As a leader, my job is all about people - throughout the day I’m coaching, teaching, directing, guiding, facilitating, motivating, rallying, and leading. As with many of you, this means that I spend a lot of time in meetings. I know some people don’t like the word “meeting”, that some prefer to say “working session” and other euphemisms because meetings are perceived as “bad”, but by any other name it gets down to the same thing: I spend a lot of time interacting with individuals and groups of people as a direct mechanism of my work. In fact, in spite of how much of a bad rap meetings can get in the professional world, my most valuable and effective time as a leader is spent in meetings. So, it’s really important to get these things right.
There’s a lot of advice out there on how to make meetings more effective including “start on time”, “make sure everyone participates”, and of course “have an agenda”. The last is considered so important that many advise that you shouldn’t attend a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda. It’s almost like a magic spell - if you have an agenda, everyone shows on time, you follow the agenda precisely and everything is good right?
The problem with agenda-driven meetings is that we start measuring the value of a meeting by how well we stick to the timeslots instead of the outcomes, which often means you might not actually accomplish anything but kicking stuff down the road. So as far as agendas go, they are a means, not the end, and should be discarded if they get in the way of useful activity. As Eisenhower once said “planning is everything, but plans are nothing.”
This of course begs the question “if an agenda isn’t the most important thing, what is?” I’d suggest getting the following components right will lead to your most productive meetings:
Focus on Outcomes
Being clear on the intended outcome(s) of a meeting is the single most important aspect of successful meetings, followed closely by having someone who owns driving to those outcomes.
Our first questions should be “what are we trying to achieve with this meeting” and “could that outcome be achieved through email, a wiki, etc.?” We should be clear on this when we schedule the meeting: do we need a decision made? A problem solved? Advice on how to proceed? Coaching on how to perform better? New ideas generated?
Is your Scrum standup simply people reading what everyone can see on the board or is the outcome of the standup to ensure your team is following the right priorities and will meet the sprint commitment?
Some meetings have clearer outcomes than others. I find that some of the least focused meetings are status meetings. These can become unruly if you don’t know why you’re delivering status. If it’s a factual reading of a report...that can probably just be emailed. If you’re actually taking other’s people time, why are you discussing status? So they can make a decision? So they can advise the team? So they can ask for more money? So they can deliver a difficult message?
Ultimately, being clear on outcome at the start will help you keep everyone on the right track and also help ensure you bring the right people to the meeting.
Attendee Lists and Behavior
When building the attendee list, remember that meetings aren’t about making people feel good for being invited but for actually accomplishing things. Meeting attendees should either provide value or receive value (or both ideally). You should know in advance when you invite people what that expectation is and make sure they know as well. It’s also worth noting that the people receiving value may need to cater to the people providing value when it comes to meeting timing.
Even more importantly, when evaluating if you should attend a meeting you should understand if you are receiving or providing value. If the answer is “neither”, then you shouldn’t attend. I’m also a fan of creating a minimal set of attendees. If someone else is attending that can provide the same value that I can, I probably don’t need to be there.
Which leads to the next attendee consideration - meeting size. There’s been a lot of research on this and the general conclusion is that if the nature of your meeting requires inquiry - that is, exploration of ideas, pushing back and forth, discovering new thoughts, etc. - you need to limit your meeting to no more than 6-8 people. You can potentially get away with more with a good facilitator and/or using grouping techniques, but in general, sticking to a smaller size will yield a higher quality discussion. Of course not all meetings require this type of interaction and can be larger if it makes sense.
Lastly for attendees, they should all embrace the principle of “Be Present”. This should be easier than it appears to be, but if attendees know the expected outcome of the meeting and they know how they are providing and/or receiving value, they should understand the importance of their time in the meeting and not let themselves be distracted. Multi-tasking isn’t a real thing, at least not in a short timeframe. If something else is more important than the meeting, apologize and excuse yourself. Otherwise, ignore any email, text, direct messaging, etc. and make sure you are fully attentive. Anything else means you’re doing at best a half job on everything (which may be a good way to not be invited to meetings in the future).
A meeting should end precisely when it needs to, neither before nor after. Yet somehow, agenda-driven meetings always fill the planned time. People will circle around the same points over again, drag out the conversation, or other things to simply fill the time. If your meeting is guided by outcomes rather than agenda, you know it’s time to end when you’ve reached those outcomes, plain and simple. You’ll also find that if you are clear on outcomes and on the value to/for attendees, they will trust you to set the meeting timeframe appropriately because they know it won’t be wasted.
I find these three areas to be the most helpful in ensuring quality time spent with colleagues, but would love to hear other suggestions.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.