On Meetings

by Todd

Every so often a blog post about how poorly meetings function circulates and generates a bit of heat. Maybe you’ve seen them. They often have titles like Meetings are Broken or Kill All Meetings or We Never Have Meetings and We’re Productive to Cosmic Proportions Because Of It And You Should Too.

Funny thing, not all meetings feel like meetings, and they work pretty well. They also come in various formats and sizes. Stopping by someone’s desk to talk about something? That’s a meeting. Doing a quick chat over IM? That’s a meeting. Standing at the whiteboard to work out a problem? You better believe that’s a meeting, friend.

But we all know that when people gather at a table to talk in a more traditional meeting format, there’s the potential to get lost in the weeds and accomplish nothing. But there’s also the potential to get a shared understanding more efficiently than any phone call, IM or project management tool could come close to.

The difference between agonizing time-waster and a kick-ass huddle is one of competency, of knowing how to wield the format like a tool. By now you can tell that we get a fair bit out of meetings, so here are all our secret techniques, in one convenient place but in no particular order.

Own the Meeting You Call

If you set it up, you are responsible for the success of that meeting. Be prepared and be present.

Facilitate

Every meeting needs a facilitator. Facilitation is not about being a dictator of discussion, but a traffic cop keeping the flow moving. Facilitators don’t have to be conductors, but can just echo back what’s heard and move the group through the agenda while making sure everyone has their chance to speak. The meeting owner is usually the facilitator, but not always. There’s a skill in facilitation so pick the best person for the job if it’s not you.

Plan with Flexibility

That’s right, an agenda, the thing that says what the meeting is for, who is invited, who is required, when, where and what will be accomplished. But instead of topics, list the goals, the things you want to get done. Each item should be something that the group can decide to act on, delegate or dismiss.

Record

Someone has to be writing down what’s happening. It can be on a whiteboard or a project management tool or just notes that get sent around after, but without a record the important stuff can slip away. Don’t let your meetings leak value. Pro tip: if you’re the facilitator, try not to be the recorder.

Time x People = Money

Next time you’re in a meeting, count the number of people there and estimate how much they cost per hour and the number of hours you meet for. Multiply those numbers and see how much money you burned. If your meeting isn’t generating value that justifies that cost, you’ve invited too many people or you’re not running the meeting tightly enough.

The Start is the Start

Start the meeting on the minute. Close the door if you have one and if someone comes in late, stop talking until they are seated. Do not offer to recap, but do so if asked. The message will be clear for next time: be on time or be left behind.

Cap the Small Talk

If the meeting starts with chitchat about everyone’s day or last night’s hockey game, it’s already in trouble. Starting the meeting on topic sets the right tone that everyone is here to work.

Demand Presence

Laptop open? Cellphone in hand? Doing a little multi-tasking? Please leave and come back when you are ready to be there. People are terrible multitaskers, and trying to stay on top of multiple things only allows part of what you bring to the table to be used. What’s more, tolerating split attention sends the message that everyone else can multitask at the table. No wonder people think meetings suck if they only spend a fraction of their attention making a contribution.

Focal Point

Is everyone sitting at a table looking at each other? Bad idea. Have some representation of the work you’re there to talk about present. It can be on a screen, printed and laid out on the table or hung on the wall, or written out on a whiteboard. It can be screenshots, wireframes, topics, test results, and the list goes on. The point is that you have something for people to focus on that isn’t each other. Direct their energy to what you want to make happen and watch them dig in to do the job they were hired to do. This technique works like magic and doesn’t require additional effort during a meeting unless the discussion starts to wander.

A lot of this might sound like a heavy hand, but it’s not about turning every technique up to 11. Start small and build a culture of effective meetings. Not every meeting is necessary, but when done right they are great value generators.

If you really want to make meetings work, I can’t suggest a better book than - wait for it - How to Make Meetings Work. I first read it years ago and have bought several copies for colleagues. It’s the source of some of the gold you just enjoyed above, and has a lot about how to handle the um, stronger personalities that can throw a gathering off track.