Nutshell: Would like to meet: how to make the most of meetings at work

Written by
Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

Published
02 Mar 2020

02 Mar 2020 • by Sarah Wild, Editor, Changeboard

Meetings at work can enhance productivity and collaboration – where leaders have the skills to plan and run them.

Despite the fact that the humble business meeting remains at the centre of communication at work, mention the word ‘meeting’ to a colleague and the chances are we’ll be met with a certain amount of eye rolling and scepticism. It’s understandable: business meetings can be a mixed blessing, often attracting some pretty unsparing criticism. For the mighty Peter Drucker, for example, meetings are “by definition, a concession to deficient organisation… For one either meets or one works”. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Our eye-rolling and scepticism often relate to the fact that there seem to be so many meetings, and we have more than a sneaking suspicion that a high proportion of them are completely unnecessary. Estimates suggest that today’s middle managers spend more than a third of their time in meetings, while for senior managers it can be up to half.  As importantly, we’re also aware that even necessary meetings are less productive and efficient than they should be: research published in Harvard Business Review in 2017 painted a picture of squandered group and individual time, with more than half (54%) of those surveyed admitting that meetings within their organisations were too frequent, badly timed and poorly run, leading to a loss of productivity and wellbeing.

There was, however, an acceptance of meetings as a necessary evil, essential for enabling personal interaction, democratic decision making, creativity and innovation. Whatever we think of them, it’s clear that business meetings aren’t going simply to disappear. Nor should they; a well-run and effective meeting can still be worth the time and effort. In their book, How Google Works, ex-Googlers, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, go as far as to say that meetings can be “the most efficient way to present data and opinions, to debate issues, and yes, to actually make decisions." 

The key phrase here, of course, is “well-run”. The success or failure of meetings is ultimately driven by a clear understanding of their purpose, format and the rules of engagement – or lack thereof. Time to Think’s Nancy Kline argues that: “A manager’s ability to turn meetings into a thinking environment is probably an organisation’s greatest asset.” That’s an interesting perspective, a new way for us all to re-think how best, and when, to call our colleagues together. 

In short, as leaders we need to learn how to deploy and use meetings to maximum effect. And that means learning how to be an effective meeting chair

Here are ten basic principles of chairing to help make that happen. 

Principle #1: Do we need to meet at all? 

The first skill involved in running meetings successfully is knowing when it’s appropriate to have one at all. 

The American software company, Basecamp, has famously gone on record with the mantra: “Meetings are the last resort, not the first option”. Meetings are about managing collaboration, but not every conversation is a meeting. Yet, we’re probably all familiar with organisations where the Basecamp rule is inverted, with meetings being the first option rather than a last resort. 

We should hold meetings for two reasons, and two reasons only: to impart information and to solve problems. 

When we have information to share with others – and we want them to converge on an idea – we use a more linear form of communication, with minimal room for disagreement. This is essentially a briefing, designed to get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible. And while getting everyone together might be important for more significant updates, bear in mind that more routine status reports can often be replaced by other forms of communication, like round-robin e-mails, newsletters or websites. 

When we need collectively to solve a problem or make a decision, we need a true meeting, where divergenceis encouraged, using the “none of us is as smart as all of us” principle. In these gatherings, we need to be open to new ideas and directions and use every trick in the book to get ideas flowing to shape plans and decisions. We need an atmosphere of psychological safety to encourage creativity and innovation.

Before scheduling a meeting, we need, therefore, to consider whether it really is the most appropriate form of interaction, asking ourselves the following:

  • Will a meeting genuinely move things forward (or are we just giving ourselves a feeling of progress by scheduling a catch up?) 
  • Do we really need input from others at this stage/is there a joint decision to be made?
  • If so, is a real-time conversation the best way of gaining or achieving this?
  • If it is, does this conversation need to be face-to-face?

If we’re still not sure whether to meet, we might reflect on a meeting’s potential value for money. A meeting’s cost equals its length x the number of attendees x the average hourly rate of attendees. Harvard Business Review has a ‘meeting cost calculator’ that will do the maths for us. The results can be sobering. 

The most futile meetings simply recur out of habit, or are used as a proxy for real progress. Resist them at all costs. 

