The Perfect Meeting

We’ve all wasted incalculable numbers of hours sitting in pointless meetings.

Many jobs require people to attend a seemingly endless parade of meetings–from one to the next, all day. Yet what actually gets accomplished in these things? For those of us where meetings aren’t a regular part of everyday job functions, they can seem foreign, unnecessary, and downright wasteful.

And the symptoms of poor meetings–participants staring into laptops or typing away at phones, attendees arriving late or leaving early, one or two people dominating the entire discussion, rambling, rathole-ridden discussions–are all too common.

It may sound like I’m anti-meetings, but I’m not. I’m against wasteful meetings. Meetings where it would’ve been more productive to conduct a smaller email thread among a smaller number of participants than to waste an entire group’s time. Meetings where no consensus is reached or decision is made, despite dragging on for an hour or more. Meetings that start late and stretch past their end time.

These meetings are a drudge. But meetings can be a pleasurable, useful means of getting a team on the same page, reaching group consensus, or brainstorming ideas. In order to get the most value out of meetings, there’s certain ground rules that organizers and participants need to agree upon.

The perfect meeting…

Has an agenda

Open-ended meetings without a goal or outcome simply should not exist. They shouldn’t be scheduled and they shouldn’t be attended. But they are–all too often. Meetings like this are usually called at the pleasure of the boss. These meetings are held ostensibly so that the boss (CEO, executive, higher-level manager, etc.) gets a status update from her reports in order to get a picture of current projects and initiatives. This is a useful meeting goal, but the way it’s conducted is not. Even a status update meeting can have a set, predictable agenda that all participants know in advance.

Requires attendees to come prepared

Every meeting invite must have a list of goals and a list of topics that will be discussed. That way attendees can prepare—investigate or research the topics that are to be covered. And the expectation must be that everyone will come prepared. Otherwise half of the meeting is spent trying to get everyone on the same page; if there’s just one important stakeholder that must be brought up to speed, it’s a waste of everyone else’s time.

Requiring that attendees come prepared requires that the right attendees are invited to the meeting in the first place. Including people who have nothing to contribute just to “keep them in the loop” is a discourtesy to them and is disrespectful of their time. These people can be “kept in the loop” by other means (more on this later). If certain attendees will be valuable for certain portions of the meeting, then structure the meeting so that they only have to attend part of it–leaving early or coming in later as needed.

Is actionable…

Every meeting must have action items coming out of it. Otherwise, what was the point of holding it in the first place? Direct, achievable actions that can be followed-up upon.

Francis will get the number of users who used the new messaging feature on the website last month. Audrey will get the customer satisfaction numbers from the Customer Service group for the last quarter.

…has follow up…

If it’s a recurring series of meetings, then spending the first five minutes recapping what happened last time and following up on the last meeting’s action items is extremely important for keeping people accountable. The recap is also useful for attendees who were absent from the last meeting.

…And wrap up

The last five minutes should be used to recap what happened in the meeting–the major points that were hit on and the conclusions that were made–and reaffirm follow-up assignments. This is so that there’s no ambiguity and everyone leaves the room on the same page.

This recap should also be emailed out to all attendees so that there’s a searchable archive of the meeting. There’s been too many times where I’m talking to team members and we all remember making a decision about a topic but we don’t remember the particulars of the discussion or why we even made that decision. This email can also be CC-ed to other ancillary colleagues who don’t need to attend the meeting but should be aware of its outcome.

Is concise and on point

Every meeting must start on time. Because when you delay by waiting for the one or two stragglers, that says to everyone else that it’s okay to be late; it’s okay to waste everyone else’s time. If there’s phone or video setup required, then it should done before the meeting starts, not during the first five minutes of the meeting as everyone sits around awkwardly watching the meeting organizer troubleshoot a phone setup.

Stay on track–discourage chit-chat and idle conversation and quell rathole conversations. There’s a time and a place for personal conversations and off-topic brainstorming1, but not in the middle of a meeting–at everyone else’s expense.

Some people find timeboxing useful. This can be helpful if a group has problems staying on topic and moving through the agenda.

Just because the calendar software creates meetings for one hour doesn’t mean that meetings have to last 60 minutes. In fact, no meeting should extend to the full calendered time. If some attendees want to catch up or follow up on something offline, then they have the opportunity to do so when the meeting ends early.

Doesn’t happen

With remote workers and plenty of software alternatives, the notion of a face-to-face, everyone-in-the-same-room-at-the-same-time event sounds almost antiquated. Software like Basecamp, company intranet communication software, or even email, can help accomplish some of the same things as meetings–consensus, group communication, status updates, and decision-making–without requiring synchronous presence by all participants. Rarely is a meeting so time sensitive that it can’t be done in an asynchronous manner. Before automatically scheduling another meeting, ask yourself–do we need a meeting for this, or will email suffice?

This is when a meeting works. These ground rules may sound overly harsh, but they aren’t2. Enforcing basic, reasonable meeting protocol is much more respectful of attendees’ time than is not cutting off that one rambling, off-topic guy who can take the meeting off track.

Much of what makes a good meeting relies on the meeting organizer to apply correctly. If this person isn’t willing to start the meeting on time, stay on point, end rathole discussions, and come to the meeting with an outcome in mind, then everyone involved must suffer another wasted, poor meeting.

But even as just a meeting attendee, you have the ability to improve the meetings you’re involved with. Prior to the meeting, if the invite doesn’t have any background information or goals or outcomes listed, you can respectfully reply.

I notice there isn’t much background information on this topic we’ll be discussing. I’d like the time we all have together to be a success. Is there anything we can all do to come prepared so that we hit the ground running on Tuesday?

Most reasonable, responsible colleagues and bosses want to participate in useful, productive meetings–even if they don’t know how to conduct them properly. By respectfully offering suggestions on how your meetings can be improved, you can save yourself–and your colleagues–countless hours of tedium and frustration.

Or by taking your own meeting notes and offering to email those with the organizer and the rest of the attendees, you can help ensure that everyone’s on the same page and that the people with actionable items coming out of the meeting will follow through on their intent.

Its impossible to find any non-lame business meeting photos

  1. Brainstorming sessions are another type of meeting altogether and worthy of their own exploration.

  2. Just my way of communicating them :)