Boring, Pointless Meetings? They Don’t Need To Be That Way
Have you ever felt like you’ve wasted your time by being in a meeting? I bet there isn’t anyone who wouldn’t put their hand up for that one.
In fact, when I’m working with a group of people or speaking in public, I often ask that question and everybody does give an emphatic “yes”. We’ve all experienced frustration of some kind while in a meeting, and we all know the joke that meetings are the only paid alternative to working for a living. So, why don’t people, and organisations, do something about it? Perhaps it’s because there are some norms of behaviour in the organisation that say this is how we run our meetings, and you can’t change it. But we should be able to change it. Who wants to waste their time sat in a meeting they don’t need to be at? Or one that has no point to it?
Who knew James T. Kirk, Captain of the USS Enterprise got it so right: “A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”
Here’s a framework that can be used for meetings where you’re trying to solve some kind of organisational problem. I know this won’t work for all standing meetings (huddles, All-Hands etc) but many of the ideas transfer:
1) The Invitation
When an invitation is sent, let’s make sure people know whether they should really be there or not. Give them a context. Tell them what the meeting is for, what will be covered and what you want to achieve. Then people can look at that and understand why it is they’re invited. Or, if they don’t think they need to be there, they don’t need to accept! I know people don’t always feel they can do that, so I say to clients make it a social norm in your organisation that attendee attendance is optional.
What I find REALLY odd is when people invite me to a meeting as an ‘optional attendee’. Optional? What does that mean? Does it mean I can come if I want to? That you want me to know you’re having a meeting, but I don’t need to attend? Maybe there’s some unwritten etiquette that I don’t understand, but I always feel when I get sent a meeting request for which I am optional that somebody is asking me if I’d like to waste my time! And does that mean if it’s optional then don’t do the prep? It’s just confusing.
2) The Rule Of 7
Try to keep the number of people in the meeting to as few as possible to achieve the desired outcome. The book, Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization, says that once you’ve got seven people in a group, each additional member reduces decision effectiveness by 10%. If you run above 7 you’re then into communication rather than decision making. So, let’s try to keep meetings small.
3) Start With Good News
We want to create a safe place for people to speak out. They need to feel they can say what they want, and a way of doing that is by getting everyone to share some good news right at the start of the meeting. Get off to a good start with positive news. This helps create Psychological Safety which, according to Google’s research (Project Aristotle), is the main component of effective teams. They write: “Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”
4) Set Rules
Each organisation should have a clear definition of how it runs meetings. Are you allowed to do your shopping online and pay no attention to what’s being said? If you’re not in the meeting to catch up on emails or to write a shopping list, then the rule should be no tech allowed.
If you’ve got to run a conference call then try to use video conferencing. If you know people can see what you’re up to it stops the attention wandering and drives better, shorter meetings.
Don’t we all know that one person who, in every meeting, takes over. They love the sound of their own voice and don’t give anyone else a chance to speak, so instead of letting that happen each time what about a rule giving everyone equal airtime. Another extract from Google’s research (Project Aristotle) is that the best teams allow all participants to have their say. One of the roles of the chair or facilitator is to ensure that this unusual habit becomes the norm.
Sometimes you’ll find people talking about things that aren’t on the agenda. A way to stop that is to reaffirm what is to be covered within the time available. This can be done after giving the ‘good news’. Get agreement on the context of the meeting and then ensure all items to be discussed are clearly on the agenda. No AOB (any other bollo***) at the end of the meeting any more. If you have something you want to cover, put it on the agenda at the beginning. I know you’ve already set out what you want to accomplish in your original invitation, but let’s go back over it because things may have changed since the invitation was sent. It might be that a different problem needs solving. 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.
5) Set The Roles
Facilitating a meeting successfully is a skill so don’t automatically make the person who called the meeting the chair or facilitator (whatever your organisation calls that person). The person who called the meeting may be rubbish at taking the lead or might want 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. Someone who can update One Note, Google Docs (whatever shared system you use) live as the meeting progresses. This way people know where to find the information once it finishes, with no need to email out updates once the meeting is at an end. During the meeting, everyone can focus on the discussion.
It might be worthwhile thinking about whether you want to record the meeting. What the American billionaire investor, Ray Dalio, does at Bridgewater is video every meeting. Some organisations record audio. It just means that if there is ever a debate or a discussion about who said what you can go back and find it. Or if a meeting didn’t go as planned you can rerun the tape and learn from the experience.
Make sure you have a timekeeper. You need to start and finish on time (because a lot of the time they don’t, and it’s annoying). You need to make sure you finish in time for feedback, which brings me nicely onto…..
6) Rate The Meeting
Always leave time at the end of the meeting for people to give feedback. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate this meeting? What feedback would you give to participants? Is it thumbs up, or thumbs down — and why? This will help to improve meetings for next time. Did the facilitator do a great job or not? Give them some feedback.
7) Respect People’s Time
I think I’ve spent large trenches of my life in meetings I didn’t need to be in. Or sometimes I would need to be there for a small part, and the rest was of no interest to me. So, maybe we need to make sure people know they can leave if they want to. If they’ve covered their part, and the rest is no longer relevant, they can go because we recognise they’ve got other stuff they could be doing. We respect their time. And if you’re needed for agenda item number 6, but not before, ask for someone to message you when it’s nearly time for that part of the meeting, and come back. There’s no point sitting through 40 minutes of stuff you’re not interested in!
Elon Musk is of the same opinion. He wrote a memo to all his staff at Tesla Motors and it included the advice: “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time”.
8) 50 Minute Meetings
Why do nearly all organisations usually set meetings for an hour? If I’ve got back to back meetings, how am I physically going to get from one to the other, when one finishes at midday and the other begins at midday? Unless they’re in the same room. But even then, that extra ten minutes allows you time to check up on emails (remember we’ve got a rule for no tech so you haven’t checked them in a while), or just go to the toilet!
9) The Parking Lot
Sometimes we just don’t have enough time to get through everything on the agenda. In those cases, the leftovers can be moved to the ‘Parking Lot’. That list of items that still need to be resolved and we can talk about next time or they become separate meetings in their own right.
I know many other people might add “follow up” onto the end of this list, but I won’t. If the note taker is writing everything down as we go along, and saving it to a shared system, we can all look at that afterwards. And, if someone says they will do something by a certain time, it’s their job to do it. Trust them.