5 Steps to Planning and Running Fast & Efficient Meetings
Most meetings are terrible. But yours don’t have to be.
The humble meeting gets a bad rap.
Like email, Slack, and smartphones, meetings were never intended to take over every minute of our waking lives. But somehow they have. Look at anyone’s calendar who has multiple projects on the go (i.e. pretty much everyone) and you’ll see a nightmare-inducing pileup of meetings, events, alarms, and reminders taking over their time.
But meetings, in their most basic form, are just opportunities to share information.
If you think of your project as a cross-country roadtrip, meetings are supposed to just be the quick pit stops to refuel, double check your GPS, and pick up snacks.
It’s just that too often, those pit stops turn into truck stops. Instead of darting in to grab the essentials and keep moving, we get stuck. This has to change.
Regular, fast, and efficient meetings are one of the surest ways to keep a project moving (and are an integral part of Agile and Scrum project management).
So, if you fear sending out or receiving another meeting invite, here are some best practices on how to run a successful meeting. We’ve even included agendas and templates you can follow for pretty much any meeting you’ll be hosting or attending.
Want help with your next meeting? I put together templates and agendas for 4 popular meetings you can download for free here.
The psychology of how meetings got to be so terrible
You’d think that gathering a group of intelligent people with a focused goal would be a good use of time. But unfortunately, we’ve fallen into a “more is better” mentality when it comes to time spent in meetings.
Over the past 40 years, meetings have increased in frequency and duration. One study found that the average executive spends 23 hours a week in them. While on average, 15% of your company’s time is spent in meetings — a number that has grown every single year since 2008.
And it’s not just a quantitative problem. Most people believe the quality of meetings have dropped.
In a survey of 182 senior managers from a range of industries, 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work.
71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient.
While 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking.
So how did meetings get to be not just so numerous, but so terrible?
The problem seems to come down to a simple battle: instant vs. delayed gratification.
Our brains prefer rewards that happen now — instant gratification. It’s why you’ll eat a piece of cake at that office party (even though you’re trying to lose weight) or get sidetracked by busy, urgent tasks and put off more important work.
Meetings, also, are a fantastic way to get instant gratification.
Talking about an issue can make us feel like we’ve accomplished it. When in reality, all we’ve done is pushed the actual work off for a later date.
Why would we choose to spend long hours toiling on a hard problem with no promise of reward, when we can get in an hour-long conversation and feel like we’ve made real progress?
Bad meetings aren’t just lost time. They’re actively killing your company.
Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if we only had a few meetings to deal with. However, from the statistics above, it’s clear this issue has become epidemic. The time spent in pointless or long meetings isn’t simply bad because it’s lost time, but because of what it creates as a side effect:
1.Meetings create busywork
We already know that meetings are a form of instant gratification themselves. But they also push us into doing other forms of instant gratification. Anyone who’s worked on a team of any size knows the kind of busy work that comes out of most meetings:
“Let’s research this some more and circle back later in the week.”
“We don’t know what the answer is, so let’s explore some options first.”
The problem is that these things feel like real work. And while some level of research or exploration is always necessary, bad meetings have a way of blowing their importance out of the water.
2. Meetings create more meetings
“Let’s have another meeting about it,” is probably the most-heard phrase in any bad meeting. The next step from this meeting? Another meeting! Turning an unaccuous get together into a many headed meeting hydra. Chop one off and two pop up in its place.
3. Meetings create FOMO and confusion of priorities
Probably worst of all, a culture of bad meetings creates a sense of fear of missing out, even if you know you don’t need to attend. Why sit in the back of a room for an hour listening to conversations that don’t involve you?
All of a sudden, our priorities shift from doing the work we know we need to do, to making sure we’re in every possible meeting, just so we don’t feel like we’re missing out.
5 steps to running a fast, efficient meeting (When it’s your meeting)
All this isn’t to say that meetings are inherently bad.
