Why Your Meetings Suck. And How to Fix Them.

5 Common Problems with 5 Simple Solutions.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

“One either meets or one works,” wrote Peter Drucker. “One cannot do both at the same time.” And yet we continue to fill our days at work with meetings, leaving people less time to actually do the work they’re paid to do.

Meetings have become that aspect of work we all complain about, yet no one ever does anything to fix. Partly because we tend to think that our meetings aren’t the problem. It’s all those other people.

Our meetings are useful and effective. That’s obvious. It’s just the ones that everyone else runs that suck.

Except everyone else seems to feel the same way about their own meetings. Like those 98% of college professors who feel they’re better than average, it seems that meetings provide yet another example of the Dunning-Kruger effect at work.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains our tendency to be overconfident in our skills, especially in situations where we have limited abilities. When we struggle in an area, we can’t accurately assess our own capabilities. So our inexperience casts an illusion of expertise.

It’s easy to see how this becomes a vicious circle. Our meetings are ineffective, but we don’t recognize it. So we don’t solicit feedback or look to make improvements. And we continue to waste peoples’ time with ineffective meetings, wrapped in a cocoon of our own ignorance.

And the process continues.

Unless, of course, we decide to do something about it.

Canceling All Meetings Isn’t the Answer

“Meetings at work present great opportunities to showcase your talent. Do not let them go to waste.” — Abhishek Ratna

I don’t know how many meetings you attend each week, but I’m guessing its both more than you’d like and more than is necessary.

In many companies, people can no longer even get work done during the day. They need to reserve their evenings or early mornings for actual work because the majority of their days are taken up with ineffective meetings.

Faced with this problem, some companies elect to simply ban meetings completely.

Which seems to be a ridiculous overreaction.

Are we that incapable of running effective meetings? Like a child that’s doesn’t responsibly use a tool, do we really need to revoke this privilege?

Because meetings are a tool — a useful one when used appropriately. And a necessary one for anyone who needs to collaborate at work.

As the world continues to change and become more dynamic, our need to collaborate and effectively work with others will become ever more critical.

Meetings give us a way to communicate vision and strategy, develop responses to challenges and opportunities, and provide forums for debating and crafting new ideas. They play a large role in employee socialization and shape the overall culture.

I’m not suggesting you don’t have meetings that could — and should — be cut from your weekly schedule. I know that I do. But it’s important to recognize that, contrary to popular opinion, meetings are (or at least can be) actually useful.

They’re a tool. And like any tool, only worthwhile if they’re used well.

We just need to make sure we leverage them effectively. Which isn’t really all that complicated.

Because you already know why you hate everyone else’s meetings. Then it just comes down to addressing those issues.

There’s No Purpose.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” — Seneca

Have you ever been sitting in a meeting and someone asked, what are we doing here again? Of course you have. A better question would be, how often do you attend a meeting and actually know what you’re supposed to accomplish while there?

It’s amazing how frequently people get together without a clear idea of why they’re doing so. Hoping for serendipitous success isn’t exactly a high-percentage plan.

You wouldn’t sit down to write a letter without knowing the purpose. And I doubt you’d invest time in developing a presentation without having a clear idea of the intended takeaway. Yet with meetings we often neglect this requirement.

Most meetings fall into three categories: we’re either looking to share information, gather input for a decision, or make a decision. Or perhaps some combination of those three. If people aren’t clear on which of these actions is the purpose of the meeting, it’s going to end in frustration. And ineffectiveness. And a host of criticism about you after the fact.

Let people know the purpose in advance and they’re more likely to come prepared to support it. Let people know the purpose at the start and they’re more likely to work towards accomplishing it. And return to the purpose at the end and people will make sure that it was addressed.

Identifying the purpose also drives us to consider whether the benefit is worth the cost. If the purpose of your meeting is for ten people to provide updates that could just as easily occur via email, it’s a little easier to spot this egregious waste of everyone’s time. And if you’re not quite comfortable identifying the purpose of your meeting to the group, there’s probably a good argument for canceling it completely.

By clarifying the purpose to everyone, we help people filter the signal from the noise. If our meetings are a tool, and we hope to use them effectively, first and foremost we need to be clear on the purpose. As Seneca mentioned, that sail is of little use if we don’t know which direction we want to go.

They’re Too Long.

“The longer the meeting, the less is accomplished.” — Tim Cook

The common saying that, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have enough time,” could easily apply to meetings as well. I would have run a shorter meeting, but I didn’t have time to plan it out accordingly.

Meeting length is inversely proportional to preparation. Take care of one and the other generally comes with it.

Few people would suggest that you could show up and provide a quality client proposal or give an effective presentation without any preparation or planning. Yet too often people are willing to ignore this requirement when it comes to meetings and default into trying to have it coalesce on its own. A path that often quickly degenerates into a confused discussion of random tangents and pontifications.

People are busy. And if you’re a steward of their time, you have a responsibility to use it effectively. As Jim Collins of Built to Last fame once wrote, “To abuse people’s time by failing to prepare shorter, better meetings amounts to stealing a portion of their lives.”

