Meetings! They don’t need to be dreadful if you follow these tips & tricks

The word meeting has almost become something of a swear word for many business professionals. “Oh, no! My day is once again full of meetings and I don’t know when I will have time to do some actual work.” The good news is that most of them are conference calls or include so many people that nobody will even notice me doing my emails.   

Apparently in the USA alone there are 55 million planned meetings every day and 30-40% report them being ineffective. Looking with a LEAN lens, this sounds like lots of waste.

Typically ineffective meetings are a consequence of a lack of ownership, training on facilitation and critical thinking before sending out the invites. With this in mind, let’s take a look at best practices on how to organize purposeful meetings that ensure your attendees won’t sit on their phones or do other stuff while muted.

First things first – if you can, avoid meetings

Whenever you think of organizing a meeting, always start with an objective in mind. What do you want to achieve? Once this is clear in your head, only then determine the best format. Organizing a meeting should always be a “last resort”. 

Maybe you only need to share information with your colleagues, so writing a memo and sending it to others will be sufficient. If you are worried that they might not pay enough attention to your document, then distribute it in advance and organize Q&A session which will take half of the time. Or you could borrow Jeff Bezos practice of reading memos in the beginning of a meeting. 

You could also experiment by using different types of formats, such as video messages. Video as a communication tool is gaining traction, especially among younger generations. Try to avoid long videos and potentially split them into different themes. And don’t forget to experiment with what works for you. 

If you cannot avoid organizing a meeting, then let’s make sure to prepare well in advance. 

Well-thought through agenda helps

Making a strict agenda for your meeting can be tricky, because you don’t want people to feel like they are constrained in certain boundaries. On the other hand, you don’t want your attendees to deviate and start discussing something that is not related to your meeting objectives. As always we need to strive for a healthy balance.   

A reflection session on Integrated Villages NGO in Uganda was structured, but also included some fun.

My golden rule is to set a high level agenda, which allows for a certain deviation, but still provides a useful structure to follow. Everyone knows in advance what we aim to achieve, how the meeting is set-up and how to prepare beforehand. I find it useful to send a pre-read which can be expressed in different formats to save time during the meeting. 

Once the agenda is ready, think of who needs to be there. Be critical at this point. You don’t want to have too many people, as you could potentially waste their most important resource – time, but also your meeting quality might suffer. The more people you have, the higher the likelihood that you will deviate from the agenda as a group.  

The same goes with the meeting length. Try to avoid the standard 60 minutes meetings and challenge yourself to finish in ideally 30 or 45 minutes. This usually earns lots of respect from the attendees. If your time is over 60 minutes, then consider building short 5 minutes breaks in between, so people can take a short mental break. 

Every meeting should have a facilitator

It’s always good to have someone taking ownership to facilitate a meeting. That person can ensure that you follow an agenda and don’t get stuck at discussing the first part only, which happens often. 

Usually the facilitator is the organizer, but this doesn’t always need to be the case. If you know that you need to be heavily involved in a discussion, then ask someone to take the lead in facilitating. 

The facilitator can also play a big role in the follow-up, which usually is necessary. Make sure that you take relevant notes and share it with everyone. This helps to keep the agreed commitments and follow-up if needed. 

Great facilitators are not afraid to experiment with different meeting formats. Instead of sitting and discussing, they encourage participants to do silent brainstorming with post-its or other engaging tools. There are lots of good reviews about stand-up meetings, which ensures that everyone is focused. 

Graffiti Wall
My favorite of all times – Graffiti Wall. I bought the wall paper from a local hardware store.

A good facilitator makes sure that everyone is heard and contributing to the discussion. It’s terrible if you are invited to a meeting with lots of participants and it’s dominated only by a few people. In this case, using ELMO can help you a lot! 

Feedback is a gift, so don’t be afraid to ask

Although structure helps, experimentation is even more helpful. Don’t get stuck using one approach and always try different things. Maybe in certain discussions with a particular group you can use one format, whereas in another case the same set-up won’t work. Be open about this and continuously improve.

You don’t need to do this alone, so ask for feedback from others. A short reflection session could be a standard point of your meeting at the end. You can use a flip-chart or whiteboard asking your participants to express their positives and things to improve for the next time. This serves as great input for quick improvement actions you can take during your next meeting. 

Although, organizing meetings sounds like a basic skill, it is not! It’s important that organizations take sufficient attention to their meeting culture. You want your employees to have enough time to do their actual work and continuously think about how to improve their current work. As suggested by Steven Rogelberg, you could include a question about meeting culture in your regular employee engagement survey. This is a good way to understand your current state and how to improve if needed. 

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