You don’t need to shun meetings to be productive.
A well-run meeting is a high-leverage activity, sparking actions that deliver more value than the cost of the meeting itself. The danger to productivity is not meetings – it’s ineffective meetings.
Instead of hiding from meetings, we should strive to make them effective. This article outlines ten golden rules I’ve learnt for making meetings valuable and productive.
Schedule Less Time Than You Think
Most calendars schedule meetings in thirty-minute increments. And yet, no meeting needs to be thirty-minutes long. Meetings should either be shorter or considerably longer.
Short meetings should be twenty minutes or less. That’s more than enough time to discuss an issue, take a decision, and get back to work. This is especially true if you don’t spend five minutes discussing the weather before you begin.
You may be thinking: “All my meetings are half-an-hour long and we use every minute!” But that’s just Parkinson’s Law in action. A twenty-minute meeting will easily expand to fill thirty minutes if you allow it to.
Some meetings need more time to explore an issue in depth. I find forty-five minutes about the right length for that. Any longer and people lose interest and enthusiasm. Don’t default to an hour, just because your calendar software wants you to.
If in doubt, schedule shorter meetings than you think. Parkinson’s Law works in both directions, so you’ll magically get everything done even with less time.
Avoid Optional Attendees
I hate getting optional invites to a meeting. What does that even mean? Please attend this if you have nothing better to do?
Effective meetings involve the fewest people for the minimum amount of time. Don’t invite people to massage egos, or to keep people informed of topics. There are more effective ways to do that.
For recurring meetings, don’t be afraid to shrink the attendee list over time. If Sophie hasn’t contributed to the last four meetings, she probably doesn’t need to attend any more. Don’t worry about hurting her feelings – most people are relieved to be rid of meetings.
Equally, if you start a meeting and realise someone is superfluous, let them know. It’s not offensive – you’re giving them the gift of twenty minutes back. Say something like “Lucas, I think we can handle this without you, if you’d like to escape?”. I like using the word “escape” because it suggests it’s OK to leave.
Set Prep Work for Attendees
Amazon has a fascinating practice where the first part of a meeting is spent reading in silence. Meeting organisers draft a “six-pager”, which outlines the issues and sets up the context for the meeting.
While Amazon has reasons for doing this, I prefer people do their prep work before they come to the meeting. This means the meeting can be as short as possible.
Prep work may involve reviewing a presentation or document and coming to the meeting with constructive feedback. You may not need the meeting if the feedback can be shared over email. Brainstorming is also a process best done before the meeting – people don’t need to be in the same room to generate a collection of ideas.
I prefer this approach because it allows attendees to choose when they do their preparation. The Amazon approach feels presumptuous by comparison.
The only risk with my approach is that attendees don’t bother to do the work before they arrive. There’s no magic solution to this, but I find people soon get on board if they discover everyone else has done their prep and they didn’t.
Create a Game Plan for Larger Meetings
When planning a meeting with ten or more people, you need to think about how to engage everyone. This is especially true with remote meetings.
In any large group, loud individuals will dominate the conversation and drown out quieter colleagues. To avoid this, plan a strategy for extracting views from everyone in the meeting.
There are many tactics you can employ, and I won’t list them all here. It can be a simple as chairing the meeting firmly, ensuring everyone has a few minutes to share their views. Or you can use techniques like brainwriting, to gather creative inputs from a large group.
Whatever you choose, just be sure you have a strategy. Otherwise, you’ll just get Jeff’s views on everything. Again.
Start on Time
I’ve worked in companies where everyone arrives late to meetings. Everyone overruns their previous meeting, then grabs a coffee before arriving at yours. It quickly becomes a cultural norm, ensuring the first five minutes are wasted in every meeting.
This frustrating habit sets a precedent that is difficult to break for important meetings, such as those with a customer. It’s hard to get people to be on time for a subset of their meetings when they can turn up to the rest whenever they want.
If your company already operates this way it may be too late, especially if you’re not the boss. But you can make small efforts by ensuring you start all your meetings bang on time. After a grace period of thirty seconds, start with your agenda. When latecomers arrive, either bring them up to speed or let them suffer in ignorance. Whichever option you take, the shame should encourage better timekeeping in future.
Reiterate the Agenda
At the start of your meeting, run through the agenda and explain the reason you called everyone together.
This serves three purposes. First, it ensures everyone has the same view of what the meeting is about. I find this especially useful when speaking with customers. A nice way to kick off a customer call is asking: “What would make this a useful meeting for you?” This is particularly effective in introductory calls.
The second benefit of discussing the agenda is to give attendees an opportunity to suggest amendments. This avoids someone raising a critical point with three minutes left to go in the meeting.
The final benefit is creating a sense of urgency. Running through the agenda focuses everyone on the reason why they’re here. It can act as a segue from the inevitable opening small talk to the high-leverage activity you’ve come to do.
Reinforce Actions and Decisions
As your meeting unfolds, decisions and actions will appear. To avoid confusion after the meeting, clarify the decision or action before you continue. This ensures everyone has the same view on what was decided and who should own the action.
For instance, in a meeting about a monthly social event, someone might suggest: “Let’s send out an invite a week ahead, so people can plan.” The group might nod at this and continue the conversation. At this point, you should interject and ask “OK, are we deciding to do the invite thing? Great. Who is going to take that action?”.
Make sure actions are assigned to one person, only. If a bunch of people throw their names in to help, ensure one person is accountable and the rest are assistants. In my experience, actions with multiple owners don’t get done.
Park Distracting Topics Quickly
If you’ve followed my earlier advice, then your meetings will be fast-paced. There’s no time for detours from your agenda.
When someone goes off on a tangent, give them thirty seconds to get their point across before stepping in and parking the topic. You could say something like: “Sorry to interrupt, but that topic needs a meeting of its own. Can you follow up with Laura after this meeting?”.
For larger meetings, of the forty-five-minute variety, it can be helpful to have a flipboard to park off-topic items. This helps normalise the idea that topics get parked, but not forgotten.
Start Winding Up Early
It takes more than twenty seconds to wrap up a meeting. As a result, you need to start winding down with five minutes left on the clock. This gives plenty of time to agree on final actions and run through the list of decisions and owners.
If you fail to do this, your meeting will overrun, and everyone will be late to their next appointment.
Bear in mind, the meeting will be in full flow when you start pumping the brakes. This can tempt you to wait a little later, but that’s unwise. Force yourself to keep discipline. You can always schedule a follow-on meeting.
Regular meetings are a large commitment, and it pays to optimise the format. Every few months, hold a session where you ask attendees for feedback about the meeting itself.
The first question should be: “Do we still need this meeting?”. Regular meetings often outstay their welcome. Reducing their frequency is one way to explore how critical they are. Alternatively, cancel them and hold ad-hoc meetings as needed.
You should also look for improvements to the format of the meeting. Is the agenda effective? Is the length and frequency of the meeting appropriate? Is the attendee list correct? Remember – you want as few people as possible to deliver value.
If you follow all the tips I’ve shared so far, hopefully your meetings will be effective and high-leverage already. In which case, use these feedback sessions to hone your own golden rules for productive meetings.