When run well, a meeting can be a quick way to work through an issue, a great way to gather consensus about a big decision, or even a powerful way to build connection and camaraderie on your team.
When you’re a remote team, especially, meetings are one of the most powerful tools you have for making people feel connected and in the loop.
Meetings aren’t bad themselves. We make them bad.
Most bad meetings come down to a triple whammy of being:
- Too frequent
- Poorly timed
- Badly run
But it’s not a lost cause. Whether you’re organizing or attending a meeting there are steps you can take to ensure you’re not wasting anyone’s time.
Step 1: Before you book, ask what’s the true cost of this meeting
The frequency of when you book meetings can directly impact how productive they are. How many of us end up in recurring meetings where we’re flipping through our phones within the first few minutes while the only two people who actually need to be there have a conversation?
Before you send out another invite, ask what is the true cost of this meeting? One way to gain perspective about this is to think how much the time you’re asking for actually costs your company.
In one study of time budgeting at large corporations, Bain & Company found that a single weekly meeting of mid-level managers was costing one organization $15M a year!
At least estimating the price puts you out of the mindset of just booking meetings “because it’s what you do” to really asking whether it’s necessary. Time and focus are our most precious resource. By keeping in mind what you’re really taking away from people with a meeting, you can ensure that you’ll get the most out of it.
Step 2: Schedule for the minimum amount of time needed
Next, once you’ve decided that the meeting is worth it to run, you need to be honest about how much time you’re most likely to need. If you’re just running with standard 30- or 60-minute meeting blocks, you could be wasting a ton of time.
Parkinson’s Law is an old adage that says “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Meaning, even if you booked an hour-long meeting “just to be on the safe side,” you’re going to fill that hour.
And the people you’re meeting with? They’re going to lose at least an hour and a half, if not more of productive work. Even a “super quick meeting” will take more time than you’re asking for.
Instead, FaceBook VP of Product Fidji Simo, says you should always question how much time you need for a meeting.
“Many people don’t check in to figure out how much time should be realistically allotted to something. They just default to 30 minutes for a small conversation and 60 minutes for a larger conversation. This contributes to calendars looking like Swiss cheese.”
Instead, she sets the minimum time for meetings at 10–15 minutes, leaving the attendees to request more if they feel they’ll need it.
Additionally, you should set policies around when meetings can happen. This way, everyone knows when to expect to be taken away from their work and can plan accordingly. Choose times or days of the week that work for your team. Rather than having a calendar that looks like a crime scene, make every day between 3–5pm open for meetings, or turn Tuesdays into “Admin day.”
The goal here is to make sure everyone knows when they’re expected to meet, and when they’re expected to work.
Step 3: Set a clear agenda and distribute it beforehand
Once the meeting’s been set, it’s up to you to make sure it goes smoothly.
Don’t just set a meeting and hope that things will progress on their own. You need to steer the ship. This starts with understanding exactly what you want to get out of the meeting. If there’s no clear goal, no one will know what’s expected of them.
Do some upfront thinking and work through the problems that you’re going to discuss. From there you can create a clear agenda and send it out beforehand so everyone has time to think and come in with fully baked ideas.
(As a bonus, sometimes just thinking through the issues you want to talk about makes you realize you don’t even need a full meeting to work through it).
(We’ll cover some examples of clear meeting agendas below).
One thing to watch out for is adding too many agenda items. It can seem like a good idea to try to cover as much as possible in the meeting you’ve called, but you need to leave sufficient time to discuss each topic instead of just trying to run through them (or having the meeting go on for way too long).
Author of Meetings that Matter, Paul Axtell, suggests that as a target, you should put 20% fewer items on your agenda and allow 20% more time for each item. You can also prep and know how you’re going to lead each of these items. Go through your agenda items and ask:
- Who would be great at starting the conversation?
- Who is affected by the outcomes and therefore needs to be asked for their view?
- Who is most likely to have a different view?
- Who are the old hands who might sense whether we are making a mistake or missing something?
