Designing Team Meetings So They Don’t Suck
By Sara Zailskas Walsh
Don’t you love the weekly team meeting?
That’s not a trick question, although you might have just groaned. I love the idea of team meetings because they bring people together, and I value forums where everyone can hear the same information first-hand. But over the years I’ve sat through a few that haven’t always been the best use of my time.
I’ve learned there’s a way to make team meetings more valuable. I recently helped my leadership team redesign our team meetings in a way that worked so well that our team of 25 people who originally questioned the value of bi-weekly meetings asked to double their frequency.
Imagine that: Employees! Asking for more meetings!
About a year ago, I was on a design team of 25 people representing service, visual, interaction, front-end, and content design disciplines. We comprised two groups with a dedicated director, and we all came together every two weeks for what we called a “Deep Dive,” an hour-long (and mandatory) meeting.
We would start each meeting with a “Check-in” when each person would share something on their mind or something going on in their life outside of work, ending the anecdote with “…And I’m in.” The idea was to declare you’re still present while acknowledging everything else going on in your life. The rest of the hour we’d receive and discuss updates from our vice president and directors.
The format worked OK. We really liked the check-in because we learned about each other as people (Who knew our design manager with a reserved personality is passionate about death metal?!), but as the team grew, the check-in ended up taking a good chunk of time and started to feel long. The updates from leadership were valuable, but on the weeks when they were out of town, the topics we discussed weren’t as strong.
Meanwhile, our team grumbled about the amount of meetings we had every week that took time away from doing work.
Time for a New Approach
Our leadership team recognized meetings could be doing better, so they decided to do an activity to help them figure out what should go into a team meeting.
One of our directors passed out Post-its to everyone on the team and asked us to write down:
- Things we liked about our current meeting
- Things we didn’t like
- Things we wished for
She then led us through each category, asking us to read aloud what we wrote and post it on the wall. The exercise alone made me feel heard, and I understood my teammates better; it turns out we’d been wanting and feeling a lot of the same things.
You might recognize the process: our director was applying service design, starting with user research to inform the content and structure of our meetings so we would be better team members and thus design better for our customers. After all: meetings are a service to our team. Why not turn our design process on ourselves?
I volunteered to partner with the director to help synthesize what people wrote.
Our Analysis and Strategy
We pored through the Post-its and found people craved a few things: we wanted to hear the latest business strategy; we wanted to get to know each other as people; and we wanted to learn from each other and improve our craft. This pointed to a clear set of meeting goals, which we formally articulated:
Our deep dive sessions give us space to:
- Understand and discuss strategy
- Teach, share, and inspire each other with stories from our work and personal lives
… so we can deepen our connection as a team.
We thought long and hard about how to accomplish our new goals and realized we had the opportunity to rethink the format of our meeting.
- We’ll craft an agenda that includes strategy, learning and personal stories.
- We’ll send the agenda two days before the team meeting.
- We’ll build the agenda from a list of time-boxed components.
We created a master list of components to pick from to comprise our agenda, and that helped keep topics fresh — similar to a “talk show format,” as one team member later described it. It also gave us flexibility to move agenda items around as conflicts came up. We borrowed component ideas from other teams and ended up with this list:
Our Meeting Components:
- Themed Check-ins (15 min. at the start of every meeting)
Everyone would answer the same question — something like, “What’s something you’re saving money for?” or “Who’s someone you consider successful and why?” We capped people’s answers to an amount of time.
- Topics of the Week (duration and frequency as needed)
Leadership team time to share strategy updates or anything else they needed to communicate.
- “8/7” (15 min.)
Eight minutes of a presenter sharing a topic with seven minutes for Q&A. These share-outs were either work-related, such as a mini case study on a project, or personal, such as a team member sharing their photography hobby.
- 15 min. Story
This might be something like a share-out of what someone learned at a conference.
- Group Brainstorm/Problem-Solving (30 min.)
A time for us to put our heads together to solve a problem as a team.
The option to take the meeting on the road — say, to the museum across the street from us to check out an exhibit — to use the new environment to inspire us.
- “Do”/Maker Session (30–45 min.)
An opportunity to create together through an activity.
- Guest Speaker (length of time as needed)
An internal or external visitor. This could be a key work partner talking about a shift in strategy, or it might be someone from outside the company on an inspirational topic.
How to Make it Work — and Stick
It goes without saying it took work to make this happen.
First, we needed everyone on board with the new format, but we also recognized our plan might not be the answer. We told the team that, based on a combination of their feedback and what the leadership team needed out of these meetings, we were going to try a new format for a few weeks. We’d experiment—just as we were encouraged to do in project work—and if it didn’t work out, we would change it.
We made sure to communicate that we would consider it a success if they found the new meeting valuable. We shared the new goals and format and looked for heads to nod. (They did.)
We began with the same bi-weekly cadence, but after a few meetings in the new format, we started receiving suggestions to have weekly meetings because people found the content meaningful. Our leadership obliged.
Behind the Scenes
Behind the scenes, we structured planning so that we kept the weekly prep time minimal but delivered quality, valuable content each meeting.
We had a core planning team comprising our director, myself (a team member), our VP (for sign-off and input), and our admin. Here’s what it looked like to prepare for a weekly one-hour meeting every Thursday:
- The core planning team meets for 30 min. to plan agenda items for the week and look three weeks out, considering topic, time limit and format for each component.
- The week’s agenda is confirmed afterward by the VP.
- One of the core planning team members reaches out to presenters to confirm their availability and set up a time to discuss outline and key takeaways.
- Confirm presenters for this week AND confirm availability for next week.
- The admin posts the agenda and any “heads ups” to the team Slack channel.
- One of the core planning team members checks in with presenters to talk through their content.
- During the meeting, the core planning team shares moderation and time-tracking duties.
- One of the planners writes the check-in theme on the board and can go first to get the group started if needed.
- The admin updates the Archive of the Agendas with the week’s check-in, the topics covered and any files that were shared.
That’s right: we kept an archive of the agendas. Trust me: as you brainstorm new ideas and build on those from the past, you’ll want this record.
Making Your Team Meetings Your Own
This is how it worked out for us after applying the design process to our meetings. Your team might be much smaller, larger, or have much different needs. But if I were to leave you with any parting advice on restructuring team meetings for more value, it would be this:
- Involve your team.
- Be honest about what you need as a leader.
- Embrace the spirit of experimentation.
- Be open to discovering you might not need a team meeting if other means accomplish the same goals.
Sara Zailskas Walsh is an experience designer and content strategist. She recently self-published a children’s book about a determined island hen to raise money for hurricane relief.