Principle #2: Match purpose and format 

Even when we do decide to meet, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no on-size-fits-all. Just as the days of 9-to-5-jobs-for-life are long gone, so has the need for every meeting to follow the same rigid formula and format. 

We have our disposal a greater range of meeting formats than ever before:  stand-up and walking meetings, remote meetings, silent meetings and all manner of ‘dare-to-ask’ sessions or ‘rapid demos’. Pixar, for example, organises a ‘Notes Day’, a time for internal reflection where employees gather in small groups to consider company challenges, initially in their own teams, but later mixing with people from different departments. 

And nothing could be further from the traditional board meeting than agile development ‘Daily Scrum’ meetings, often held standing and designed, in just 15 minutes, simply to synchronise activities and plan for the following 24-hours. 

Don’t confuse your briefings with your brainstorms. Not every get together needs formal minutes, the full team in attendance or a full refreshments menu. We should regularly reflect on the meetings we hold and whether a change of format would help to streamline procedure or improve outcomes. The format of any meeting must be tailored to its purpose.

Principle #3: Avoid a cast of thousands

Steve Jobs famously declined an invitation from President Obama to a meeting of tech experts because he thought too many people were going for the meeting to be productive; Elon Musk advises people simply to leave a meeting if they are not adding any value. That might be going a little far, but it’s certainly the case that only those who genuinely need to attend a meeting should be invited. 

Numbers will depend on a meeting’s format and purpose. Bloomberg’s Bob Fritsch and Josh Peck recommend three-to-six people for decision making, fewer than 20 for a discussion and unlimited attendees for information sharing.

When it comes to those ‘true’ meetings, a review of group sizes by Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, found that the most productive meetings contain five to eight people. He concluded that where more than this attend:

  • there is not enough time for everyone to participate in the conversation;
  • rich back and forth debate is replaced by shallow comments; 
  • information-sharing and catch-ups distract from addressing higher priority issues
  • people become more guarded and less candid;
  • tough topics and decisions tend not put on the agenda, and are dealt with offline instead. 

Not should we be seduced by the seemingly unlimited capacity for attending virtual meetings. The same disciplines apply. Remote meetings can eat into our time just as well as the in-person variety, and require the same forethought and follow-up; only invite the people who really need to be there.

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has instigated his two-pizza team rule, where meetings are "no larger than can be fed by two pizzas.” That’s not a bad measure to bear in mind. 

Principle #4: Set the rules of engagement

Even the most informal meetings need direction and organisation. 

It’s the role of the chair to set the right tone. Most meetings need the chair to focus both on content (the what), directing the discussion in line with the meeting’s agenda and purpose, while also facilitating the process (the how). 

Good facilitation starts before the meeting. It may include liaising with participants to set the agenda and timeframe, preparing to make the session as easy, productive and participatory as possible. 

Explaining to individuals in advance why they have been invited to a meeting and what they should contribute, can encourage participation and prevent awkward sessions where people stay silent, or feel put on the spot or ‘bulldozed’ when called upon.

Making more general expectations clear is also important. In 8 Ground Rules for Great Meetings, organisational psychologist Roger Schwarz suggests that ground rules should be agreed in advance, with everyone accepting joint responsibility for their use. These can be:

  • procedural (e.g “put smartphones on vibrate”)
  • abstract (“treat everyone with respect”) and 
  • behavioural (“explain your reasoning and intent”). 

Principle #5: Have a clear agenda

“No agenda, no attenda,” wrote Cameron Herold in his book Double Double. He’s right: meetings should not take place without a set of clearly outlined objectives.  As well as priming attendees in advance and helping a meeting to run smoothly, setting out an agenda also forces us to think carefully about a meeting’s purpose – and therefore its format and outcomes. 

An agenda should be circulated a few days prior to a meeting, giving people the chance to provide relevant updates, to prepare and to suggest additions. A good agenda, circulated at the right time, will do much to enhance engagement. 

An agenda is not, in itself, however, a silver bullet. Beware, for example, agendas that are too brief or vague. Anthony Jan calls for the proper definition of every item; he suggests that each should also be headed ‘for information’, ‘for discussion’ or ‘for decision’, so that people know what needs to be achieved.