A useful side effect of preparing like this is that you become more invested in the meeting being a good one.
It’s a pain in the ass to do all that work and then have a bad meeting. It raises the mental cost of the meeting and you’ll be more likely to pause and think about whether it’s worth having in the first place.
Step 4: Keep the meeting focused (and stop being a bad influence)
You might think that taking out your phone during a part of the meeting that doesn’t concern you is no big deal. But as the organizer, you’re setting the tone and accepted behaviors for everyone.
When you multitask during a meeting, your team will too.
This means information gets missed. Meetings become longer because people have to repeat themselves. And the people speaking feel their ideas and issues aren’t important. Which can kill your culture.
Instead, set the example by being fully present during the meeting. Ask the group for permission to deliberately manage the conversation and set guidelines to fight distraction.
For most teams, the easiest rule to follow is simply to get rid of tech during meetings (unless it’s pertinent to the topic). Use what behavioral designer Nir Eyal calls a “Digital hat rack” — some way to disconnect, either physically or mentally, from the technology that’s always pulling at your attention.
It’ll be hard at first, but banning distractions during meetings will make them hyper focused, more engaging, and productive.
Step 5: Know what the next step is (Hint: It’s not another meeting)
If you’ve done your job setting the agenda and guiding the conversation, everyone should know exactly what they need to do after the meeting. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, teammates don’t leave meetings with a direct goal or task other than to wait for the next meeting.
Make sure you leave time at the end of the meeting to go over exactly what’s expected and what was decided on. It might feel strange, but these round-ups will ensure that no one is left confused about the decision or what their role is in moving forward.
Take 2-minutes to wrap up what was said:
- We discussed the issue of X and decided on Y
- A is responsible for getting design assets ready before Monday
- B is going to start building a prototype and should have something for all of us before we meet next week
Make sure to include what you’ll be doing as well, so everyone feels like they’re pulling their weight and accountable to the whole team.
How to keep meetings moving smoothly when you’re attending
Now, what about if you’re attending a meeting? In a lot of company’s cultures, it can feel like you don’t have any say in how a meeting is run. But as an attendee, you also have a responsibility to make sure the meeting runs smoothly.
First, be proactive about only attending the right meetings
When a meeting request comes in, it can feel like you have to click yes. But every meeting you say yes to means less time to work on your important work.
Don’t be shy about asking questions before you accept the invite. Once you see the agenda, ask how you can best contribute. If it seems like the meeting isn’t the best use of your time, consider explaining why you shouldn’t attend. It’s hard for anyone in leadership to deny that you want to spend your time more productively rather than twiddle your thumbs in a meeting you don’t need to be a part of.
Come prepared and be open minded
If the meeting is essential, and your attendance makes sense, do whatever you can to make it run smoothly. Do your research and come prepared to answer any questions that might come up. The in-person aspect of meetings can also help you come up with more creative solutions to the problem at hand, as long as you come in prepared to talk and discuss issues.
One of the most important parts of running a successful meeting is knowing what to talk about. While what you include in your agenda will vary depending on your company and goals, there are some templates you can work off of to stay focused.
Final thoughts about running faster, more efficient meetings
While most meetings are terrible because they don’t have enough structure or purpose, there’s almost always a benefit to getting smart people together to talk.
So, like most things that help build your business, there’s no clear one way to set and run meetings. While the agendas and templates above will help guide you through most meeting scenarios, it’s important to remember that moderation is key.
So while a big meeting once in a while can definitely be worth it (especially if you’re a remote team), remember that everyone you work with is here to do their best work. And that usually doesn’t mean sitting in a meeting.
Want help with your next meeting? I put together templates and agendas for 4 popular meetings you can download for free here.
Hey, I’m Jory!
I help companies and interesting people tell their stories through smart and focused writing. Want to work together? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this post was originally published on the Planio Blog. Check it out for more essays and actionable tips on project management, building a remote team, and thriving as a startup.