How much time do you think the average person spends in meetings over their entire life? 1,000 hours? 10,000 hours? 100,000 hours? According to Ryo Sakibara of Cambridge Technology Partners, the answer is 300,000 hours. This was before Zoom meetings went mainstream in a big way. So, the time spent in meetings may actually be increasing.
The problem, however, is not so much that we are spending so much time in meetings. The problem is that we are spending more time in unproductive meetings. The common reaction to this is paint almost all meetings as evil and get rid of as many meeting as possible. However, this produces yet another problem.
If you reduce the number of meetings to zero, you end up clogging up your already full inbox and your Slack chat area goes into overdrive. What could have easily been done with a phone call or quick meeting drags out over days in a life-sucking ping pong game with your inbox.
It is better to have more meetings that matter. Where decisions get made, actions are taken, and we can all spend time concentrating on doing good work. So, what can be done?
First, would be the apply the 8 basic actions as recommend by Ryo Sakibara.
- Prepare for the meeting
- Check meeting completion outcome(s)
- Check the time allocation
- Make the discussion visible
- Allow everyone to have a say
- Encourage agreement
- Check on the decisions and action items
- Do a post mortem
BTW, Ryo Sakibara wrote one of the best practical books on running meetings in the corporate environment. Unfortunately, it is in Japanese and there is no English translation.
Now, looking at the items, what do you think? Is there anything surprising on that list? What are the ones that you are doing now? What are the ones that you would like to do, but don’t? Let’s look at this one point at a time.
- Meeting Completion Outcomes
- Time Allocation
- Encouraging engagement
- Decisions and action items
The magic of a great meeting is all the work that’s done beforehand.Bill Russell, professional NBA player
Except for the really important meetings, how often do you prepare for a meeting? Isn’t it more often that you just fire off an email and a bunch of people gets together to talk about something? The main problem with meetings is that sometimes you really don’t need to have one. How do you figure that out? How should you prepare anyway?
When thinking about if you even need a meeting you need to consider the following things:
Purpose: Why are you even having the meeting
The purpose is why you are having the meeting in the first place. What is the thing that you want to accomplish after the meeting is over?
There are quite a few meetings that are held just because that is the way people have done things. This is particularly true, when it comes to meetings for department updates and reports. The question here becomes what are you really trying to accomplish? Do you really need a meeting to get that done? Is there some other way that is more effective?
Often it is way more productive to consider how a project should proceed, what are the processes that need to be in place, and what kind of communication strategy should be we use to limit back and forth as much as possible.
If you having a meeting to consider those things it is definitely worth it. If you are having a meeting just to decide things on the fly you might want to reconsider how you are doing things.
People: Who should attend the meeting
Next are people. People are the attendees. Who really needs to be there in order to accomplish your purpose.
One problem with meetings is not having the right people at the meeting. Sometimes the person who needs to make the decision is not there. Sometimes too many people are invited who are not directly connected to what needs to be discussed. More often a person is there just in case, someone has a question or needs a comment. These people should not be invited but consulted when you prepare for the meeting.
It is often better to invite who is needed and send out the minutes to the rest who just need to be informed. People with no real stake in the meeting will just quietly work during the meeting anyway ruining the atmosphere.
Process: How you run the meeting
Process is the general flow of the meeting and the rules you will follow to make decisions, generate ideas, etc.
Instead of acting in an ad-hoc manner, it more efficient if you make the agenda clear. It is also a good idea to also assign time limits for everything. The problem with time is that people fill up whatever time you give them. If you give a person 30 minutes they will talk for 30 minutes. If you give them 10 minutes they will talk for 10 minutes. So, you might want to keep things a little on the short side to make sure everyone is short and to the point.
Property: What you need for the meeting
Property are the physical things you need for the meeting. Where will you meet? Do you need a projector or some sort of software?
If everyone is telecommuting, you might not need to reserve a meeting room. However, you may need to make sure that you know how to use the software. Also, different people will use different software. You may be looking at Zoom, Teams, WebEx, etc. If you need brainstorming exercises then you may need to look at programs like Miro or Mural.
Not every tool will work well with your meeting’s purpose. So, you should make sure that those things fit. Also, by forgetting this part you may learn during the meeting that you don’t have what you need. I remember reserving a room that did not have a whiteboard. During the meeting, we needed one, and I had to spend the next 10 minutes hunting for one.
