Seven tips on how to run a meeting that people will actually like
Having worked with software engineers for the majority of my career, I have yet to find one that is actually enthusiastic about having meetings. I, on the other hand, do like meetings. A well-run meeting that is. I enjoy the energy it can have to get together in a (virtual) room with some bright minds and think up ideas you wouldn’t otherwise have by yourself. The problem though is that not all (most) meetings have this energy.
For me, a meeting (in a business context), is a means to an end. More often than not, I notice that meetings are unprepared and unstructured and therefore just start filling the time that they have been assigned (e.g. Parkinson’s Law). It doesn’t have to be this way. Below you’ll find seven tips on how to organize a meeting that does have benefits for the people involved:
- Make async, what can be async
- Make sure there is always something prepared.
- A meeting without a clear agenda is a valid reason to decline it.
- If the preparation has not been done, move the meeting.
- Only allow people in the meeting that add value.
- Don’t be late. Ever.
- When you attend the meeting, attend the meeting.
1. Make async, what can be async
Asynchronous work is the practice of collaborating without actually being in the same time or space. This allows members to receive and share information in a place and time that fits their needs. Asynchronous work is great for low-context communication. For example, too many meetings spend (part of) their time reading the content of a PowerPoint slide about the quarterly numbers that just came in, while that just as well be done at any other time by individual attendees. The actual discussion about those slides with your team, not. Therefore, check what can be done in people their own time and what actually has benefits to do with everyone present. And you might even note that some meetings shouldn’t be a meeting at all.
2. Make sure there is always something prepared
Following up on the previous point: always make sure that there is some preparation for the meeting. This can be as simple as “Please think about (and write) down the challenges you currently face in work” or as extensive as “Prepare and present your vision on the product roadmap for the coming 3 years”. Preparing for a meeting is not so much about the preparation itself, but also about ’setting the scene’. By ensuring that everybody took time to think about the purpose and the goal of the meeting beforehand, you prevent the need to start that initial thought process during the meeting, taking away precious time for actual interaction (or resulting in a meeting that is 30 minutes longer than needed). This brings me to the next topic:
3. A meeting without a clear agenda is a valid reason to decline it
How many of you have received an invite with the description “quick alignment on topic X” or “check-in topic Y” and you didn’t have a clue what it was about? Good preparation can only be done with good instructions beforehand, so make sure that a calendar invite always contains the following elements:
- Why is this meeting taking place?
- What is the goal of this meeting?
- What preparation is required from the attendees?
- What is the agenda?
This also goes for the more informal meetings such as ‘1-on-1s’ with your colleagues. Though the calendar invite doesn’t have to be as detailed as a 3-hour brainstorm with 10 people, it helps to set the context beforehand. Any calendar invites missing these (or when not communicated in another way beforehand) is a valid reason to decline them.
4. If no preparation has been done, move the meeting.
All right, so we’ve cut the invite from 60 to 30 minutes by asking people to prepare. The attendees know what to prepare because you’ve sent along a clear calendar. The time arrives, you start the check-in and find out that half of the attendees didn’t read the description of the invite. Now what? This is the time to kindly thank everyone for joining and tell them you will find a new slot to make sure that everyone comes prepared. This has two main reasons:
- If you will continue, any work that could’ve been done asynchronously needs to be done with everyone present (see point 1, ‘Make async, what can be async’)
- If you continue anyway, you take away all motivation from the people who actually took the time to do the preparation. They now not only have lost time preparing for the meeting but also need to spend double time waiting for the others to play catch-up during the meeting.
This is one of the things that I found most difficult to practice but gave me the most benefit in the long run. The first couple of times it can be awkward and feel a bit rude, but within three meetings or so, the expectations were crystal clear that everyone should make sure that they are prepared for a meeting.
5. Only people in the meeting that add value
A meeting is a place in time where people come together to collaborate and discuss a topic that is of importance. It is not an ego-stroking session where people get on the guest list based on status or the feeling that they are being left out. Of course, it happens that others need to be informed about the outcomes of the meeting. Coming back to my first point, you should definitely consider whether this can also be done by sending the meeting notes afterwards. But if you already know beforehand that that person will have some comments or remarks on the notes (that require discussion) it can make sense to send her an invite.
An alternative can be a ‘segmented meeting’ in which you let certain people join/leave based on the agenda. You can for example only invite the main stakeholder/decision-maker in the last 20% of the meeting to discuss the outcomes.
6. Don’t be late. Ever.
Being late to a meeting shows that you value your own time more than the time of others. Since we determined in the previous point that everyone in the meeting now has added value, the meeting cannot start without you (otherwise you shouldn’t be in the meeting in the first place). If you know you have trouble ending meetings on time, make sure to always plan a 15-minute gap between meetings by setting the duration of your meeting to 15 or 45 minutes.
And of course, urgent things happen that do cause you to focus your attention on something more important. If so, send a message that you will be unable to attend the meeting and will do a new proposal for a later time. That way, everyone can continue on their way instead of waiting for that person that will never come.
7. When you attend the meeting, attend the meeting
Last but not least, when you decide to attend the meeting, make sure to attend the meeting. This means turning off notifications, writing down anything that is still top of mind from previous meetings and closing any unnecessary windows that may distract you. If you are sitting in a room together, consider closing your laptop and doing notes on paper. When doing an online meeting make sure to turn on your camera so you are not tempted by the fact that people cannot see what you do. The higher percentage of people that are engaged in the meeting, the greater the effect.
So, these are the seven tips for improving the quality of your meetings. If you only take one thing from this, make sure that for your next meeting you send out a clear agenda with preparations and hold everyone accountable for that. I’m confident that you will get a higher quality meeting, with more engagement and overall just a more fun meeting. Good luck!