How not to do meetings (credit to Iain Farrell)

Three rules for meetings that don’t suck.

Bad meetings are a waste of your life. Don’t put up with them. Use these three rules for making sure every meeting matters.

Meetings — they should be the fundamental building block of collaboration, but just a mention of the word is enough to make most people groan.

Most of the meetings we have don’t seem to have a purpose. We go because we think we’re expected to, or we’re worried that we might miss something important.

Parked in a corner, we wait to say our piece in the hope our opinion will count, or at least so everyone knows we’re paying attention.

At worst we doodle aimlessly on our note pads waiting for the whole thing to be over, or become increasingly wound up that we could be attacking that to-do list waiting back at our desk.

And this doesn’t just apply to meetings in office buildings—coffees, catch-ups, Skype calls.

Any time when two or more human beings agree to meet to talk about something, but we’re not totally sure why, despite a clear sense of what you would rather be making headway on.

OK, I’m painting a negative picture, but I’m sure it’s one most people can relate to.

In most companies I’ve worked in or consulted with, meetings are seen as a problem, not a productive use of human intelligence.

And when you count up the collective hours of human life, not to mention the financial and opportunity cost to the business, it’s clear that bad meetings shouldn’t be tolerated.

Good news — it doesn’t have to be this way.

What if meetings were a beautifully efficient use of time, that generated great results and harnessed the collective intelligence and creativity of everyone in the room?

Sounds good?

Just follow these three key principles:

  1. Every meeting needs to have a purpose (and a question)

There needs to be a very clear need behind anything you commit your time and energy to, or you ask others to sign up to.

Don’t book anything until you’ve spent time getting very clear on the problem you’re trying to solve, or the outcome you’re trying to get to.

Every meeting is a request for help from one human being to another— so what do you need help with?

Once you know this, design a question.

Questions — specifically powerful questions — are the anchor point for your meeting. If you need structure, you create it around the question. If you find people going off track, you can bring everyone back to the question.

Think about open questions that elicit a creative, and inquiring response from others. What if/How/Why.

Great meetings are designed around a problem and question that people care about, and makes them sit up and think.

Bonus link: find out how to design powerful questions

2. Every meeting needs to have an owner

If you ask ‘Who’s meeting is this?’ and no one can answer, then get the hell out of there.

Because if every meeting is a request for help, then we need to know who we’re helping, or we’re helping no one.

And if we’re trying to deliver on a purpose, or answer a question, then someone needs to tells us when we’ve got there.

One person, and only one person, needs to own the problem, take responsibility for keeping us on track and let us know when we’re done.

A good sign that a meeting has no real owner, or they’re not taking responsibility is when you’re all there for the full duration of the meeting, and there’s not a lot of clarity over whether you’ve done the job you came to do.

Great meetings are spaces where one human being is clearly making space for others to bring their best ideas, and tells them when they’re done.

3. Every meeting needs to be facilitated (hard)

Even if you have a clear problem, a powerful question and someone stepping up to take ownership, we need to have quality dialogue.

Because the quality of the outputs of your meeting are directly related to the quality of the dialogue in the room.

It helps if you set out the problem, question and a few core conditions at the beginning e.g. let’s listen fully, instead of waiting for our turn to talk etc.

Ask everyone’s permission to keep us to time, move us on if it feels necessary, and make it clear it’s just in service of getting the most out of your time together.

This is like preparing the soil for a crop. Spend a little time creating the right conditions and you’ll get great results.

Rush into it and you’ll end up with sorry, withered plants that no one wants to eat.

And get really good at being direct, but respectful in how you facilitate conversations.

Develop great listening skills, learn how to help everyone to participate fully, practice asking questions that explore answers in depth.

Great meetings are led by people who act as host leaders — people who genuinely care that the best energy and ideas are coming to the surface.

Bonus link: think about training yourself or staff in participatory leadership

Just say no

Finally, if you think any of the above principles aren’t being followed, get really good at respectfully, but clearly saying no, and explaining why.

And point people to this blog post — you’ll be doing everyone a favour.

At Wild Things, we’re helping the people who care, to create workplaces where human beings thrive and amazing things are achieved. Get updates on our work, or ask for help with your big shift.

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