In a recent article, it may have seemed that I thought meetings were the end of humanity as we know it. Didn’t mean to be so negative. The real question is whether meetings can be helpful.
Despite my negativity in my article about meetings, if we didn’t have meetings, what would we have?
OK, greater productivity…but besides that. The truth is, you need meetings. Even if they are just informal meetings around the coffeemaker, there is a need for people to get together and talk about the issues they are working on, exchange ideas, get organized so that multiple people can work on an issue without falling all over each other, etc.
Meetings are necessary, and the question is not how to do away with them but how to make them more useful.
The Conventional Wisdom
Fortunately, there is no shortage of Internet resources oriented around making meetings useful. They include things like have an agenda, timebox the meeting, start on time, let everyone talk, don’t laugh (out loud) at what people say no matter how butt stupid or clueless it is, etc.
Like I said, these are all good suggestions, but I know a lot of companies follow these, and it really hasn’t made all that much difference.
- Have an agenda: Most agendas I see are really not all that focused. It’s hard to write up a good one. And having an agenda does not mean someone won’t go off on a tangent and hijack things.
- Timebox the meeting: Everybody does this. All conference rooms are booked all day, so someone will throw you out after an hour.
- Start on time: This is generally impossible because conference rooms today are generally booked continually and the people before you will run over, just like you will. And even if you do start on time, that doesn’t mean what you spend your time on is worth it.
- Let everyone talk: Oh yeah, great idea. Talking should be a privilege, not a right, and you should have to get points in a previous meeting (voted on by everyone) to allow you to speak in any subsequent meetings. Many people have nothing useful to say and should be prevented from saying it.
If you read my column even occasionally, it should come as no surprise that I take a slightly different vector on making meetings useful. Shall we?
Treat Standing Meetings Like Used Car Salesmen
If there is only one thing you do, look with suspicion on every standing meeting you have.
Yes, probably at some point in the distant past, there was a need for this meeting. But once a repetitive meeting is set up, it’s like a Zombie: very hard to kill so you are sure it’s dead.
I firmly believe that no meeting should live for more than four occurrences. If it is still important after that, continue it, but do so carefully. Many meetings get set up on a recurring basis from now until a long time from now, like the end of the year or the end of next year. And here is something that is true: If you set up a meeting, no matter how useless the subject or how vague the agenda, people will find a way to talk through the entire time. And many times, people think to themselves, “Well, that proves this is a useful meeting.” But generally, that is not true. It’s just that people know they can’t live in a vacuum, so they open their mouths and fill in the space. After all, we’re having a meeting. We need to bring something up, right?
Bottom line: Avoid standing meetings, even though lots of people think they are useful. Sometimes even lots of people are wrong.
What are the Action Points?
Forget about the agenda. If your meeting subject is not specific enough for people to figure out why they are there, then you shouldn’t hold it. Even if there is no agenda at all and it’s just a no holds barred free-for-all, you can still get a lot of benefit out of it because it’s not how it starts, it’s how you finish.
And it should end in tasks that are sharply defined and allocated to only one person. I ain’t into the gang thing. As a project manager, I want one person I can pin down to see if it’s done.
So, if you get to the end of your meeting and you had some really good discussions but there are no action points, then either the meeting is unnecessary or you screwed up in terms of assigning potential blame…umm, I mean responsibility.
Have You Contained the Meeting?
This is something that all “meeting” types of people will disagree with. The idea of letting everyone talk and say what is on their minds is so ingrained in meeting lore that suggesting anything otherwise is sacrilege. Fortunately, I don’t care.
Running an effective meeting is not easy. It requires real finesse. You do have to let people talk, to express themselves. That is what opens the meeting up, makes people feel safe and valued. And that is very important in any team environment.
On the other hand, you have to realize that most people are fairly free-form. They will talk about whatever moves them at the moment, and that may or may not be germane to the meeting purpose. And when they talk about something that is not at the heart of what the meeting is about, 80 percent of the other people are going to tune out. And once someone has tuned out of the meeting, they ain’t comin’ back. They are gone.
So if you are the meeting organizer, you must keep the meeting focused, and sometimes that means choking off discussion of something that is not on point. You can be polite about it. But you have to be firm. Stick to the core meeting purpose.
Keep It Short, Stupid
We have this mental perception that a meeting should be 30 or 60 minutes. But that is not required by the quantum mechanics that define our universe, even if you subscribe to String Theory.
What does everyone have with them as they move about their office building? Yep, you got it—a laptop.
And what do people do as soon as they get in a meeting? Yep, they open the laptop and start working on something else. Seriously, that doesn’t insult you? You have nothing to say, as the meeting leader, that is more important than emails coming from some undisclosed source? Come on, have some self-respect, man.
People need to learn that your meetings are no longer than necessary and cover only the points required by the meeting. They will still do email, but they will be paying more attention to you and the discussion than to the email because they know that the window of understanding here is small, and that is the best you can hope for.
What I Believe
The only thing that surprises me is that the number of people who seem to be interested in what I believe is very small. I don’t get that, but here is the bottom line meetings-wise, and you can take it or leave it.
Keep your meeting as short as possible. People need to develop a habit of knowing that, when they come to one of your meetings, it will be over as soon as possible. That may keep them from diving into their laptops as soon as they sit down.
Have a purpose (not an agenda), an outcome that you want to get. Dig right into it. Let people talk—in fact, encourage it—but do it by making sure that what they are talking about fits the needs of the meeting and by keeping good eye contact with everyone in the group, which is what invites people to contribute.
If you don’t walk away with specific, assignable action points, you know that it was a waste of time. Meetings are not designed to talk about things. Meetings are designed to set up future action to accomplish things.
I know that a lot of this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, but this is what I have learned over the years. If it is helpful, great. To be honest, at this point in my life, I am just glad if it doesn’t make things worse.