Meetings don't have to be toxic

 Photo by  Dylan Gillis  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

So many meetings tend to be all talk, inconclusive, and a very expensive waste of people's time. Meetings are misused and overused. Conversations aren't meetings. Neither are group sessions like planning games, design collaboration, retrospectives and brainstorming. Too many companies suffer a meeting culture that constantly interrupts their people from actually doing the work.

Meetings should be a focused and structured forum for decision-making. They should be used with care, chaired rigorously with flexibility and consideration, and deliver a clear outcome.

Here's a set of guidelines I've used for many years to run great meetings that people will enjoy and appreciate.   

Meeting guidelines

Make your meeting about a (preliminary) decision you’ve made

Organiser

  • If you want to share information like status send an email with NNTR. If you want to ask or answer a question have a conversation.
  • Every decision has an owner even though the decision might be ratified by consent. The onus is on you to have conversations with the right people beforehand to inform your preliminary decision, and only then schedule a meeting with them to arrive at a final resolution.
  • If serious objections to the preliminary decision emerge or better alternatives come to light or proposed changes are necessary debate them in the meeting to reach consent again.

Limit the number of participants

Organiser

  • Invite only those people who are absolutely necessary for resolving the decision that you are presenting.

Participant

  • If you have no strong opinion, have no interest in the outcome, and are not instrumental for any coordination that needs to take place, you’re not needed.

Prepare

Organiser

  • Circulate an agenda and any supporting materials at least 3 days in advance, giving people time to prepare. 
  • Use the agenda template below.

Participant

  • To contribute thoughtfully to the debate you need to have read any distributed materials, thought through different scenarios, and come up with thoughtful questions and responses beforehand. In exchange for your preparation you can expect an intense, short meeting where something actually gets decided.

Eject the unprepared

Organiser

  • If someone comes unprepared, hold it without them or cancel the meeting.
  • If someone comes unprepared and then disrupts the meeting or blocks progress ask them to leave.
  • If someone comes and doesn’t participate, you don’t have to invite them next time.

Start on time

Organiser

  • Set a timer ticking at the start and don’t wait for latecomers.

Participant

  • Respect people's time by being punctual.

Move fast

Organiser

  • Every minute you spend sitting in a meeting is a minute that’s costing money. Spend it wisely.
  • Timebox like a bastard.

Keep it short

Organiser

  • With too much time even the most unshakable decision will be reconsidered. 
  • Arguments turn circular without new information being added to the debate. 
  • More time leads to more doubt, more doubt leads to more anxiety.
  • Try out the 22-Minute Meeting or break a longer meeting up using the Pomodoro Technique.

Produce committed actions

Organiser

  • Don’t distribute minutes detailing what happened at the meeting. 
  • Distribute an action plan that describes the actions being committed to, who is responsible for each action and when those actions will be completed.

End on time


Follow Through

Organiser

  • Check participants are doing what they agreed to do, when they agreed to do it. Hold them accountable. If the actions aren’t completed the meeting was a waste of money.

Participant

  • Go from consent to study. The decision is just the first step. If your thinking is stirred up, seek out materials for further study.

Meeting agenda template

  1. Check-in: Each participant states what they hope to take away from the meeting.

  2. Problem statement: Clearly state the problem. State the facts.
  3. Desired outcome: State what the meeting will deliver if it’s successful.
  4. Feedback: Outline exactly the sort of feedback you want from participants.
  5. Preliminary decision: Clearly state your preliminary decision and your reasoning.
  6. Alternatives: Introduce the other options you considered and dismissed. 
  7. Facilitated discussion if necessary.
  8. Readiness check: Ask if the group is ready to support the decision? If yes, move to 9, otherwise return to 7.
  9. Call for consent: Summarise the (possibly improved) decision and ask for a show of thumbs to make individual positions visible. If there is no consent, return to 7.
  10. ROTI: Gather feedback on the meeting to make improvements for next time. 

Timekeeping

You can't be brutal enough.

  1. Set the end time.
  2. Everyone watches the time remaining (to help maintain focus, highlight off-topic conversations quickly, and give everyone safe ability to redirect back to the focus area).
  3. Breadth first (see the whole picture and set order/priority).
  4. Depth second (one topic at time, focus and go as fast as possible).
  5. Break larger timeboxes into smaller ones (usually equal size with a free slot at the end).
  6. Hard stop when the time is up.

Return on time invested

Get feedback on your meetings and make changes based on the information you receive. Before people leave, ask them to rate the meeting's effectiveness based on the scale below and build a histogram to show the results.

4 = Received benefit greater than time invested.

3

2 = Break-even. Received benefit equal to time invested.

1

0 = No benefit received for time invested.

You can be happy if most people feel the meeting was a break-even investment. Still, there’s always room for improvement. Even if everyone rated the meeting at 4, it’s worth finding out why the meeting worked well so you can repeat your success.

  • Ask the people who rated the meeting 2 or above what specifically they received for their time investment.
  • Ask the people who rated the meeting at 0 or 1 what they wanted but didn’t get.
  • Then ask what specifically worked, what didn’t work, and for possible changes.

Don’t assume that a rating of 0 means you did a poor job. It may simply mean that the person didn’t care about the decision.