Research also shows a minimal link between the presence of an agenda and attendees’ evaluation of meeting quality. According to Steven G Rogelberg in How to Create the Prefect Meeting Agenda. “What matters is what’s on it and how a leader facilitates discussion of the agenda items.”. 

He suggests creating an agenda as a set of questions, rather than a list of topics, to foster intentionality: for example, instead of a topic titled ‘Customer Process Improvement’, consider a question such as “what are the key ways of improving overall response time to customers by 25%?”

He also warns that, no matter who is monitoring the clock, questions at the top of the agenda will receive disproportionate time and attention, so we need to order them tactically to ensure the important stuff is tackled first.

Principle #6: Be inclusive – and encourage constructive dissent

Once a meeting is underway, it’s the chair’s role to make any necessary initial introductions and to keep conversations constructive, on track and to time. It’s also about encouraging equal participation.

People may feel shut out in meetings; for example, younger staff, women in male-dominated environments, or people from ethnic minority groups. However, properly run meetings can actually be a good place to model inclusion to the rest of the organisation. And we all know that we benefit from a more diverse range of viewpoints and perspectives. The last thing we need is people sitting in meetings and not participating. 

Introductions and a little chit-chat at the beginning of meetings help to ease participations into the proceedings. Reinforcing expectations around procedure and behaviour can also help. 

To make sure everyone has their say, some organisations are experimenting with various forms of ‘currency for contribution’. This might take the form of a poker chip or similar.  Each person places their chip in the centre to speak and, once all of the chips have been used, participants can remove their chips to speak again (and repeat). 

An ‘obligation to dissent’ policy, advocated and practised by global management consultants McKinsey, also encourages openness, and allows junior employees to challenge senior staff members without fear of admonishment.

As a meeting chair, we need to model the right behaviours and stay alert to the behaviour others. We need to listen carefully to contributions, clarify and summarise key points made and look out for body language that signals boredom or disengagement. We might need to encourage or prompt reluctant speakers. We need to be open to dissenting voices or new ideas.

The best meetings are those where the discussion is not monopolised by the usual over-contributors or gives the impression of ‘rubber stamping’ decisions that have already been made. Everyone should be encouraged and enabled to have their say. 

Principle #7: Keep on track – and look out for conflict 

Because meetings involve people who bring with them different personalities, approaches and agendas, they can threaten to get a bit messy. Unless we’re careful, we can find ourselves well adrift of the agenda, hopelessly off-topic or at each other’s throats. 

When people go off track, some experts suggest having a safe word that anyone can invoke to prevent drift; “jellyfish” is the word of choice for Bob Frisch and Cary Greene: “Simply say ‘jellyfish’ or ‘I think we’re having a jellyfish moment’ they advise. “It’s a catchall for ‘Why don’t you take this offline — the rest of us would like our meeting back’.” 

However, Schwartz warns against automatically asking a colleague to get back on topic. This assumes that “because you don’t see a relationship between the agreed-upon topic and what the other person is saying, there isn’t one,” he argues. Instead, he believes the solution is to be “transparent, curious and compassionate” asking the person to explain the relevance of their comment (“Can you help me understand the connection or, if you think it’s not related, can we figure out if and when we should address your topic?”)

When ideas are definitely off-topic, place them in a virtual ‘parking lot’, suggests Tom Krattenmaker in Make Every Meeting Matter. “On a whiteboard or a piece of paper, list the thoughts and ideas that can be pursued (or not) at a more appropriate time.” When there are “pontificators and windbags” present, “polite interruptions by the meeting leader might be necessary to cut wordy monologues short”. 

Should conflict beckon – whether due to real professional differences or power struggles and personality clashes ­– it’s up to the chair to decide when healthy debate tips over into something more destructive. Effective questioning and focusing on facts rather than emotions can help navigate it. In extreme cases, an ‘enforcer’ could even be appointed to call out any violations in meeting rules, taking the pressure off the chair.

Other roles may need to be assigned, depending on the size and formality of the meeting, including a minute taker (to take and distribute notes of decisions and actions) and time-keeper (to ensure that points on the agenda receive equitable time and attention). Intel apparently has a ‘gatekeeper’ who makes sure everyone has a chance to speak.

