So, wanna make your meetings better? Start here.

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By Tim Gouw on Usplash

On Wednesday, I shared my thoughts about why a “no phones in meetings” policy is a flawed premise–and why it’s better to start by focusing on improving meetings themselves. One of the things that irks me is that meetings are so often bad, despite how easy it is to getting them right. So, what’s the solution?

So, what’s the solution? At minimum, every time we lead or participate in a meeting, we should insist upon these standards:

  • First, make sure it’s necessary. Take the hourly rate of everyone you’re calling together, and multiply it by the time you’ve asked them to devote to the meeting. Is it worth the cost in terms of dollars, or would that time be better spent on something else? If you can’t justify it terms of dollars, you probably should be careful about making the investment of time. And speaking of time…
  • Start on time; end on time; schedule it for the right amount of time. Here’s a quick tip:  in whatever calendar app you use, change the default meeting time from 60 minutes to 30. That’s not to say every meeting should be 30 minutes, but changing the default forces you to think about how much time you really need. If you’re letting the default choose the meeting time, it’s worth remembering Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
  • Have an agenda*. This should be so obvious that it hurts my head to think about it, but I’ve sat in many agenda-less meetings. Know what you intend to talk about, and…
  • Have a main theme: why are we here? What’s it all about, Alfie? What’s the primary reason you’re brought everyone together?  Include the focus of the meeting in big, bold print at the top of the agenda. Make it unmistakable. And, to make sure the most important items get their due…
  • Every agenda item gets a time budget. Imagine a one-hour meeting to discuss four agenda items of equal importance. Now imagine that there’s no time allotment for each item. Do you think each will get roughly the same amount of attention? Unfortunately, what usually happens is that the first item will get 45 minutes, and then you’ll scramble to cover the last three items in the remaining 15 minutes (or you’ll go past the agreed-upon end time, thereby pouring hourglass sand into the attendees’ wounds). By giving each item a budgeted time, and sticking to it, everything will get the requisite attention.
  • Digressions should be rare and only allowed when important to the group. If the group takes the conversation off the agenda in a productive way, and if what they’re talking about is important, that’s a good digression. However, if someone takes the meeting off track with a very personal ax to grind, that’s not so good. Allow for the former, but suggest the latter become either a separate conversation with only the necessary parties or include it on the next meeting’s agenda. It’s about what’s best for the group, not what’s important to one individual in the group.
  • Respectful dissent is encouraged. As hard as it may be to believe, we’re wired to be agreeable. As a result, one of the worst byproducts of meetings is groupthink–when you see heads nodding up and down but (at least some of) the brains inside  of those heads are thinking “no effing way.” The more diverse the group is in terms of hierarchy, the more prone your meeting is to groupthink. Head this off by starting with an endorsement of respectful dissent, and then reward those who offer contrary opinions, even if you can’t act upon those opinions. Remember: as Douglas Merrill says, “all of us are smarter than any of us”–but only if we’re free to share our best ideas, not just the uncontroversial ones.
  • Minutes are recorded and disseminated. If you spend the first 20 minutes of your meeting trying to remember what you talked about at the last meeting, you’re doing it wrong. Identify a note taker and have the notes shared among with the group immediately after the meeting, with action items clearly identified.

I want to stress that these are minimum standards. There are several other ways to improve meetings–sending out the agenda in advance, standing or walking instead of sitting when possible, and rotating who leads meetings to make them more egalitarian, to name just a few. The bottom line, however, is that if you’re not doing all of the above, it’s not worth doing much else. Including banning cell phones.

*If you’re looking for an example of an agenda that incorporates the suggestions above, send me an email and I’ll share one with you.

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