Why doesn't someone fix meetings? (Part 1)

Have you ever gotten to the end of a day and looked back and wondered what it was you accomplished all day long? You were in back-to-back meetings for most of it, hardly a moment to get a bite to eat, and yet… What actually happened?

I think we’ve all had days like that. But why are some of those meetings so… Unproductive?

An early 2010s billboard from GPS maker TomTom proclaimed:

You are not stuck in traffic.

You are traffic.

We are desperate for a “solution” to this neverending “meeting problem,” but the question we never seem ready to ask ourselves is… What can I bring to improve this situation? Well, let’s get into that.

This is part one of a multi-part series. In this article, I focus on the low-hanging fruit: how to be a stellar meeting organizer.

• • •

In the 1976 John Cleese short film, “Meetings, Bloody Meetings,” the wife of Cleese’s character remarks that an appearance in court is basically the same thing as a meeting.

“They’re nothing like each other at all!” Cleese’s character retorts.

“In a court you have rules, procedures. It’s all organized. In a meeting you just… meet.”

Of course, in real life all meetings have some kind of a topic or goal. Unfortunately, a topic (or even a goal) is not sufficient to ensure the success of a meeting.

As the organizer, how can you ensure the meeting’s success?

• • •

Should this meeting be an email?

As you’re contemplating this meeting that you are about to organize, consider these questions:

  • What would the consequences be if this meeting did not happen?
  • What do you need from each person you would consider inviting?
  • Is there an objective that could not be accomplished through a collaborative document and/or an email or Slack chat?
  • What is the risk of trying one of those asynchronous approaches first?

The number one top method for avoiding unproductive, frustrating, pointless meetings is to not have them. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool extrovert and you love face-to-face collaboration, consider even more carefully whether a synchronous gathering is necessary.

Chair with due thought and preparation

Cleese’s character falls asleep, and in his dream he’s put on trial for his bad meeting behavior. The first charge he’s accused of is “chairing without due thought and preparation.”

The cardinal sin of meetings is calling a meeting without properly organizing it. So what does it look like to properly organize a meeting? Here are my “table stakes” prerequisites:

Set an agenda!

At my last job, we used to say “no agenda, no attenda.” A good agenda ensures that everyone in the meeting understands the expectations.

“Talk through our goals for Q3” is not an agenda. That is an activity (and not a great one at that). An agenda looks like this:

Objective: commit to our Q3 roadmap

  • 30m review the Q3 OKR sheet & solicit feedback
  • 50m address issues raised; issues will be resolved or dismissed
  • 10m commit to next steps

A good agenda:

  • Defines the purpose of the meeting, not just what activities will take place
  • Time-boxes each activity
  • Sets expectations for the outcome of each activity
  • Provides all necessary context (documents, etc.)
  • Embeds time for processing provided materials

An effective agenda is accompanied by links or attachments to any documents or other context necessary to carry out the objective of the meeting. If the objective is to commit to Q3 goals, the invitation should provide access to the list of Q3 goals.

With rare exception, few invitees to a meeting will carve out time to complete assigned pre-work. As Amazon discovered, it’s much easier to allocate time in the meeting itself for everyone to do the expected work (like reading a brief, commenting on an RFC, etc.) Attendees have committed that time already so it is easy for them to meet your expectations.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Every minute you spend creating a successful meeting structure will pay back in time saved in the meeting itself. Do not underestimate that investment.

Invite contributors

Rather than inviting anyone who could be interested, invite only people who will be able to make a positive contribution, and make that as few people as possible.

Artistic rendering of Jeffrey Bezos eating pizza, by Midjourney AI

Jeffrey Bezos1 famously created the “two-pizza” rule, meaning that a meeting (or team) shouldn’t have more people than two pizzas could feed. Use your own common sense, but I think two pizzas is a good starting place.

If there are folks who only need to be informed of the meeting’s discoveries or conclusions, send them a follow-up and/or include them on the shared documents used in the meeting. It saves everyone’s time and keeps your meeting more focused.

Manage and guard time jealously

As Andy Grove wrote, “time is your one finite resource.” If you want this meeting to end on time (and who doesn’t want that?) you need to set expectations and guard them.

That may mean setting time limits for speakers, but it ensures that everyone will have a chance to speak. You can have fun with it, use sound effects or novelty timers or whatever you want, but be firm.

Everyone speaks

Ensure that everyone receives the same opportunities to contribute. If anyone’s view is less important than others', why did you invite them? If anyone is visibly having difficulty joining in, call on them.

The main ingredient of a diverse, high-performing team is equality of contribution, and as the meeting organizer it’s your responsibility to create the environment in which all contributions are heard.

Define next steps

A habit I learned long ago is to end the meeting by asking “who will do what by when?”

Sometimes we jump to listing out “next steps” or “action items” and assume who will do them, or presume that the group will figure out how to get them done. If you’re going to take the time to define tasks, assign responsibility for them as well.

An important rule that I follow is “one task, one assignee.” That person is free to delegate or collaborate, but the only way to ensure that things get done is for one person to be held accountable for each task.

• • •

That was a lot! I hope there was something useful in there. If you took something away from this, or have feedback, please write to me!

Questions

  1. What is one characteristic of a great agenda that you can commit to adding to all of your meetings starting today?

  2. How do you nurture and defend equality of contribution in your meetings?

  3. What is the most frequent failure mode for meetings that you have seen? What mitigation might exist for it?


  1. CEO, entrepreneur. Born in 1964. ↩︎

Lead image by Midjourney AI

Comments