While, going through this may seem like a lot of work, but it should not take you a few minutes to figure out. If you go through the trouble of preparation you may even find out that you don’t need the meeting in the first place. Or you greatly reduce the time it takes by being clear on what needs to happen and then communicating that to the attendees.
Think of the purpose, people, process, property needed for the meeting. This little bit of work up front will save you time during the meeting.
Meeting Completion Outcomes
Meeting are not held just to have a meeting and have a discussion. There is often something that people want to be done because there was a meeting. However, there are cases where nothing was decided on and the meeting just ends.
One common case is to “share” information with the group. This can be done in any number of ways. You could have everyone send an email with their updates. You could setup a wiki where people could post their updates. You could even use some form of corporate SNS like you would find in Salesforce.com. So, the question is why do want to have the meeting in the first place and what it should it accomplish.
How is this going to end?
To make that clear you need to clarify what should happen once the meeting is over.
For example, suppose you are having a weekly update with those in your department. In the very worst case, every presenter will be reading the slides on the screen. After everyone is done, the meeting is over. That is a colossal waste of time.
Most likely the boss is more concerned about issues that are holding up progress. He or she may want to sniff out problems before they become bigger ones. In that case, by the end of the meeting, there should be a few decisions made and the action items for the week should be clear to everyone attending. That means knowing who does what by when.
Should we stop here for the day or go all the way to the end?
In another setting, you may have a deal with a problem and come up with a solution. These kinds of meetings can be complex. A meeting like that can have multiple phases. From the analysis of the current situation, framing the problem, developing the solution, decided on the solution or solutions.
People have limited time, so you may need to consider if you can do the whole thing in one day, or split it up across several days. In the latter case, you will need to have different completion outcomes for each meeting. You may realize that it is not realistic to do the whole meeting in one day or you may find out that you only have one day.
Make the meeting outcome clear and almost everyone will contribute to meeting that goal. Fail to so and you find yourself wasting everyone’s time.
Sometimes meetings go way too long. Other times there is so much discussion on trivial matters that there is not enough time for the really important things. Even if you know what the endpoint of the meeting is supposed to look like it is also a good idea to chart the path.
Let`s suppose that you have a meeting where you had multiple teams look into a turnover problem at the call center. The agenda items are as follows:
- Report from each team
- Clarify all possible problems
- Narrow down to the most important issues
So, if you are going to have a one hour meeting. How long should each part be?
First of all “Report from each team” should not be last the entire hour. That could very well happen if you have each team read out their pretty PowerPoint slides. You could allocate an equal amount of time for each part. That may not be the best way to manage time.
Equal time for each item or priority focus?
Looking that the three items above, what is the one item that you should spend the most time on? If it were me, that would probably be the middle one. Finding the right problem is 80% of the solution, so I would think you should put 40 minutes into the middle section. You can then put 10 minutes for reporting and 10 minutes for narrowing down.
Now you might think that 10 minutes is too short for reporting. This is where you have to get creative. What would be the best way to use that time? Would you require all the attendees to read the material in advance and leave the 10 minutes for just Q&A? Would you ask the team to just hit the highlights? Would you just have everyone read the PowerPoint material silently for those 10 minutes? There all kinds of ways you could run this.
Any case, thinking about the time will force you think about if you:
- Have enough time to accomplish what you want.
- Force you to think about how to use that time more effectively.
Further, when you start scribing (recording the discussion so people can see it), you can also visually remind people if they on time or falling behind. That way you can get people on track and finish on time.
Making it clear how much time should be spent on each agenda item forces people to think of ways to use their time wisely. Also, it can be used as a reminder to keep things short and sweet.
In many cases, there a lot of discussions that go on during a meeting. Further many discussions can go down various rabbit holes. It can be hard for us to remember everything that we are talking about especially if somebody went off track. This ends up causing every meeting to be something like blind chess.
A grand chess master can hold hundreds to thousands of chess patterns in his or her head. This allows the master to play chess blindfolded with multiple players.
However, for an average person that would be close to impossible. Can you hold a couple of past conversations in your head? Can you repeat that verbatim?
What about graphic recording?
