How to Prevent Pointless Meetings

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We’ve all been there.

The meeting was a full hour. The discussion went around in circles. People talked past one another. When you left, you had the feeling that nothing whatsoever came out of it.

“Too many meetings” is a popular complaint in the workplace. But the problem isn’t so much that there are too many meetings; collaboration is crucial in creative endeavors. When it comes to creative thinking, brainstorming, and problem-solving, frequent collaboration is critical.

The problem is that there are too many unproductive meetings.

About five years ago, I had just started at an in-house design team. The managers put 5 designers in a room together to begin a discussion around a design problem. None of us knew much about the problem. None of us had done any work to prepare ahead of time. None of us knew each other, as we were all new.

Everybody talked a lot but nothing came out of it.

Most project managers will say the way to avoid this is to go into a meeting with a clear agenda, or a clear question. Then, at the end of the meeting you should summarize what was talked about and list next steps.

But in that meeting, we did all that. We had an agenda and a goal, and we listed next steps in the end. If it was that easy, pointless meetings wouldn’t be such a common problem. There must be something else going on.

Actually, meeting productivity is far less about what you do during the meeting, and far more about what you do before the meeting.

When it comes to creative sessions such as brainstorming and problem-solving, ensure that people have had a chance to think through the topic on their own ahead of the session.

Let’s consider how things might have gone differently in the example I mentioned.

Our manager could have asked us to work on a specific design task that would help facilitate the brainstorming. In that case, it could be to come up with inspirations and mood board samples. On the first day, we’d each independently work at this. On the second day, we would share our ideas and samples with the team. When we shared our mood board or inspirations, they’d be accompanied by design concepts and principles that we believe in, and that we can each give intelligent feedback on. The discussion would be grounded on specific, inspiring, good ideas.

So here’s a scenario: the lead wants two designers to create a framework for product feature sets that will be crafted at the end of the month. She wants the two designers to figure out how to do this.

What should be the first step?

Option 1: start by holding a brainstorming meeting or working session for just the 2 designers. See what they come up with, then go off on their own to add further definition to it.

Option 2: first, both designers will think through the topic on their own for half a day or a day. Then, they will come together to go over their thoughts and ideas around it.

What’s the likely outcome of each option?

Option 1 likely outcome: this meeting probably won’t be productive, because each designer will share tentative, half-baked questions and considerations that will in turn inspire hesitant ideas. This increases the likelihood of pointless debating or back-and-forth. It most certainly will take them a while to come up with something good.

Option 2 likely outcome: by working through the problem independently first, the designers will each work through this in their minds until they reach ideas that will make for a good discussion. Now then they meet, they will focus on those good ideas and significant touchpoints. This will form a good basis for a discussion. Fewer words will be said, but those words will be more focused, more pointed, and of higher quality. In half an hour, they should be able to consolidate and synthesize their thoughts, align their vision, and come up with a productive action plan.

So option 2 is better.

It’s not necessary for every single attendee to do work in advance of the meeting. Sometimes, just one person having done some thinking ahead of time is enough to generate a good discussion.

But can’t we leverage the expertise of different roles within the company? For instance, suppose we are discussing a strategy for attracting more visitors to the sign-up page. So we might think that simply bringing in experts from different departments (content design, product design, development, marketing) and letting them “loose” on this problem, without any pre-thinking done ahead of time, might be enough to get some good ideas around this.

I’ve been in many meetings like this. This kind of meeting tends lack focus. A couple of good ideas might come out of it, but most of the time it’s all over the place. If, instead, a small group has done some critical thinking about it, they can use this as a bouncing off point to generate discussion and feedback.

Sometimes a design team holds those kinds of meetings where each person sits down and generates ideas on their own, on a timer. Then they share what they came up with. This is fine, you see, because people are still having the time to sit and think on their own first before sharing.

All of this is a rule of thumb. Each situation is different, and each team is unique. But it’s good to keep in mind that group discussions are all about inspiring thoughtful and meaningful feedback. What better way to inspire a high-quality discussion than to start off by individually gathering thoughtful ideas around the topic?