9 tried and tested ways to improve meetings in your business
What makes a shit meeting? I bet you can give me loads of things. Endless waffling. Unfocused agendas. No tangible actions. The list goes on. Whenever I get Executives together to discuss meetings, there’s always complete agreement. It’s easy to spot all the things that are bad about meetings. But less easy to work out how to fix them.
Slating the whole idea of meetings has gained traction recently. I’ve read articles that urge companies to ditch them entirely. One made my blood boil. Cancelling meetings would ‘improve the efficiency of your team’. The company featured had two days with no meetings, and their employees claimed that they’d been more productive and accountable.
Sorry – but that’s bollox! It’s like employees saying they were more productive during the pandemic because they worked from home. What they meant was they were working longer hours. Microsoft’s data didn’t show any increase in output. Just that employees were working well into the evening.
Sure, if you didn’t have to go to a meeting, you’d have more time to do other stuff. But the premise of this article was that meetings are an unnecessary waste of time. I happen to think the opposite. When human beings come together to collaborate, that is our superpower. Talented people can do great work in meetings. Then that time is incredibly well spent.
Meetings are where the rubber hits the road. They’re the living embodiment of your culture. Give me one hour observing a meeting in your business, and it will tell me everything I need to know about your company. Don’t cancel them. Make them better.
1. Collective accountability
First, and most important. Make sure everyone knows that they’re accountable for the success of your meetings. This applies equally to every person that attends. People will give you a hundred things that are wrong with your meetings. But they don’t think it’s their job to fix them. It is.
Changing the nature of meetings requires you to learn new ways of doing things and unlearn bad habits. This can be hard. It takes effort and time – a deliberate practice that you have all prioritised as necessary.
Everyone needs to understand the importance of getting this right. Meetings are where people can put their work into context, grasping the meaning of what they’re doing and seeing whether it’s relevant. Feedback can be delivered along with feelings of self-worth and achievement.
2. A regular rhythm that’s set in stone
Internal meetings need to be prioritised in the same way as external meetings. They’re as important, if not more! Teams should meet weekly – this includes the Executive team. Weekly means that things don’t get out of control, and there’s a cadence. In any business I’ve been in, stuff can change quickly, so this regular rhythm is essential.
The time and day of the meeting should be set in stone. Too often, companies change this – one week, the team meeting’s at 9am on a Tuesday, the next it’s 11am on a Thursday. No! Make it a consistent, regular drumbeat. It should be in everyone’s diary for the following year. Only death or a note from your mum can excuse you!
It’s pretty common to find employees using the company values in a toxic way. How often have you heard people say they couldn’t make an internal meeting because ‘customers come first’. Their excuse is this was the only time a customer could make it. Bollox again! That’s a total lie. If they’re a leader, they should be fired. This behaviour is disrespectful and childish.
3. Only invite people who will contribute
Meetings are for collaboration. For solving problems. They’re not for communication. Do that via a webinar or recorded presentation if you need to communicate.
There should be no ‘optional’ attendees on your list. And there should be no facility for people to reply as ‘tentative’. Tell people they’ll have their fingers cut off if they click them! Only invite people who are going to contribute. Then, they know active participation is a requirement if they’ve been asked. No spectators.
If there’s pre-work to be done, make this clear. What needs to be done, and who’s going to do it. Don’t waste meeting time by presenting papers. Instead, make sure everyone has done the reading beforehand and comes prepared. OR do as Amazon do and have the first period of the meeting for reading the papers. Having a set format for the papers ensures brevity and no PowerPoint.
4. Agree on roles
Facilitating a meeting successfully is a skill, so don’t automatically make the person who called the meeting the chair or facilitator. They may be crap at taking the lead or need to be an active participant. It’s tough to facilitate and participate, so pick the best person or rotate to give everyone experience.
Find yourself a note-taker who can take notes for everyone in a ‘www’ format (Who, What, When). They can update Google Docs (or whatever shared system you use) live as the meeting progresses. If you use OKRs, these can be captured as an objective, and the team can agree on key results. By setting the success criteria, the person tasked with the objective can report back on progress. When the action’s captured, you can say, ‘Is that right? Do you own this action and these deliverables?’ A great way to build accountability.