It all comes down to deliberate choices. What are you trying to accomplish? How are you going to make that happen? Whom do you need to make sure you’re successful? And what are you expecting them to contribute?

If you can’t answer these questions in advance, you’re likely not ready to effectively use peoples’ time.

They Spiral Out of Control.

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” — W. Edwards Deming

We’ve all been in meetings where that long-winded guy from marketing derails the whole thing with his “big-picture” philosophical tangents. As a side-note, anyone who describes himself as a “big-picture person” should be considered immediately suspect.

Yes, we all know that meetings are supposed to have an agenda. We’ve all — at one point or another — vowed to never attend another meeting that doesn’t have a published agenda in advance. And yet few of us actually invest the time to develop a meaningful one.

We rarely succeed on a project without a process. Few coordinated successes result in people just randomly figuring it out on their own. And if we don’t give people a process to achieve the objective, they’ll default into whatever they’re most comfortable.

An agenda doesn’t need to be complicated. A series of topics with responsibility, start times, and end times is usually sufficient. For bonus points, add the expected preparation for each item and the process for discussing it during the meeting.

One of my favorite tactics is to replace agenda topics as questions that the team needs to answer. A broad topic is often open-ended and easily becomes off-track. A question encourages people to better prepare for their position and monitor when the team is getting distracted. It also provides a common criterion for when the discussion is complete.

Start on time. Don’t send the message that any one person’s time is more important than everyone who did show up on time. And be disciplined to finish on time. Few things bother busy people more than a meeting that runs over schedule.

But between these two points, be sure to give people a process that will help people become — and stay — focused throughout the meeting. Because if you give up on the process, you’re also giving up on the result.

They Never Result in Anything Meaningful.

“Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.” — Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

How often do you find yourself in a meeting discussing the same problem as last time? In a terrible sense of déjà vu, we become stuck in a vicious time loop where the same issue is repeatedly debated but nothing ever happens to address it.

We’ve all been through meetings full of positive conversations and felt good about the group’s progress only to later be disappointed when nothing happens as a result. This isn’t (necessarily) malicious. People are busy and often running from one problem to another. But it is frustrating for everyone involved.

And this happens for one key reason — shared responsibility often means no responsibility.

Steve Jobs insisted that every item on a meeting agenda have a designated person responsible for that task and any follow-up work. He called that person the DRI — the Directly Responsible Individual.

Whatever the method, each topic and follow-on action needs to have a single owner. Someone to close out each item with three main steps:

  • Check for completion. Take a moment to make sure you’ve addressed the intended purpose and everyone has contributed their part. If you move forward without verifying completion, people will keep returning to the topic later.
  • Check for alignment. Make sure everyone can live with where the group ended on a topic. The final position may not be their ideal solution, but they need to be able to support it once they leave the meeting. And if not, they need the opportunity to voice their dissent.
  • Agree on next steps. Nothing happens afterwards without firm, clear commitments and deadlines. Who is going to do what by when? Or put another way, nothing happens without names, actions, and dates.

Finally, document the results and send them out. Few things drive accountability like putting someone’s name next to an agreed-upon action. As the Chinese proverb goes, “the palest ink is better than the best memory.”

Names, actions, and dates. Or get ready to have the same conversation next time.

They Never Change (or Improve).

“The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.” — Thomas Carlyle

Few people pause to reflect on the quality of their meetings. If they did, we wouldn’t have so many ineffective ones.

There’s no reason to overcomplicate things. End each meeting with a couple questions:

  • What did we set out to accomplish?
  • Did we accomplish that?
  • Why or why not?
  • And what are we going to do differently next time?

How well were people prepared? Did you get broad participation from the group? Did everyone stay on topic?

Did you gain diverse ideas and a healthy debate or a push for the status quo? Were people engaged or distracted? How effective was the overall process?

There’s no universal list of questions. The important thing is to just do it. Investing a few minutes at the end of each meeting not only improves your meeting for next time, but it reinforces to everyone that you value their feedback.

And then review the results before your next meeting. It’ll show that you value that improvement and add a level of accountability for following through on the results.

It Just Takes Some Discipline.

“Meetings are at the heart of an effective organization, and each meeting is an opportunity to clarify issues, set new directions, sharpen focus, create alignment, and move objectives forward.” — Paul Axtell

Leading meetings may be a small part of our jobs, but it has implications far beyond the time spent sitting around the conference room table. When we can effectively leverage this time, we’re better able to focus our team and drive real results. When we send the message that we value peoples’ time, we’re better able to get discretionary effort from others. And when we push for our meetings to be effective, it’s much easier to cancel those that aren’t.

This isn’t complicated. It really just comes down to four main steps:

  • Define the purpose.
  • Prepare and develop a process to achieve it.
  • Close each item and assign follow-on actions.
  • Reflect and make improvements for next time.

The alternative is to keep wasting everyone’s time each day. And continue reserving your mornings and evenings for doing real work.

Thanks, as always, for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could help me share with more people. Cheers!