How to Have More Effective Meetings
"The meeting that seemed like it would never end." "The meeting with 17 folks in a room designed for 8." "The meeting that was the same meeting you had last week and the week before and the week before that." We aren't wired to hate meetings, but bad meetings have completely ruined us. Thankfully, your meetings don't have to fall into this category. If you make sure your meetings have an objective, defined roles, and a summary, you'll be on your way to a valuable meeting. This is why those three things matter.
You'd be surprised at the number of meetings folks hold that lack a clearly stated reason for meeting in the first place. A good objective states why the meeting must exist, and the problem it is attempting to solve. This should be the very first line of your meeting's description:
This meeting is to (brainstorm | decide | align on) topic, because reason it must be done in person. This meeting succeeds if (success criteria).
In this line, we're accomplishing three things. We're defining the meeting's type, we're explaining why it requires a meeting, and it sets the expectation for what a fruitful meeting will be.
The Meeting Type: First, we're making it very clear what kind of meeting folks can expect. Every meeting, even the dreaded status meetings, falls into one of three categories. We're either here to brainstorm and build ideas, reach a decision, or ensure everyone is aligned on the topic at hand. Status meetings are a form of alignment, but only when there is no clear agreement on the project's status.
Why A Meeting: Next, we're answering "why". Meetings are expensive, because we're asking a lot of folks to stop doing their current work and attend something in person. This high-bandwidth occurrence shouldn't be taken lightly. Meetings must justify their existence, and "why" is an opportunity for the meeting establish its reason for existing.
Successful If: Finally, we're saying what success looks like. The meeting type might be a decision meeting, but success might require more than simply a decision being made.
The act of defining an objective is going to feel awkward and formulaic at first, but good meeting hygiene means spending 5 minutes explaining the meeting relative to the 5+ hours of collective time you're asking for. If you're struggling with the meeting's type, the why, or the success criteria, you might be staring at a meeting that you do not have to have. Try giving that meeting time back to the attendees and taking the discussion to an asynchronous workplace tool such as Google Docs, email, Slack, or Instant Messaging.
Defined Roles and Fewer People
Having an effective objective sets the stage for a successful meeting, but the second most important thing is who's there. Take any meeting in your calendar and look through the invite list. Can you clearly define what that individual is contributing to the objective? In larger companies, meetings become pile-on affairs with more folks attending the meeting than are necessary for the meeting's function. These additional folks don't just take up seats. Every individual exponentially increases the number of relationships that must be managed for a meeting to accomplish its objective.
- In a meeting of three folks, there are three relationships.
- In a meeting of six folks, there are fifteen relationships.
- In a meeting of eight folks, there are twenty eight distinct relationships.
The only solution to this problem is to have fewer people in the meeting. If you're wanting a number, we'll say 5: you and four other individuals. Aside from a large alignment meeting like an all-hands, having more than five folks in a room makes it impossible to fulfill the objective in a reasonable amount of time. Before your meeting starts, identify who in the meeting will be fulfilling these roles (they may overlap):
- The facilitator: Responsible for the success of the objective, assigns roles, and sends the summary
- The accountable person: The person who has elected to be answerable for the topic
- The responsible person: The person who will ultimately complete work related to the topic
- The subject matter expert: The person who understands the topic as an expert
You may have more than one person in the Responsible role. You may have three subject matter experts in your meeting. You should never exceed five people for a conventional meeting.
When you begin removing people from meetings, expect them to reach out to you. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in the workplace exists, and these folks are genuinely worried that they're missing something important if they are not in your meeting. Take a few minutes to explain why you're limiting the number of folks in the room, and ask them to share their thoughts with you in advance of the meeting. Then, make sure they know what transpired with an effective summary.
All the planning in the world won't help if the meeting's results are never written down. Summarizing the meeting is the job of the facilitator. It cannot be skipped. If it helps, schedule 30 minutes for yourself immediately after your meeting and use that block to clean up and send out your notes. Here's a very generic template that can help get you started:
Objective: (restate the objective) Because: (restate why we needed a meeting) Meeting Was Successful If: (restate the success criteria)
# Ideas for a Brainstorm meeting * (list of ideas)
# Decisions Made & Why * (each decision and its rationale)
# Information * (additional information shared)
# Next Steps * (each next step with a delivery date and owner)
Not only are we restating the meeting's purpose and why we had it, but we're also capturing the focused ideas, decisions, or information that was the motivation behind the meeting. A final "next steps" ensures that any action items have both dates and a name attached for accountability.
Your notes should be distributed through whatever broadcast channels your company has for this kind of information. If sharing notes isn't a common practice yet, a #notes channel in Slack or a notes@ mailing list is a great step.
Changing Your Meetings
As leaders, when we ask folks to take time out of their day to meet, we owe it to those in attendance to make the most of their time. To do so, everyone needs to understand why a meeting was needed, who was needed for the meeting to succeed, and where the results of the meeting can be found. Objective. Roles. Summary. You don't need to make all these changes to your meetings at once, but even a single change like an objective can have a huge impact on a meeting's effectiveness. We can't fix all the meetings, but we can certainly fix our own.