Why Your Meetings Suck and How to Improve Them

May 23, 2017 •  8 minute read • by Saeed


“A meeting is an event at which the minutes are kept but the hours are lost.” – Unknown

The spectrum is wide: Meetings can be laboratories for innovation or they can also be borefests that waste time and productivity.

Like you, I’ve sat through thousands of unproductive meetings. It took me a while to figure out what was happening: People really don’t know the basics of how to manage meetings.  Meeting management is part art and part science. With this article, I want to share some of the best practices I’ve learned over 25 years of facilitating meetings to help you improve yours so you can generate greater creative dialogue, increase productivity and maybe even change the world.

Let’s start here. There are at least 10 reasons that I can think of to hold a meeting. We hold meetings to:

  1. Share information
  2. Update status
  3. Obtain input
  4. Improve process
  5. Improve communication
  6. Transfer knowledge
  7. Reach agreement (or consensus)
  8. Advance thinking
  9. Make decisions
  10. Innovate

Regardless of meeting purpose, this list of best practices, will help your meetings be successful every time.

The Basics

1.     Do you even need a meeting?

Before you start planning your meeting, you need to ask yourself if you really even need a meeting. To figure out if your meeting is necessary or not, ask: What do I want to achieve with my meeting? Every meeting should have a goal and a purpose and by defining what that goal is, you can eliminate all meetings with obscure goals. Buh-bye!

2.     Who should you invite to the meeting?

Do you invite everyone you know to every party you have? Think about who you should invite and why. As a general rule only those who have a clear role at your meeting should be invited. The decision about who is to attend depends on what you want to accomplish in the meeting.

3.     What’s on your Agenda?

Whatever is on the agenda, it should be relevant and engaging. Agendas have to be timed and there has to be a flow. How information is prioritized and structured is very important to the success of the meeting. The hierarchy of how agenda items are presented usually starts out broadly with general information and background and evolves into more detailed actionable items as the meeting progresses.

4.     How long should your meeting be?

While there is a temptation to schedule longer meetings, it’s far better to keep it as short as possible. That way, you ensure that meeting participants are focused on the agenda. There’s no ideal length. It just depends on your agenda, participants, and what you are trying to get done.

5.     What kind of ground rules should you have?

You don’t always need ground rules but there are times when they may be necessary. There are four powerful ground rules I like to use: 1) stay engaged, 2) stay focused, 3) maintain momentum and 4) reach closure (or move towards consensus). Depending on the meeting, you may want a ground rule about confidentiality as well. List your primary ground rules on chart paper. Keep the ground rules posted at all times. Explain them if you have to.

One Level Up

6.     What kind of planning should you do?

I have an 80/20 rule about meetings which says that if you put 80% of your time into the planning, you’ll do 20% of the work in the meeting. On the other hand, if you put 20% time in planning, you’ll be sweating the other 80% out in meeting. Planning means preparing yourself (you know the content and objectives), preparing your audience (they know why they are there and have received the agenda and other necessary materials in advance to be well prepared for the conversation), and preparing the space (which includes not only the right seating arrangement and meeting participants’ comfort but also attention paid to technology and back-ups you may need).

7.     What kind of atmosphere should you create?

One that’s conducive to innovation and learning of course. I had this conversation with my son when he was about 10 years old. He said to me that everything is about atmosphere and went about making a case with examples of why that was true. He impressed me and he convinced me. The location should be comfortable, well lit and large. Ideally, other rooms nearby would be available for small group break-out sessions.

8.     Should you leverage visual communication?

Hell yes! Most of us are visual learners (65%) and we live in an ocularcentric world. Yet, so many of our meetings appeal only to auditory learners (30%). Use video, still images, graphs, Power Point and Prezi presentations to engage participants.

9.     How should you open the meeting?

The cardinal rule of meeting facilitation is to start and end on time. This lets your participants know that your respect those who showed up on time and reminds late-comers that the scheduling is serious. Use a meeting opener that’s fun and informative. All the better if your opener is tied to the overall theme of your meeting and is not just arbitrarily plopped in for fun. Relevant meeting openers that are positive and inspiring are better that generic icebreakers.