I’m guessing the answer is no. That is why it better to get the conversation out of the air and on to a whiteboard or screen. One solution could be graphic recording.
While graphic recording can be a great way to visualize what has been said by a presenter, it is more problematic in a normal meeting. There are two reasons. One, most normal humans don’t have the confidence to start drawing pictures and words summarizing the meeting. All that was educated out of us in elementary school.
Second, most companies would not pay to have a graphic recorder for all meetings at the company. It would require quite a few people, and it can very hard to justify to a hard-nosed CEO the ROI of the endeavor. If anyone has had any success, I would like to hear about it.
Are bullets and simple abbreviations fine?
Fortunately, you do not have to do that. All you have to do is simply put what was said on a screen or a whiteboard. Start with the agenda item. Then underneath that make a bullet point. Then write was said. You can use a little bit of abbreviation if you want.
I do not suggest summarizing in your own words. That can be difficult for some. It can also have other attendees complain that the writer is putting words in their mouth. So, abbreviation and simplification is better.
Another thing you can do is mark Q for questions A for answers and D for decisions. It also helps you circle those letter to make them stand out.
Now you might say, that little bit of advice is great, but we we are in an online environment. What can we do then. Simple open a google document and share the screen of that document. I would suggest making sure that the document doesn’t take up the entire screen and that you also see other peoples faces. That will help interaction.
To keep people focus and also aware of all that has been said in the meeting it is good to write out the remarks. Use simple abbreviation and symbols the group can recognize. Use something like a google doc if it is online.
Another common problem is that sometimes the most talkative people are the ones dominating the conversation. But they may not have the best ideas. If you want to get the best out of a meeting it can be important to have everyone contributing to the discussion.
This can be hard for some personalities and some working environments. What is a way to encourage participation by all attendees?
The problem here is this will requite a bit more meeting facilitation skill than your average employee. A skilled facilitator and can bring the best out of any group. However, most of us do not have the time nor the budget to hire one. So, here are couple of things the average person can do.
- Smile and express interest
- Nod, sympathize, and/or agree
- Express thanks and praise
Smile and express interest
First, especially for the more quiet employees, it is good to look at them, smile, and express interest in what they say. There quite a few younger and more sensitive employees who do not want say anything stupid or wrong. It may very well be that these employee will not even give good ideas or comments at first.
Please try to put up with that at least the first couple of times. Try to show interest even if you are not interested at first. Later on that may pay you back in spades.
Other ways to say “Yes, and …”
Next would be the common improve technique of “Yes, and…” This is simply not to directly disagree with the comment. Even if you think that it is wrong, unworkable, or just insane you can still nod, sympathize with the comment and probe deeper. For example, you could get this kind of conversation:
How about we include WiFi?
That is insane! Who needs WiFi in a dishwasher.
Interesting. Why do you think we should add WiFi?
Dishwashers are in the center of the kitchen. They could connect all other appliances. We could then market a “Connected Kitchen.”
I`m not sure outside a few female geeks would care about that.
Who do you think would be interested in buying that?
I`m not sure.
OK. Then get back to me when you find out.
Here you can see that on the inside Jessica thinks Tim’s idea is to put it mildly stupid. But, she doesn’t go out and say that openly. Instead she ask a few questions to clarify Tim’s thinking. Instead of panning the idea, she has Tim go back to the drawing board to think about it some more.
What all this does is it encourages Tim to do more thinking and it also encourages Tim to speak up more. If we had a different situation where Jessica just body slams Tim with market data and logic about how silly an idea that is, we probably would not hear much from Tim again.
Thank them for the question or comment
Another thing that you can do is simply thank or praise the comment or question. If you have an employee say “So, why are we selling this at $50? Wouldn’t we get more sold if we sold it at $30 dollars?”
Instead of reacting by saying “Are you stupid? Do you know how much it cost to make one?” It is better to say something like, “That`s a good question. How much do you think it costs to make this widget?” Or “Great question. You see, it currently costs us about XX, so that would make our profit margin YY. Even if we increase volume by ZZ%, our profits would still be down.”
Repeat or rephrase
Another way of encouraging people to talk is to simply repeat or rephrase what you heard. Sometimes the other side doesn’t express their thoughts clearly. So, it can help if you just repeat what was said. They will most likely reword what they said. Either that or feel like you are agreeing with what is said and continue on explaining what they meant.
