If you’re a “knowledge worker” in a “normal” company, meetings will be a familiar occurrence in your calendar, more so now with a lot of work-from-home/remote workers. In my experience, while there is an infinite amount of ways to run ineffective meetings, effective meetings tend to all look kind of similar.
I’ll be focusing here on the usual half-an-hour to an hour or two meeting trying to “move things forward” and give you some ideas how you can improve those. Before implementing things, please do take the time to make sure that the goals you’re trying to achieve in a meeting are aligned with the goals outlined below. Not all meetings fall into the category I’m covering here. For example, offsites, 15 minute standups, team discussions, etc. likely require a different treatment because they address different needs. If you’re meeting over lunch to improve the team spirit, trying to turn that into an “effective meeting” as outlined here will probably achieve the opposite result.
Why are we meeting?
Before we start, we need to take a step back. In my opinion, if there’s a meeting, there should be a goal associated with it. That goal should be one of those two:
- Provide information without immediate decision making/task assignment – this covers everything from a weekly status update to a presentation of some work.
- Provide information with immediate decision making/task assignment.
If you’re not providing any information, then the first kind of meeting is pointless, and the second one will result in bad decisions as some decision makers will be missing information. There’s of course the unlikely case that everyone has the information needed to make a decision, then your meeting should be rather short. One thing you should also keep in mind here that decision making can also mean that no decision is taken and things get postponed. That’s perfectly fine!
It’s easy to see that providing information has to be part of every meeting, otherwise you’re not gaining anything from it. Before we look at how to convey the information, we need to answer another question first: How valuable is the information?
The value of a
meeting piece of information
The reason for quantifying the value is simple: If you want to optimize something, you need to measure it first. That may feel really complicated for a meeting – what metric should we use? How the heck do I quantify a meeting? Clearly a simple metric – for example, the number of action items provided – is not going to cut it. However, we just said that providing information is at the core of a meeting, so if we could quantify the value of the information we could maybe get somewhere. While this may sound equally difficult at first, in my opinion, there’s a great way to quantify any kind of information:
- How much does it change your behavior?
- How quickly does it change?
This is a simple method which works well when it comes to a piece of information. If I tell you the lottery numbers for next week, you’ll likely change your behavior immediately. This makes it a piece of high value information. If I tell you the weather forecast for next year, you may change your behavior (install an A/C, or something), but it’s unlikely it’ll happen immediately. And if I tell you that a brand new TV has come out but you already have one, you make take a note, but your behavior will not change much and not anytime soon, so this is a not very valuable information. To put it into a plot, you want to be in the top-right corner all the time if you can help it:
In my opinion, meetings should be measured using the same metric. A good meeting should cause people to act differently afterwards. A bad meeting results in everyone continuing as before. This also implies that even if your information may not be that fantastic to start with, ending a meeting by making decisions/assigning tasks increases the value as it will result in behavior changes. After all, someone will not do the other thing that you made a decision on; or someone will not take on a task that wasn’t assigned to them.
Applying optimization techniques
Armed with that information (which is valuable, as we can immediately apply it!) we can now try to optimize our metric. Interestingly, for both kinds of meetings, the same guidelines apply:
- Only include people who are directly affected. That requires some discipline from everyone as being invited to meetings makes you feel important, but do check what value you get out of it. How does it help our metric? It increases the chance that the people in the meeting will be the ones changing their behavior as there are no bystanders.
Provide information up-front to quickly move into the process of assigning actions, as much as possible. This means:
Always have an agenda. That’s the absolute minimum of pre-meeting information that must be shared.
- If you have slides, send them ahead of the meeting so everyone can read them.
- Ideally: Provide some text that gets everyone up to speed, as text has higher information density than slides. It also requires more effort on the producer/consumer side, so it more likely gets the message across.
How does this help? It ensures that information is available and shortens the time on bringing everyone onto the same page.
Start with a quick review of the information provided, the motivation, and the ask you have. How does this help our metric? It makes sure that people who shouldn’t be there can leave, and helps everyone agree on the desired outcome. This makes it again more likely people will act on it.
- Always take notes: Make sure to not continue on the notes from the last meeting, but specifically what was covered in that particular instance. Meeting recordings are not nearly as valuable as good meeting notes, as you can’t review a recording quickly. How does this help our cause? Meeting notes document the commitments made, so everyone is clear on the next steps.
Amazon is famously known for taking the “prepare text before meetings” to an extreme. Supposedly, they not only require a multi-page written document, but they also force everyone to read through it during the allocated meeting time. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of very rigid process, but I can see how this can work. In my experience, one-two pages of text already provide you with 80% of the value of having text in the first place. Going in with no preparation however is a sure way to waste everyone’s time.
All right, let’s get rolling. We got our agenda dialed in, the invite has all the information everyone needs, and it’s showtime! While good preparation is a prerequisite, a meeting can still derail if you don’t notice bad patterns. Did you encounter any of the following behaviors in a meeting:
- Someone is bringing up anecdotes.
- More than five people trying to make a decision?
- Are you revisiting recently made decisions?
- People advice for caution and don’t want to make decisions?
- Decisions get delegated into “working groups”?
If so, congratulations, there’s a good chance you have someone who read the “Simple Sabotage Field Manual”, as all the techniques above (and a few more) have been found highly effective at sabotaging meetings. Call those behaviors out when you see them, even if you’re sure that you have no spies working for the competition in a call.
Seriously though, being aware of anti-patterns is as least as important as having a good meeting setup. Once you are aware of them, it’s easy to avoid them: For example, revisiting should not happen a lot because meetings have notes about actions taken and a rationale, and unless new information has been gathered which clearly shows the decision was made based on flawed data (this occurs very rarely in practice!) there’s no point in rehashing things.
There are of course more indicators of a meeting going wrong, but the majority of them can be spotted if you remind yourself of the guidelines above. Lots of watchers in the dark silently enduring the meeting? Chances are, you invited the wrong group, or your meeting notes are so bad people want to experience things first hand. Endless discussions on minute details of the plan? The information that was shared up-front was probably no good. In general, a meeting should be approached with a clear goal, and if you do want a specific outcome, you’re going to sidestep most of the problems mentioned.
I hope with this post you got some new ideas how to improve the meetings you’re calling or you’re in. There’s one last remark I’d like to make here: Don’t be afraid to call out the cost and cancel meetings which will not result in immediate action. Besides all the cost to the business, there’s another much more valuable currency you have to pay with: Your lifetime, as none of us lives long enough that we can afford spending time in pointless meetings.