Have you ever walked out of a meeting with this intense feeling of relief and the emphatic thought: “what a ridiculous waste of time”?
I used to have meetings with a management group that were all about people management. They were intended to make time for us to have an exchange about our experiences, to give updates about our teams in general, and to talk about the challenges we were facing daily. For whatever reason, this was an incredibly difficult meeting for us to plan and moderate.
Half the time we’d find ourselves discussing the “how” to have that meeting. How do we structure it; how much time we should plan for it; what the actual purpose of it even was — were we just giving updates or actually trying to get input? Why did it feel so awkward sometimes? why was it so hard to dedicate the right amount of time to discuss the most important things? And so on. Every time there was a change in our management group, such as someone new joining or one of us leaving, we’d rehash this conversation.
One day, this culminated in a full hour of brainstorming and one of the most stilted, painful discussions I’ve ever had about how to have this meeting. I looked at the clock every two minutes, waiting desperately for the time to count down, and thinking wistfully of all of the other things I could be doing with my time instead. I could see the other attendees discreetly looking at the clock too. I’m pretty sure every single person in that meeting was equally as desperate as I was. And yet, not only did it continue, it lasted the entire hour we’d scheduled it for. A whole hour wasted having a meeting to talk about how to have a meeting. This was the first time I understood why people perceive management as a job that rarely adds value to a company.
Meetings have such a terrible reputation exactly because of these moments. Here’s a fool-proof way to have a meeting go badly: don’t have an agenda, don’t pay attention to the time, don’t care about the outcome, don’t bother staying on topic (how can you stay on topic if you don’t even know what you’re there for?), don’t try to moderate, don’t ask anyone to prepare, and don’t even make a precursory attempt at having some kind of structure. The worst thing about not taking meetings seriously is that everyone starts associating them with being a waste of time. People don’t think they’re worth anything, so they don’t bother preparing. They turn up to meetings already checked out, treating them as if they’re taking a break from work. Participation is negligible, if not completely non-existent. The person running the meeting, often the manager, gets frustrated and annoyed. It’s all a downward spiral and the worst meeting culture you can have.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The positive impact of great meetings culture
Every meeting is an opportunity to change the culture you have around meetings. People gravitate towards success and effective meetings are a much better way to achieve that. On the banal, basic level: time saved is money saved. The founders of Basecamp have a great reminder that a one-hour meeting with five people in it isn’t just a one-hour meeting at all. It’s really a five-hour meeting. That meeting has to be worth five hours of productivity for it to be truly effective.
Having multiple bad meetings in a row can be both demotivating and mentally draining. The people involved get stuck with a feeling of no progress, no sense of accomplishment, and no enjoyment in their work. Having a great meeting is about as far away from that as you can get. Good meetings are hubs of creativity, motivation, and affirmation. The whole collaborative aspect of working with other people tends to happen in meeting settings. They’re essential for clear communication, making sure that everyone is on the same page and understands what the next steps are. They can help you get unstuck and push forward with a project or a task if bouncing ideas off other people or getting clear direction is what you needed. Meetings are one of the best opportunities to not just exchange information but to really engage with your colleagues and interact with them. Those are the kind of meetings that are worth having and working towards.
Here is how you can achieve it.
8 elements to adopt for a positive meetings culture
1) Never schedule a meeting without a clear outcome in mind.
The purpose of a meeting should be crystal clear to you, as the person scheduling it, and to every participant. Why are you all here? What are you trying to achieve? You have to figure this out and communicate it clearly. There’s a huge difference between trying to make a decision, keeping everyone updated, or having a coherent discussion. They call for different kinds of meetings and different styles of moderation. Having a clear outcome in mind is even more important than having an agenda because the outcome is what dictates the agenda.
When you schedule a meeting, you should immediately ask yourself: if this meeting goes perfectly, what would the result of it be? Possible desired outcomes are things like:
- Agreement on the next steps of a project
- Exchanging information so that everyone knows what everyone else is up to
- Involving people in a decision that has multiple stakeholders
- A space for social interaction and team-building
If you get invited to a meeting and you aren’t clear on what the desired outcome is, ask! It’s better to say “I’m not actually sure what the purpose of this meeting is” than to sit there and think it.
2) Avoid starting a meeting without an agenda.
This is an old-school favourite. Everyone recommends it and for good reason. Agendas are one of the easiest ways to give a meeting structure. Sometimes not having a clear outcome can be masked by having an agenda because you will still touch on the salient points since you have them written down and visible for everyone. Agendas can rarely be judged as “good” or “bad”. A bullet point list of topics is enough to work with, in the vast majority of cases. Having a standing document where you just jot down topics whenever they come to mind is a good start. That’s a simple solution for recurring meetings.
