What makes a great meeting?

Meetings without clear goals are bad meetings. The only exception is brainstorming meetings that have an open goal but a clear agenda for getting there. This isn’t a post about brainstorming meetings.

For meetings with clear goals, it just becomes a matter of inviting the right people. If you invite too many people, some people will feel like it’s unproductive. If you don’t invite enough people, some people will feel excluded. It’s a balancing act I’m still figuring out.

There’s an art to getting the right folks in the room. It’s my job to get good at knowing exactly who is impacted by the decisions made in a meeting. If their input is critical (they know something nobody else knows) to making a decision, they’re invited. If their input is valuable but not critical, I’ll ask them if they want to attend and make it optional. If they’re a stakeholder but their input won’t shape a decision, they’ll understandably not be invited.

[Note: people who don’t feel like their input is helpful to making a decision usually dislike being invited to the meeting about that decision because it feels like a waste of time.]

With the right people in the room, I always start the meeting by reminding people why we’re in the room, what problem we’re trying to solve, and what we want to accomplish by the time the meeting is over. I keep the conversation focused and act as a facilitator for surfacing concerns.

Something that has worked really well for me is reading the body language from people in the room to catch interesting views that might not be vocalized. Asking people to share their thoughts in those moments can feel forced but it’s always helpful to get things on the table. I ask a ton of questions. The most interesting conversations sometimes start with the most insignificant of questions.

Another aspect of great meetings — and this one takes a lot of time to do- is building trust between people in the room. In a trusting environment, the most important issues will be scrutinized, not the people expressing opinions. On these teams, the best discussions will always lead to an actionable next step. If no next step makes sense, the actionable next step is to table the conversation for a month, a quarter, or indefinitely.

Tabling a decision is as helpful for focus as coming up with a concrete action item. Both provide clarity on the issue.

As soon as there’s a clear next step, I’ll try to finish the meeting and let everyone in the room know what the next steps are going to be. People love knowing that the meeting wasn’t a waste of time.

The last part of any meeting is crucial: the follow up. Failing to follow up can cause long term damage to meeting dynamics. On the flip side, successfully following up in a consistent manner will make everyone a lot more attentive in the meetings. When everyone knows what’s going to happen after the meeting, they make sure they’re fully present for it.

My follow-up format is simple (the audience from the email can range from only the people who were in the meeting to the entire company at a small startup):

Wanted to share the takeaways from our meeting earlier about x. If you think we should revisit any of these, feel free to follow up with me or share thoughts here by replying all.
* Takeaways
* Decisions
* Next steps

The only thing left after that is to do exactly what you said you were going to do as next steps and confirm everyone who needs to know about the decisions understands the thinking that led up to them. This is a great opportunity to practice over-communication. Some people might feel like it’s micro-managing but it’s not because you’re not telling them what to do. You’re just over-communicating what needs to be done, why and by when. You’re also creating the space for them to surface concerns they didn’t feel comfortable expressing previously. It’s essentially a QA step for decisions.

Let me know if you have any other tips and tricks for making the most out of meetings, would love to hear it!

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