It can go something like this:
So I`m think we should put out some Tik-Tok ads.
Yeah, it a really popular SNS platform and it is time to get on the ground floor.
The ground floor?
Yep. Well, right now not many are putting ads out. The audience is rather young and doesn’t spend much money. On second thought, maybe we should just wait a bit.
I think we should wait a bit, too.
You don’t need to be a world class facilitator to encourage discussion. Just be positive, ask questions, and smile.
Decisions and action items
It is not too uncommon for the boss to think a certain thing was decided, and the employee to think that a different thing was decided. By leaving somethings up in the air, it can cause there to be hard feelings and extra work later.
To avoid this it is important to “circle back” on what was said in the meeting. If there were any decisions that were made, it is a good idea to repeat what was decided. If there are action items, it is again a good idea to repeat those action items, clarify who is in charge, and also when it needs to be done. Depending on the volume of the meeting this can take 10 minutes.
Write it down to avoid misunderstanding
Even if you mention these verbally, there still is the possibility of misunderstanding. There is also the possibility that the person who was supposed to be paying attention was not doing so. To remove that risk, it is better to have the meeting scribe write all those down.
If you are using a whiteboard, write it on the whiteboard. If you are using a Google document then write it in a Google document. Have the person who is supposed to carry out the task and agree to it and move on to the next thing. Afterward, share the document with everyone so no one has any excuse.
Out of all the things that you could do to improve meeting quality, this is the one you should at least do first. Anyone can do this. Even the average peon.
That person could just self-consciously raise their hand and say “Just to make sure my notes are correct, you mean that Bob needs to report to you on the cause of the smoke from Widget C by next Wednesday, right?” No one will blame you if you just asking for clarification. And the boss may be happy that someone heard him correctly for the first time.
If there one thing that should absolutely be done at any meeting, it is checking the decisions and action items at the end of the meeting. This act alone can turn an absolute waste of time into a moderately productive meeting.
After any meeting there are good things and not-so-good things. The trick to getting better is to slowly remove the not-so-good things. This cannot be done by just doing meetings over and over and over again. You might be making the same mistakes each time.
First, ask yourself how you did
The first thing you can do is simply look back at the meeting and see if it accomplished what you set to do. If not then why not? If so then why so?
Then you can go back and try think of anyway to streamline or improve how you ran the meeting. Could you have prepared better? Was there anyway you could better improve discussion or time management?
Then ask others how it could be improved
Of course, there is a limit to what one person can come up with. We often don’t see our own blind spots. That is why it is useful to ask others for feedback. However, that can be hard to do.
Why can it be hard to ask people about what was wrong with how you handled the meeting? Even if you have the guts and poise to accept harsh criticism, you may not get anything like it. The reason may be that if you asked, some people may not feel comfortable criticizing the boss or a co-worker. In those cases, it is better to ask what could be done better. That way no one has to point out what was wrong.
You could send a simple Google Form to get feedback, but the easiest way is simply to be honest and ask. If it seems cheesy to say “So, how was my handling of the meeting?” You could say, “I was reading this book on running meetings, it suggested that feedback is important. What do think could be done to make the meeting better?”
That might get you a more helpful answer. Plus, any hard nosed business guy won’t think you have gone off into facilitation whoo-whoo land.
At the heart of any improvement is feedback. Think about how you could improve. Also be tactful in getting and accepting feedback from others.
Having a productive meeting is not that hard. It can be done if you just do the things that were mentioned. To recap these were:
- Prepare for the meeting
- Check meeting completion outcome(s)
- Check the time allocation
- Make the discussion visible
- Allow everyone to have a say
- Encourage agreement
- Check on the decisions and action items
- Do a postmortem
Most of these things are not that complicated. You can try to implement them all at once, or just a little bit at a time. For some of these, you do not need to be the boss and nor rising star. Just be humble, honest, and wanting to use everyone’s time wisely.
If there seems to be no culture of productive meetings at your company, never fear. Just start with #7 then move on to #2 after #7 becomes a thing.
If you or others want more help in running meetings or give better presentation in meetings, please drop me a line, I would be more than happy to help.