Scaling Peaks
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Scaling Peaks

Make Meetings Work

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Some people say that work is what you do in between meetings. This implies that meetings do not represent an opportunity to get actual work done. Well, if that’s the case, then don’t have the meetings! I take a different view: meetings need to be about getting work done, and to do that they need to be conceived and run thoughtfully.

Art of the Minimum

First off, when setting up a meeting, as with so many things, practice the Art of the Minimum: only have meetings that matter, invite the smallest number of people needed to get the job done, and make the meeting as short and focused as possible.

Meetings

The first step in making meetings minimal is to not have meetings that are better served by other means, which are plentiful in our technological world today. Make sure there is a good reason for the meeting and that it will be a good use of everyone’s time.

Attendees

The next step is to keep the number of participants as low as possible. Too many meetings mushroom in attendance for two reasons: (a) there are people who might / will feel hurt if they are not invited and (b) there are people who just want to ‘listen in’. The problem is that having people involved in a meeting who are not actively engaged changes the dynamic of the meeting and frankly draws the energy level of the meeting down, often with those ‘casual observers’ being the worst offenders in terms of reading email or not paying full attention. To group (a), I say “Get over it!” Participating in a meeting should be about pragmatism, not status or power. To group (b), I say “Read the notes!” afterwards instead of listening in to the meeting. To both groups I say: you can always circle back with responsible parties if you have useful input after you have read the notes

Time

Make each meeting as focused and short as possible. Meetings should never be used to simply fill our time! They should be about getting stuff done. We can challenge ourselves with seeing how short we can make meetings, without decreasing effectiveness. This desire was the origin of the ‘stand up’ meeting, where the goal is to set a tone and expectation that the meeting will be super focused by literally having the participants stand up while talking rather than settle comfortably into seats.

What’s the Goal?

Meetings should have a specific goal and an agenda that focuses all attention on that goal. If you don’t have a clear goal or an agenda, cancel or postpone the meeting. Know up-front what the desired outcome of the meeting is and put that in the meeting invite so everyone is on the same page about what that outcome is meant to be and can drive towards it. If the meeting has multiple segments, it should also have an agenda, but it’s great if meetings are so focused that they don’t need an agenda.

I believe that meetings generally fall into three broad categories:

  • Getting in synch about a particular topic → Goal is understanding
  • Collaborative brainstorming → Goal is actionable ideas
  • Making decisions → Goal is a decision

By ‘getting in synch’ I mean informing each other, getting the meeting participants into a deeper level of shared understanding of a topic, discussing / answering clarifying questions, and potentially getting people ‘bought in’ to something. Stand-ups and regular team meetings usually fall into this category. These meetings may well spin off brainstorms and decision-making.

Getting in sync in a face-to-face setting can be really productive and efficient. However, be careful with read-only ‘status’ meetings that might be better served with an email or dashboard.

Don’t Have Stateless Meetings

Third, coming out of the meeting, make sure every action item has an owner and a follow-up plan. If something doesn’t have those, it will not get done. Which brings me to the subject of meeting notes (something that I personally am notoriously bad at). Despite my aversion to taking notes, I do believe they are critical and should be taken at most if not all meetings.

I believe that meeting notes should capture:

  • Context (enough to explain the situation)
  • Insights (ah-ha moments for the participants)
  • Decisions
  • Action Items

One job that no one I know relishes is being the meeting Scribe, but it is an important job. While it is the responsibility of the Scribe to write down the notes, it is everyone’s responsibility to point out explicitly when there is an Insight, Decision, or Action Item that should be recorded. This makes the Scribe’s job considerably easier and less error-prone. I strongly encourage use of a collaborative document tool, such as Google Docs, where everyone in the meeting can see the notes taking shape in real-time, and possibly even collaboratively take the notes (anyone can jump in and write down an Insight as they see it). At the end of the meeting, the notes should be quickly reviewed to make sure everyone agrees with them, and then they should be distributed immediately to the ‘extended meeting group’, which is everyone invited to the meeting, plus all the people who would like to ‘listen in’. If the subject is not confidential, the meeting notes can be published openly, where anyone in the broader work-group or company can read them if they wish.

Be Here Now

Clearly it’s OK and in fact necessary to meditate and day dream when you are on your own, but that does not work well in a collaborative setting. The most frequent ‘collaborative setting’ we encounter at work is The Meeting. And we’ve all been in far far too many meetings where people in the room, or on the call, are highly distracted, heads in their laptops or phones. I will be the first to admit that I can be quite distractible in general and I realized that I, and many others, get distracted in meetings at least in part when they are boring. So I believe it is incumbent on everyone not only to pay attention and participate in meetings (Be Here Now) but also to make sure that meetings are not boring, so that everyone is naturally engaged and we all get more done! Making meetings short and sweet helps.

Be Inclusive

Meetings are for all participants, and as stated above, all participants should have a role to play. If folks aren’t expected to participate, they probably shouldn’t be in the meeting. As leaders in a meeting, it is critical to keep an eye out for participation and encourage everyone to speak up. There are a variety of factors that can make it more or less challenging for an individual to make themselves heard in a group. Watch out and control for this.

In the bad old days, when most meeting participants were in a conference room together and a couple hapless people where on the phone dialing in, it was extremely challenging for the folks on the phone to participate, and so most people tried hard to avoid that dynamic. In our current hybrid work patterns, it is much more common to have a mix of meeting participants in one or more conference rooms and have a number of people participating remotely. Use of video conferencing instead of phones helps tremendously move past the bad old days dynamic, with the ability to see each other, raise hands visually, and pick up on a bit of body language.

However, it is still very easy for the people in the conference rooms to start to have a little conversation among themselves, effectively blocking out the remote folks. This is something critical to watch out for and manage. To help with this, it is important that people in the conference room put up their hands to indicate they want to speak, which puts them on the same footing as the remote folks. Google Meet video conferencing has a capability called ‘Companion Mode’ which gives a small set of controls, such as hand-raising and presentation-sharing, to folks who are sitting in a conference room even if they are using a room camera and screen for the main interaction. It is also important to be mindful of where the camera is — in many conference rooms it can be all too easy for a presenter to turn their back to the camera while standing up in front of the people in the room, which is not an inclusive feeling for the remote folks.

Meetings are a wonderful way to get people to collaborate on making progress on something, but they take work to ensure they are productive and getting the most out of — and delivering the most value for — all the participants.

What are your ideas for making meetings work? Please post them in the comments below!

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Philip Brittan

Philip Brittan

Philip is an entrepreneur, technologist, business leader, writer, and innovator. https://www.linkedin.com/in/pbrittan/ Blog: https://medium.com/scaling-peaks