Sometimes, you should put some effort into crafting an agenda, generally for especially long meetings. In those cases, you need to go back to your outcome and think about what the best way to guide your participants towards that outcome is. Do you need an icebreaker at the start, so that people relax and can get into a topic? Should you set the scene or present background information to make sure everyone’s on the same page? If you’ll be covering multiple topics, what’s the best way to structure them, so that conversation flows naturally from one topic to the next?
Not every meeting has to have an agenda, which is why this rule only recommends “avoiding it”. Having an agenda for any kind of social meeting is a good way to ruin the meeting, although I’d still recommend coming up with topics to prompt discussion beforehand. People tend to be stiffer in more professional environments.
3) Only invite people who have to be there.
There’s something about trying to judge how many people need to be in a shockingly difficult meeting. I’ve worked with a lot of people who prefer to invite everyone, even if they’re only peripherally involved, on the off-chance that one of them would feel left out or miss important information. In those situations, it’s better to document and consciously update people than to have them involved in the discussion, if they don’t need to be.
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if it’s possible to achieve the outcome that you’ve set out without this person’s presence. If yes, would it be the optimal outcome? It’s possible that you can get there (no one is truly irreplaceable) but that they would have valuable input that might change how the meeting turns out. The loss of that could result in a bad decision. That said, it’s also acceptable to ask someone for their input in a different setting, either before or after a meeting. Think this through for every single person in the invite.
Essentially what you want to achieve is a meeting where everyone is engaged and everyone is participating. Having people sit there who aren’t paying attention because they don’t feel like their input is necessary brings down the whole atmosphere and is a waste of their time. The only way to avoid that is to structure the meeting in such a way that it brings value to every person in the invite. It might take a few attempts of inviting too many people or inviting too few before you get the right balance but it’s alright to experiment until you get it right.
4) Give all participants guidance on what to prepare.
If I had to pick one thing that almost no one takes seriously in my experience to date, it’d be preparing for a meeting. Most people tend to show up with full faith that they can wing it and, honestly, that can work. Sometimes. But does it often limit how effective a meeting can be? Most definitely.
If you’re meeting to come to a decision, it’s much better to prepare pros and cons before, ask everyone to think of any additional ones, and to sort out their own thoughts and figure out how to articulate them before they even walk into the room. This way, you’ll have a discussion where everyone starts with the same information and people have already had the opportunity to think it through on their own. You’ll spend a lot less time in the meeting with long pauses because people need time to process and think about something. You’re more likely to cover all your bases because people need time to come up with good feedback. You’ll also have a much more valuable discussion because people won’t feel the need to blurt out the first thought that comes to their minds, which the pressure of thinking on the spot can sometimes lead to.
If what you’re looking for is a laid-back exchange, someone to bounce ideas off, then you can forego the preparation. The ideal and perfect meeting culture would be one where it’s expected that you prepare for every meeting and those situations are the exceptions that prove the rule.
5) Turn up prepared for the meeting.
Obviously, if you’re expecting everyone else to prepare, you should prepare too. If you’re the person calling the meeting, you being prepared could mean the difference between an engaging, successful meeting and a dreary one, where every topic feels a bit like pulling teeth. You cannot direct the conversation in any meaningful way without having first thought about where you want it to go, what kind of interaction you expect, what kind of topics you think will come up and so on.
What’s especially important is taking the time to figure out if any controversial or critical topics are likely to come up. If the purpose of the meeting is to inform everyone of a top-down decision that you already know will be unpopular, think long and hard about how you’ll talk about it, how you’ll reason it and go through every critical question that you think will be raised. You need to show up with your own perspective completely in order and as articulated as you could make it. If you’re still caught out, you need to be willing and able to own up to it. In those situations, you should just say you need some time to look into it and then you’ll get back to the person.
Keep in mind that there’s a big difference between preparation and rehearsing. If your responses sound rehearsed, no one will take you seriously. If you’re prepared because you’ve really thought about a problem, that will be noticeable.
6) Make the meeting interactive.
Assume that everyone who’s in the meeting cares about the topic and wants to participate. You want to give them opportunities to do that. If you’re finding it difficult to get engagement, think about how you can change the style of the meeting to facilitate it.
Post-it notes, that give everyone time to think about something and then have to talk them out, are one of those very simple techniques for an interactive meeting. I like to start my weekly meetings with my team by asking everyone to take stock of the previous week, name one thing that they found fun and one thing that they found challenging. Starting a meeting by inviting everyone to say something will break the ice and make it easier for people to talk later. During remote meetings, sharing your screen is a must. It’s much easier to follow a discussion if everyone is looking at the same information, even if it’s at an empty document that you’re writing notes in.