Principle #8: Give people time and space to think

Because people are busy, they don’t always have sufficient time to prepare for every meeting, which can undermine their productivity and value.

In silent meetings, most of the meeting time is spent digesting information and thinking before any actual conversation begins. For example, at Amazon, meetings start with each attendee sitting and silently reading a “six-page, narratively-structured memo” for the first 30 minutes, to create the context for a productive discussion.

Meetings can begin with a period of silence, but some are 100% silent, revolving around a ‘table read’ in which people comment, via collaborative documents such as Google Docs and Figma.  “Attendees can now read at their own pace, click links, refer back to other material, and think. This evens the attendee playing field for non-native speakers and remote attendees as well,” explains David Gasca in The Silent Meeting Manifesto V1.

Once information has been digested, a facilitator synthesises participants’ comments and leads the discussion. This format works just as well for remote attendees as for those present in person, and is ideal for “any complicated decision that requires deep thought”.  

Other ways to build more thinking time into meetings include ‘brainwriting’ – the simultaneous written generation of ideas ­– to replace or complement verbal brainstorming. This process helps introverts to open up, and encourages extroverts to slow down and listen. It acknowledges that some people simply need longer than others to come up with ideas. Brainwriting gives everyone extra time to think about and develop their suggestions more fully – and is another way to make sure everyone participates. 

Principle #9: Get your timing right

Parkinson’s law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion", and the same can be said of meetings. Blocking out an hour in the calendar may be second nature, but shorter meetings can be just as productive. If we have less time to accomplish something, we often tend to give it greater focus.

Plenty of experts pinpoint 45 minutes as an ideal meeting length, but why stick to round numbers? In his book The Surprising Science of Meetings, Rogelberg suggests reducing projected meeting length by 5-10% to provide a little timed pressure, arguing that “odd times attract attention, curiosity, and may even be a little fun”.

Meanwhile, using a shot clock (like the ones used in basketball) can up the pace of meetings that are prone to dragging or running over time, keeping them lively and focused. This involves setting time allocations for speakers or topics. People tend to get progressively better at managing the clock, so it’s a good training tool as well.

When we hold a meeting may also affect engagement and outcomes. Author Daniel H Pink stresses that scheduling meetings should be a matter of strategy rather than convenience. For most people, Pink suggests, analytical tasks are best done during the morning and creative ones (such as brainstorming) later in the day. Rather than focusing on people’s availability “we should be thinking about what kind of meeting it is: analytical, administrative, creative” he says, and considering whether participants “are morning people or evening people”. 

This is less straightforward with the scheduling of virtual meetings where team members may be working across time zones; however, Harvard Business School’s professor Linda Hill simply advises a healthy dose of give and take: “sometimes you adjust to them and sometimes they adjust to you”. As virtual meetings can be more tiring than in-person events, they may also need to be shorter. 

Principle #10: Follow up and follow through

The chair is ultimately responsible for ensuring that decisions made and actions agreed at meetings are followed up and followed through. Minutes or notes should be swiftly distributed (within 24 hours), meeting documents archived, and actions taken. Notes should be clear and concise, capturing key points, decision, actions and specific commitments, including agreed deadlines. 

Apple’s Steve Jobs invented the simple concept of the Directly Responsible Individual to foster accountability within teams. At meetings, every item on the agenda is given a DRI to follow up on actions, making it clear who is responsible for following through on decisions made and actions agreed. 

Having invested the time in having the meeting, it’s essential that any momentum generated is built on, rather than allowed to dissipate. Meetings need to move things forward, and that means active management of what happens next. Nothing is designed to give meetings a bad name more than those Groundhog Day get-togethers where no one’s quite sure what should have happened since the last time we met. 

Ultimately, work meetings are a fact of life and look set to remain so, even if we shift towards more agile formats and virtual gatherings. And we can even learn to love them. When run well, they support inclusion and contribution, and can be a differentiator for leaders, their teams and the commercial success of their organisations. When run poorly they can be soul-sucking time wasters, miring people in bureaucracy and circular discussions. The message is clear: let’s all learn to run them well.

 

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