And make sure you have a timekeeper. Starting and finishing on time is crucial.
5. Start with good news
I always recommend this. You want to get off to a good start with some positive discussion. And going around the room means everyone is participating from the start. Yes – people may cringe to start with. But they’ll soon get used to it. In no time, starting like this will become second nature.
Here, you’re creating psychological safety – creating a safe space for people to speak up. Their good news could be personal or professional. Maybe you could guide it more specifically to get everyone to say what they’re most proud of over the last 90 days. I have a stack of cards I bought off Amazon – each person pulls one out of the deck. The questions range from where you were born to the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your life—this stuff matters. People feel closer when they understand more about each other. Teams that have been working together for years can still surprise each other.
6. Set the context and parameters of your meeting
Discuss the context of the meeting. What problem are you here to solve? What progress can you make in this hour to make everyone feel it’s been a productive meeting? Make a list of the issues you need to work through and prioritise them.
Prepare by thinking about outputs, not updates and make the discussion as output-oriented as possible. Sometimes you’ll find people talking about things that aren’t on the agenda. A way to stop this is for everyone to agree on the things to be covered within the time available. This can be done after giving the ‘good news’. Ensure all items to be discussed are clearly on the agenda. Ditch AOB (or Any Other Bollox, as I like to call it!). If you have something you want to cover, put it on the agenda at the beginning.
Prioritise the items. Cover the most pressing first. Once that’s all done, get a commitment from everyone in the room that they are going to participate fully.
7. Think about the environment
How many meetings have you been to where people are only half present? Why? Because they’re checking their emails or instant messaging about something utterly unrelated to the discussion around them.
My view is that all tech should be banned from meetings. This will minimise distractions and ensure that the conversation is focused on what’s essential – the objectives of the meeting.
We often take out the table when we have clients here on the farm. Everyone sits in a circle. Then there’s nowhere to put their tech – they have to leave it in their bag. Engagement is better when we do this, and if people are bored, we can see it. People are fully present, and the sessions are more impactful..
Put some consideration into the environment of your meetings. Daily huddles are best done standing up in our experience. Same with virtual meetings. Get everyone to stand, even if they’re at home. This will give more energy to discussion and ensure they don’t drag on.
8. Rate all meetings out of 10
Always work from the perspective of seeking criticism to gain improvement. So, leave time for people to give feedback at the end of the meeting. How would you rate this meeting on a scale of one to ten? Your aim is for all meetings to be level 10. What feedback would you give to participants? Is it thumbs up or thumbs down — and why? Did the facilitator do a great job or not? Give them some feedback.
If the meeting went too long, adjust the timing for next week. Standard default lengths of time in diaries shouldn’t be in blocks of 60 minutes. Consider making the default 15 minutes. When people want to book a meeting with me, I tell them I can give them 15 minutes. But I have an automatic 15-minute buffer, meaning I can run for half an hour if necessary. This focuses people’s minds to try hard to get value out of the allotted time.
And don’t book meetings back-to-back. Everyone needs a loo break and a coffee!
9. Ensure equal airtime
Ah yes – this is a good one. Whenever you gather a group of people together, there will be a small number of people who take up most of the airtime—the extroverts. I always start with good news to mirror shared airtime and vulnerability.
Your facilitator needs to be good at ensuring everyone gets the chance to speak. I like to use red and yellow cards as a quick way of communicating when someone’s gone on too long. Ensure everyone knows that shared airtime is an objective and yellow card them if they talk too much. Red cards are the last resort. They have to shut up for 10 minutes after being shown one of these.
When I was at Peer 1, we had a guy called Ryan on our team. He was an off-the-scale introvert and needed an entire 30-second gap in discussion before he’d pipe up. We did an off-site, and I dont think he spoke for the whole of the two days! He was happy to sit with it all going on in his head. And yet, when he did speak, he always had something profound and valuable to contribute. So, whoever was facilitating needed to be deliberate about shutting up the extroverts to give Ryan the time and space to make his contribution.