The most frequent activity a team engages in is a meeting and, generally speaking, meetings are either good or bad. The good ones look like this:
The meeting is productive with creativity, energy, and people leave that meeting in a better place than before they arrived. There is a clear objective to bringing attendees together and everyone is engaged in the meeting to achieve that objective. They not only learned something new, but there was productive disagreement or debate, attendees felt listened to, and maybe they solved a problem or made a decision. Overall, they felt a sense of accomplishment and look forward to meeting again.
The bad meetings look like this:
There is no clear objective. There is an agenda, but it is a list of bullet points that is too long to cover in 60mins. If 8 people attend, only 3-4 contribute. Due to the lack of objective, the conversation rambles from one topic to the next. It is common to leave the meeting frustrated feeling like it was a waste of time. Attendees then go to their colleagues after to complain about it (and thus waste more time). Inevitably, another meeting is scheduled because nothing was solved or decided upon in the previous meeting…and the cycle continues.
Do you spend the majority of your time in good or bad meetings?
There is no shortage of information about the volume of time we spend (or waste) in meetings and the majority of us don’t need to confirm this is true. We experience it firsthand. (But if you are someone who would like to read more about the problem: see here, here, and here.)
Often I hear blame put on the part of the organizer for a boring or wasteful meeting. The reality is participants are equally as responsible for meeting success.
This week, we get straight to it and provide 5 tips for meeting organizers and 5 tips for meeting participants. Productive meetings are a shared responsibility.
1. Question Necessity: Before scheduling the meeting, ask “Is this necessary?” If you are bringing people together to only share information or provide an update and there is no need for discussion, then send an email. A significant amount of time is wasted by teams updating each other on work activities. If updates are the sole purpose of meetings, some teams benefit more by cancelling the update meetings and putting their updates into a consolidated email.
The teams I know with who do this also agree to read their email and check-in with their colleagues if they have questions. Many say getting one more email is a worthwhile trade-off for cancelling 60 minutes off their calendar each week.
2. Define a Clear Objective: If the meeting is warranted, then have a clear objective or goal. It is not enough to say, “The purpose of this meeting is to discuss xyz issue.” What will be accomplished through that discussion? A sound meeting objective will be action oriented, such as making a decision or solving a problem. It might sound like, “The purpose of this meeting is to discuss xyz issue and identify three possible solutions to be tested next week.” The meeting objective is clearly stated at the top of the meeting invite upon scheduling. This informs each participant what they should be prepared to do in that meeting.
3. Provide a Timed Agenda: To increase the chances your meeting will meet the defined objective, time out the discussion topics. Spend time thinking through how much time is needed for each topic. This is helpful to attendees so that they can follow the timing. People rarely want to spend more time in meetings.
4. Establish Ground Rules: While an agenda indicates the content of the meeting, the ground rules make clear the rules of engagement, or conduct expected. Such as – if the meeting is virtual - is video to be on, or can video be off? Are participants allowed to multi-task or is full attention required? Is everyone expected to participate or is it ok to sit back and just listen? If the expectation is to participate, write that in the ground rules. “Please plan to participate and share your ideas.”
Many teams benefit from identifying what not to talk about. Every team has a past that tends to creep into current conversations holding the team back from moving forward. If this is the case for your team, then specifically inform everyone what will not be discussed in the meeting. Likely, people will thank you for that ground rule.
5. Use Discussion Activities Getting people to engage in a meeting is hard enough. In a remote environment, it is worse. Separation by screen makes it very easy to remain silent. If the meeting has more than 5-6 people, then split participants into smaller groups. Leverage the technology by using Breakout Rooms (if using Zoom). Assign discussion questions and request small groups identify someone to report out.
Think/Pair/Share is an effective activity for any problem-solving or decision-making meeting. Present the issue to the large group and provide time for everyone to think it through independently. Embrace the silence that results. Then, pair everyone up to discuss with one colleague. Provide time for paired discussion. After that sufficient time, open it up for large group discussion.
1. Clarify Your Role: We all have been invited to a meeting and been unclear as to why. Our role is not clear. Upon receiving the invite, ask the organizer what role they would like you to play in the meeting. You can’t be an effective participant unless you know what kind of contribution the organizer would like you to make. If there isn’t a clear objective for your attendance, then this might be a meeting to decline and you would have good justification for that.
2. Respond to the Invite, Be On Time: Never “no-show” a meeting. It is discourteous to those who have invested the time in planning and to the rest who attend. Accept or decline the meeting. Not showing up isn’t an option. Then, arrive on time. A common factor for an unproductive meeting is a late start or disjointed start due to attendees arriving at different times.
3. Follow the Expectations: If the meeting organizer has asked for video on or for pre-work to be read, than do so. During the meeting engage in the content and participate in a way that enables the group to achieve the expected outcome.
4. Be Helpful: Assist the organizer with meeting management. Occasionally, someone or a select few speak up more than others and overtake the conversations. If the organizer isn’t managing this, step in. Interject and say “Thank you for that perspective, Jim. What do others think?” You can also help draw out the people who have stayed quiet. Say, “Anne, we haven’t heard from you yet. What do you think?” Engaging attendees isn’t the sole role of the organizer. The group can hold each other accountable for participation.
5. Sit Still: This is specific to remote meetings. Avoid a lot of movement while on camera. It will distract other attendees. People will wonder what you’re doing and not listen to what is being shared. If you have to get up and move, shut off your video and turn it back on once you’re set.
Given the volume of meetings we attend, it is worth everyone's time and attention to make the meeting as productive as possible. Here’s to meetings where both the organizer and the participants work together to make it a success.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.