“Meetings should be like salt – a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.” — Jason Fried
Meetings, like e-mails, are an inevitability of the modern workplace. If there’s no escaping them, then how can one make them more effective? That’s the question many leaders lately find themselves grappling with.
Before we answer, however, first let’s understand what are meetings for and what makes them loathed in the first place. You see, meetings are called in as a means to facilitate communication on important matters, ultimately bringing about necessary improvements on a process, strategy or relationship. It’s that simple.
However, the reason why they get so much rejection is because, like in the quote above, too many meetings cause the opposite effect. Rather than bringing about improvements, it harms productivity, so much so that, paradoxically, the real improvement would have been not to do anything. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but it has hints of what happens in real life too. The truth is meetings are set with the noble idea that, by having multiple stakeholders sitting together (be it physically or remotely), the desired changes will naturally come about. Except, without a plan and a system in place, things can quickly spiral out of control.
So, if ineffectiveness is to blame for the general workplace aversion to the m-word, then let’s discuss a few ways to turn that around and make meetings something to look forward to!
What is an effective meeting?
An effective meeting is not simply about being on time and involving as few people as possible. That’s just a superficial way to minimize the impact of an ineffective meeting culture.
For starters, an effective meeting should bring together the necessary Stakeholders. It should have a clear purpose that’s understood by all those invited and a goal to be reached, defined previously by an agenda. It should allow for individuals to make contributions and engage in multi-way discussions. And lastly, it should generate results that are shareable with those who may be impacted by what the participants concluded.
Now that we know what the problem with meetings is and what constitutes an effective one, let’s take a look at how we can ensure that all these criteria are met.
Conducting an Effective Meeting: Who to invite
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: it should not be about hosting too many or too few people. The number is secondary as long as you are being thoughtful about the role each participant should play in the meeting. To help with that, think in terms of who has something unique to contribute to the desired outcome and is directly connected with the meeting’s purpose.
One thing to keep in mind is that people should definitely not be in a meeting solely to listen to the discussion. In general, if they have nothing to contribute, they shouldn’t have been invited. If the idea was to just “keep them in the loop”, an e-mail with the meeting notes or something similar could do the trick.
Of course, there are exceptions depending on the subject. Department/Company updates are a type of meeting that involves everyone tuning in simultaneously, even though not everyone will have something to contribute. Likewise, meetings about restructures might impact more people than the ones participating. Communicating via e-mail in this case, depending on how sensitive the changes are, can come across as tone-deaf. You should consider a 1:1 instead.
Either way, it may be tricky to identify who to invite, but more often than not, you will find role redundancies which can be avoided altogether.
Conducting an Effective Meeting: Defining purpose
What do you want to accomplish? Is a meeting needed at all? A lot of the ineffective meeting problems arise from people not asking themselves this in the first place.
A meeting shouldn’t be called just because there’s something to talk about. Do you need others’ inputs to move forward with a decision? Is it a brainstorming on a particular issue? Are you seeking to align different teams on a specific matter? Write the agenda and goal down on the invitation so that everyone is aware of the purpose. What you should never do is send a meeting invitation without a subject or with vague wording such as “update” or “we need to talk”. This only generates more confusion and, sometimes, stress.
Furthermore, if there’s a need for something to be prepared in advance or brought along to the meeting, let it be known – and send a reminder a few hours prior for good measure. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming into a meeting and realizing there’s missing critical information.
Conducting an Effective Meeting: Rules of Conduct
Even with the right people and a well-defined purpose in place, things can still go awry. That’s why it’s important to have some rules set and agreed upon from the get-go. Below we have outlined a list of possible rules that can make your meetings run smoother:
No idea is a bad idea
Sometimes people don’t express themselves during a meeting under the assumption their ideas are not good enough or that speaking up on an issue could bring retaliation on them. Bring these assumptions down by addressing them directly, make sure everyone understands it and there’s an atmosphere of trust and respect.
It’s not a one-man show
Some people have the opposite of the above, they express themselves more than everyone else and sometimes monopolize the conversation. As a meeting is most effective when everyone contributes equally, you will want to address this kind of behavior as well. Do so respectfully, recognizing the individual’s contributions and eagerness, before passing the ball to someone else.
It’s natural during the course of a discussion that other issues may pop up. However, keep people focused on the original purpose and create a “Parking lot” on a whiteboard or screen. The idea of the Parking lot is so that other issues are acknowledged and can be taken up to be discussed later after the meeting, if necessary. Do not waste everyone’s time straying away from the meeting’s true intent.
We are all guilty of this: sometimes the temptation to check on our phones or laptops during a meeting is too great, especially when we are not the ones doing the talk. Even worse, 71% do so to check on social media (but of course, no one will admit to it during the meeting). Either, ban laptops and phones from the meeting, or, if someone is really pressed to deliver work, allow them to leave the meeting and return later or catch up via the notes afterwards.
Summarize before concluding
One good way to make sure everyone is on the same page before closing the meeting, is to summarize the discussion in a few bullet points. To move things forward, include the action points that were agreed upon.
Going all the way back to the beginning of this article, starting and ending on time is a basic principle that should be followed in every meeting. One add-on, however: do not wait for one person if they are late. By doing so, you are devaluing the time of everyone else who prioritized properly and arrived as per schedule. You don’t have to publicly shame whoever is late or punish them either (especially if they have a good reason and are not a repeat offender). Just show care for those who are already there by starting at the designated time.
Meetings can improve communications and be a catalyst for positive changes, among other benefits. Even so, many believe meetings are not work, but the truth is they are.
As long as you conduct them effectively, of course.