepared.
Three ways to make meetings great again:
#1. End on time!
We all hope no one will ask a question so we can get back to work! But when ALL meetings end on time, participants have permission to participate.
Any meeting that drones on drains energy and creates resentment.
#2. Interrupt blabbermouths.
“Excuse me Bob, I wonder what Mary thinks about this?”
#3. Ask people to respond to each other’s input.
Bob, “What comes to mind as you listened to Mary?”
Mary, “If you were going to move forward with Bob’s idea, what might you try next?”
Sam, “How does Mary’s suggestion impact your area?”
What’s one thing you would ask leaders to stop doing that would make meetings great again?
What’s one thing you would ask leaders to start doing to make meetings great again?
*Working or Wasting Time (Korn Ferry)
How much Time do we Spend in Meetings (Hint: It’s Scary) (The Muse)
Dear Dan, How do I get my Team to Participate in Meetings (Leadership Freak)
Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in Groups (Chabris)
Perfect timing! Doing a strategy meeting today. Thanks!
Best wishes, Emily!!
As a minister I have been tasked with chairing the monthly men’s business meeting. One congregation I preached for had meetings that would run better than two hours. It came my turn to be the chair. I drafted an agenda and stuck to it. I would let anyone add their thoughts but would keep them on topic and when they started to drift, would either yank them back or interrupt them asking if they had anything NEW to add. I did not permit anyone to rehash. (There was a father/son duo that loved to do that. I cut them off: anything NEW.) My first meeting ran 45 minutes. They all by the next meeting, decided I should be permanent chair.
Thanks Carl. You should become a professional chairperson. 🙂 Congratulations!
These strategies would certainly work in a classroom. Thank you!
Thanks Pete. It’s great to read how you find another application to this.
I have found that a well-prepared agenda with specific goals, timelines, expectations, and reflection help facilitate productive meetings. I also position myself somewhere in the middle of the table rather than the head. Most importantly, I try to be among the last to speak. Sometimes when a leader speaks first, the others on the team have a tendency to shut down and that is what turns meetings into time-suckage.
Thank you for the post!
Thanks Jow. Great suggestions. I think the symbolism of sitting at the side is useful.
We have to confess that people often look to align with the leader. As you say, when leaders speak first it may become difficult to hear alternatives.
Those are great points on conducting the heart of a meeting. I think the canoe model you presented earlier emphasizes holding only meetings that matter. Failing to clarify the purpose and objectives of a meeting and to follow up on any resulting action items can doom even the most smoothly run meeting to irrelevancy and a waste of valuable time and talent. All the best.
Thanks Paul. For those interested… the canoe method: https://leadershipfreak.blog/2018/02/14/how-to-love-your-next-meeting-in-5-easy-steps/
I agree with your comments and meetings should have a clear purpose, a decent agenda and a clear decision process.
Thanks Victoria. Clarity about the decision-making process impacts the way meetings are run. Is the decision made by consensus or is the leader making the final call?
When the leader makes the final call, input includes providing alternatives. If the decision is by consensus, there’s more selling.
My favorite meeting resource is the book Momentum by Mamie Kanfer Stewart and Tai Tsao. It is a game changer and aligns with the advice Dan gave.
Thanks Andria. It’s great that you added a resource. See you soon.
As important as preparing the agenda with stated time-frame for the meeting, is ending the meeting with a review of what everyone there has to do before the next meeting. If no one has any assignment — why was the meeting held if a simple email would have delivered information. If some people in the meeting don’t have any assignment — why were they invited? If people come to the next meeting and after the greeting a review of the assignments shows some did and some did not do the assignments — what’s the consequences? Most meetings should be premised on the concept that there’s a problem that needs to be solved; or a strategic direction we need to agree to move on.
Thanks Mary Ellen. Great insights. I’ve long been a proponent of active participation. If you consistently leave meetings without something to do, you shouldn’t be in the meeting. NO PASSIVE OBSERVERS allowed.
Start making sure there’s an agenda. Not full of items to discuss but some room for air. Also, make sure committee members have sent or shared their information prior to the meeting so everyone has it.
Stop waiting for everyone to get there. Begin on time- late comers know how to catch up. Be formal and informal allowing for everyone to be flexible.
Thanks Tycee. I think Bill Gates advocated for providing time for vibrant discussion. Don’t have a long agenda.
A quote that I heard really struck a cord – “That was the most expensive meeting with zero outcome.” For a cadre of senior executives to be gathered without meeting objectives is common in certain places. That being said, the head of the table can ensure that the meeting remains focused on the purpose of the meeting while moving it along to meet that purpose or at least some of the objectives.
Leaders should not be afraid to stop meetings if the members aren’t ready or are unproductive. Changing the goal posts constantly enables unpreparedness.
Thanks Kishla. The goal post line is gold!!
When someone gets off topic you can say, “I’m not seeing the connection with goal/purpose. Could you help me connect the dots?” It’s possible that the offender may actually have a connection that you missed. It’s also possible that they will realize that they’re off topic.
In a volunteer board I am on, we implemented several rules – maybe your suggestions from a few years ago. Strict timing of start and end. Strict agenda – anyone can call “rabbit hole”. Last 5 minutes is rate the meeting 1-10 (everyone writes a number, and explains). Adjourn even if everything isn’t covered – but now it always is.
Thanks Ian. Great summary. Yes, the idea of calling “rabbit hole” is awesome. Of course the people need to trust and respect each other.
One of the most neglected leadership tools is evaluating meetings. Boom.
Another great way is to outright cancel it. It feels so empowering to realize how valuable time is within an organization. Agenda’s are great, however what are the expectations at the end of the meeting? If it’s all information put out an email with the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) to combat the TL;DR.
Thank Minor. Yup. A canceled meeting is like a snow day at school. 🙂
PS I had to look up TL:DR .. too long; didn’t real. thanks
Great article on a favorite topic of mine
Three thought from a past High School Special Education Director and University Administrator now an adjunct professor in an Ed. Leadership doctoral program.
1. Never sit in the front or across from you biggest speaker
2. Always have an agenda and stated purpose
3. All the ones you note above .Especially the time frame
Thanks John. “Don’t sit across from the biggest speaker.” I feel like if you do, you invite a private conversation. ????
Today’s entry is rather shocking. My entire career has been built around a mountain of meetings, each with a head that facilitates. I was under the impression that the more meetings held, the better the communication and thus production will be. I’ll admit, the meetings that are not inclusive of everyone are good times for me to plan my grocery list in my head. However, lately as management, we have been opening the floor for people to give ideas, vent, and participate as much as they feel the need to and I think the meetings are much more successful as a result.
Amen! I have experienced plenty of ineffective meetings and totally agree with this post. I have felt my energy drain and resentment build. One interesting thing is that in the past 6 weeks of telecommuting I think that I have been able to reflect on meetings while they are going on, which has been interesting. In a face to face meeting, you can’t roll your eyes or walk out, or work on something else if the meeting drags on or isn’t relevant to you. But on a computer based meeting, the pace and leadership of meetings are even more important because participants can easily work on other things, or even walk away from their laptops. School is unique because I feel like there is an inherent value to the lessons we are learning. I feel more driven to listen to lectures through because the subject is interesting to me. I have definitely listened in on my significant other having meetings for work and seen his interest fade. I agree with the author that interaction is important to make a meeting effective. If a meeting is really just a presentation with one person talking, you could record it and require everyone to watch the video whenever convenient. But, if the presenter engages with other people and there is collaboration, it can make a meeting worthwhile. After all, the whole point of a meeting is to get people in the same place and share ideas. Without sharing ideas and feedback, a meeting could be simplified to a notice or and email.