Putting in just a little more effort to prepare something closer to a workshop, like bringing in models or sketching out a mindmap, can completely change the atmosphere. It’s also likely to give people the impression that they learned something new. That’s one of the best feelings to walk out of a meeting with.
7) Moderate! Be strict.
The idea of a moderator is to have someone present in the meeting whose primary responsibility is to lead the meeting. Good moderation is extremely complex. It takes a long time to learn but everyone has to start somewhere. Moderating involves:
- Directing the discussion so that the desired outcome is achieved.
- Cutting off anything that will derail the meeting. This includes off-topic discussions, as well as getting stuck on very small details that aren’t important.
- To step in if things get too heated for a rational conversation.
- Prompting participants whose opinions are valuable.
- Interceding if there’s an awkward pause or if everyone “gets stuck.”
- Reading the language of the room. Is everyone bored or still listening? Does someone obviously disagree with something but isn’t speaking up? Are people starting to look out the window or at the clock? This is how you assess if the meeting is on track or if you need to shake things up.
- Making sure that the meeting ends on time.
If moderation isn’t something that’s happened in your meetings so far, it might be worth introducing the idea to everyone you regularly meet with so that they understand and respect the role of the moderator. Convince them that it’s worth their time and that it will help meetings become more productive and efficient. If everyone disagrees, don’t try to force it. It will only work if everyone’s on board and knows not to take it personally if you have to step in.
The thing that makes moderating so difficult is achieving the right balance between letting the discussion flow naturally and knowing when to step in. Cutting people off too often is incredibly annoying and frustrating for the people in the meeting. Letting a discussion go on too long can derail the meeting and make it difficult for people to come back to a topic. A moderator has to toe the line between those two. You need to become comfortable with interrupting people and asking them to stay on topic or to leave a topic for a later time. This feels terrible the first few times but it’s better to be strict.
This is also why having a moderator who is mainly interested in participating can be quite risky. It’s very easy to forget to do all those things because you get caught up in the discussion. The moment your focus is on what your opinions are and what you want to say is the moment you’ve stopped moderating.
Keep in mind that it’s better to end a meeting early or to stop for a break in the middle than to ignore the body language of everyone participating. It’s also better to jump in and address moments of conflict than to let everyone notice certain behaviours and not comment. If, for example, someone rolls their eyes at what a presenter says, it’s better to ask them to speak up than to let it go. All of this is something that can be brought in through having a moderator.
Make sure to get feedback on your moderation style afterwards. There’s almost nothing worse for a meeting than a moderator who gives you the feeling that every prompt they make sets the discussion backwards rather than forward. You do not want to be in that position. It’s better to know than to keep doing it.
8) Only schedule a meeting if it absolutely has to be a meeting.
Meetings are often the easiest and quickest solution that comes to mind when you want to talk to someone. In a lot of companies, scheduling a meeting for every discussion is the first resort. This isn’t inherently bad but it easily lends itself to an environment filled with distractions, where meetings take over the entire workday, and people are running from one meeting to the next with barely enough time for a toilet break in between. That isn’t an environment that’s conducive to real productivity.
A better way to think about meetings is that they’re great when they’re necessary. And only when they’re necessary. If a discussion can be resolved in written form, then it’s better to send an email, a Slack message, leave a comment on a Google document, or whatever method is most commonly used in your company. Lots of discussions are too complex to have through writing, need to be resolved more quickly, or involve too many people for a different channel to be ideal. Those are the situations in which you can and should schedule a meeting. It’s important to do it mindfully, with the awareness that you’re interrupting people’s time and with the conviction that it will be useful for everyone attending.
Assessing your success
Before you make any changes, use a 1-5 scale to rate how effective a meeting was. Go through all of your meetings from last week and rate them. Note down specific things that made you go with that rating.
Then start implementing some of these. You don’t need to do all of them at the same time. One or two is enough of a starting point. Not all of these are necessary for every meeting but the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. You’ll be able to forego going through every single step because so much of it will happen naturally, without you even thinking about it. Running good meetings is a skill like any other. It simply takes time and practice.
After the first week or two, use the scale again. How would you rate your most recent meetings? Did they get better? If yes, what do you feel changed? If no, where is it not working? Then make some changes and re-assess again. All of these suggestions have to be tailored for your individual environment, so figure out how to make it work there.
To help you on your journey, we’re working on creating the following resources for you. If any of them sound appealing, feel free to let us know and we’ll prioritise it.
- A template to use our 1-5 scale that will guide you through assessing your meetings.
- A step-by-step guide for how to improve your meetings culture.
- A cheatsheet for a moderator that can be used for training and to practice.
In the meanwhile, read anything you didn’t like? Tried any of these out? Let us know! We’d love to hear about your experience.