Stop Running Terrible Meetings
Tell me, how often do you leave a meeting thinking, “That was a great meeting and I am so happy I attended.” or “What a fantastic use of my time!” I’ll guess that thought crosses your mind less than 5% of the time. Not to worry. You are in good company. I would argue 95% of meetings (if not more) are terribly run. Why? Because no one ever taught us how to run a good meeting. Terrible meetings fly under the radar for this very reason, we simply don’t know any better. It’s time to change that.
I once sat in on an executive meeting that happened weekly, it cost more than half a million dollars to take place. When asked if they thought the value they were getting out of the meeting was equal to or above 500K they replied with a wide-eyed “NO.” Meetings don’t just have a high monetary cost, they also have a mental cost. They can be draining, disengaging, frustrating, overwhelming, distracting… the list goes on.
We have established that under normal circumstances, meetings aren’t well run. But now, meetings are your number one currency with the lockdown in place. COVID has forced many of us into unending zoom meetings. These meetings are your one point of connection, you no longer have the luxury of relying on in-person conversations or drive-by check-ins. Therefore, I urge you to put more thought into how you gather. I promise you will thank me later.
All shitty meetings have the same ingredients: A leader or powerful person eats up 90% of the talking time, carefully crafted agendas and guardrails are thrown away in the first 5 minutes, your co-workers at this point aren’t even paying attention, their head deep in their twitter feed or researching which gluten-free beers are the best. Meanwhile, arguments over meaningless details ensue. This chaos then leads to losing out on the most important moments in a meeting. Sometimes it’s a subtle question that is asked that could change everyone’s perspective, or someone might genuinely be asking for help but can’t seem to grab people’s attention. And at the end of it, Nobody feels heard.
“Kate, why do you care so much about meetings?” I care because it is a snapshot of how you run your entire company. The first thing I do when I start working with a new client is I sit in on every meeting I can. I watch and observe. I can glean more about your company and it’s health in watching 1 hour of your meetings than from reading your entire company handbook. Meetings show me everything from how you regard power, to how you organize, to how you solve complex problems.
Meetings are intricate and multi-layered. Running a good meeting is an art and a discipline. Yet, most people don’t put in the time and effort to hone this craft. It may seem subtle, but this is a powerful change you can make, if you change how you meet, you can change how you work.
How can we be better?
So happy you asked. One of the first issues in meetings is that people confuse the point of the meeting. They tend to jumble together: brainstorming, decision making, unblocking, updating, deep diving, problem-solving, and requesting. Each of these meeting types has its own innate structure. I recommend getting clear on each of these types so you have shared language and understanding.
- Brainstorming to generate ideas with the entire team. Come up with many ideas on how to resolve an issue. This does not mean you solve for it in the meeting.
- Decision making go through topics that need a decision. Answer the questions that come up, limit too much discussion, aim for consent over consensus.
- Unblocking define what is blocking your work and how others can help unblock.
- Updating sharing critical updates that others need to be aware of, if it’s not pressing, don’t share. Don’t update just to update.
- Deep Diving open a conversation format that has boundaries. This can be a conversation about any topic, from people issues to a new product launch. The point is to learn more about what others think. This is to acquire more information and get everyone on the same page. The point of this is not to get to a conclusion or decision.
- Problem Solving- to specifically drive to an outcome and provide a solution while incorporating multiple viewpoints. This is generally good for small/medium size problems. You work together to find the best answer. A decision might not be made here.
- Requesting ask for what you need from one another, whether it’s time, work, or any type of help. Be as clear as you can be.
Assign a facilitator and note-taker
Each meeting you should have a facilitator and note-taker. These are both critical skills for people to learn. The facilitator should not be the most powerful person in the room. Why? Because when you have an organization filled with skilled facilitators your meeting experience gets 100x better. Also, as a facilitator, you must pay attention, you will then have a greater respect and regard for what it takes to drive a healthy meeting. The facilitator is responsible for driving the agenda, keeping people on track, time-boxing, and listening for important cues. Watch for circular conversation and people getting off-topic. The note-taker captures the critical parts of the meeting so that anyone who missed the meeting can come back and understand what was discussed and decided.
Be clear about the point of the meeting
Above, I listed 7 different meeting types. Be clear about what type of meeting you are running and when you want to transition into a different type. This helps set clear expectations for your team. For instance, “The first 30 minutes of this meeting will be for unblocking work, the last 30 minutes will be for decision making.”
Be clear about who needs to attend the meeting
Meetings often have far too many people in them. This is why taking notes is so critical. We all have other things we could be doing. If you don’t need to be in a meeting, don’t join. If others don’t need to be there, don’t invite them.
Zoom: muting, unmuting and video
There are those rare moments where someone has construction going on in the background and needs to be muted. But, if you are in a quiet place and you are meeting with your team I recommend unmuting. The delay in response or the lack of sound when you are presenting does nothing great for the person leading the meeting. People laugh, people sigh, draw a breath, make small sounds. These seemingly unimportant things are all important signals that we use to gauge a room, we usually process them subconsciously but they are needed in real-time. This is why I always recommend keeping your video on, your facial expressions are key. If you weren’t aware, 93% of communication is non-verbal; That’s right, 93%! Roughly 38% is tone and 55% is body language. So you are ripe for miscommunication when these cues are limited. Being on Zoom all day requires you to up your game in not only how you present yourself but how you engage with others.
The facilitator has the job of managing time and making sure the meeting stays on track. So if a conversation starts to go off the rails, they have the authority to bring it back.
- Learn how to time-box- aka set a timer for a specific conversation, for example, “I am going to a lot 10 mins for this conversation.” Once the timer goes off you can decide whether you need more time or to move on.
- This is a crazy mind-blowing tip so hold on: end your meetings 5–7 minutes early so you have time to transition to your next one. 😱😱 Go into your calendar settings and set this up, or just verbally let people know when you have to go.
Your End Goal
Your goal should be to get your meetings to a place where people 85% of the time a meeting feels like a good use of your time (we aren’t aiming for perfection here). You should get to a place where more of your employees despite their seniority, feel comfortable facilitating a meeting. Learn how to have discipline in your meetings, try out new formats, find what is comfortable for your teams. I have watched meetings go from uninspired and frustrating to engaged and fulfilling. If you put in the time and attention, I promise you, you too can enjoy your meetings. When the energy of your meetings improves, your work starts to improve. It’s as simple as that.