10. How should you close the meeting?

Always, and I mean always, end your meeting on a positive note and with concrete action steps and take-aways. Summarize what happened in the meeting and briefly list the action steps that need to take place to move the project or team forward. Remind everyone of the big-picture. End with enthusiasm for the future. Try a reflective question like: “What’s one thing you’ve learned today that you can apply tomorrow?” Trained facilitators also evaluate the meeting by using the Plus/Delta method. Put up a piece of chart paper up and draw two columns labeling one Plus and the other Delta. Ask participants what worked (The Plus) and what could be improved next time (The Delta).

Advanced

11. How can you prewire the meeting for success?

In other words, how can you set it up for success by doing some work up front. Maybe you need to meet with a meeting participant outside the main meeting to catch them up because they’ve been on vacation. Maybe you need to send some research that needs to be reviewed in advance. The more prepared your participants are, the higher your chances of success.

12. How should you lead the meeting?

If you are leading the meeting, your main responsibility is threefold: 1) Did you meet your meeting objectives? 2) Did you do it on time? and 3) Did you do it with the participation of the whole group? If you can answer these questions with a ‘Yes’ then you’ve been successful. As the leader, you create value when you make sure that the meeting runs smoothly by monitoring and guiding the discussion, connecting the dots and helping the group reach new insights and understandings.

13. How should you manage the conversation?

Prevention is the best policy here. Be as specific as possible in your agenda and meeting expectations. That way, meeting participants are on the same page when they enter the meeting room. To make sure they are, review the agenda and ask participants if they have the same understanding of the meeting objectives. There are certain meeting personality types you will encounter in every meeting.  If you feel that someone has spoken too much, thank him or her for their insights and comments, but point out respectfully that it’s important to hear from others. On the other hand, if someone is silent, address that person by name and ask him or her a specific  and direct question. That way, you’re bound to get a reply. Thank them and return to their point again to encourage their participation. Create a ‘Parking Lot’ to manage off-topic discussions by placing a piece of chart paper on the wall with that label. Then put anything that is not on the agenda and could potentially derail the meeting, into the Parking Lot. As a last resort suggest a separate meeting where the unrelated issue can be discussed.

14. How can you divide and conquer?

Working in small groups gives participants a chance to practice the higher-order thinking skills that are needed for breakthrough conversations. Participants in small groups generally learn more of the material, contribute more, and retain their knowledge, enthusiasm and motivation longer.  Small group work can range from short, informal discussions to more formalized exercises that involve deeper level problem solving.  that make up the majority of class. Contrary to popular belief, you can incorporate small group work into any of your larger meetings. You can also use paired discussion or triads if you don’t have enough people to form a small group. Pose a question or a problem and give participants a set amount of time to tackle it. Have them share out their findings at the end and compare notes with the other groups you formed.

15. How can you generate new creative ideas?

The Holy Grail of meeting time is generating useful, creative and actionable new ideas that advance the project, team or product to the next level. That means having the right process and the right questions to guide the process. The go-to method is brainstorming. Traditional brainstorming, invented by Alex Osborn back in the 1940s is based on the principles of withholding judgment and quantity over quality when it came to idea generation. That’s fine. There will always be a time and a place for brainstorming but you can take your traditional brainstorming to a new level by adding some more structure to it using techniques such as Mind Mapping (identifying a central topic and linking this to a new idea and repeating the process until you have a web of ideas) or using the 5 Whys technique (an iterative interrogative technique where the answer to each Why question forms the basis of the next question until a the cause and effect relationship underlying a particular problem has been discovered).

In future posts, I’ll discuss other techniques for idea generation. In the meantime, don’t forget to follow up to your meeting. Meeting management is part art and part science. Timely follow up is just a vital professional habit  that you should have in all that you do and it is particularly important in establishing continuity after the meeting. Notes, next steps and highlights should be distributed to make sure that the train of ideas and actions keep moving down the track.

Good luck.

©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other recent posts for inspiration and concrete actions steps to become more effective at work and life.

Best,

Saeed

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