Productive meetings only please

April 4, 2020

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a meeting room, face to face or virtual, getting more and more frustated as the clock ticks and discussions spiral out of control?

There could be a flimsy agenda, or worse none at all, goals and objectives are not clearly articulated, and good meeting etiquette has drifted off into the sunset. Combine this our natural instinct to talk about current world events, sport, office gossip etc. and you might find yourself asking these questions:

  • How much is this meeting costing? Quickly calculating the cost of each particpant against time spent.
  • Why am I here?
  • What value can I add? I should not have accepted
  • Why are the so many people here? They don't all contribute
  • Where's the agenda?
  • Who's taking minutes? What are the actions?
  • We keep talking, why are we not making progress?

I am sure the list can go on and I hope some of these resonate with others, or I am in danger of this blog post being a rant, possibly accentuated by the current number of virtual meetings we are faced with.

Personally, when I stray into this thought process I cannot help but think back to Elon Musks view on meetings.


Elon Musk's view on meetings

Back in 2018 an email was leaked from Tesla outlining ways staff could help streamline operations. Some of the guidance was focused on meetings:

  • No large meetings
  • If you're not adding value to a meeting, leave.
  • No frequent meetings.

Whilst very radical, and possibly not achievable in most businesses I think there are some valid points. The key is all in the preparation and planning. Working back from Mr Musk's guidance you can start to formulate a "definition of ready" for each of your meetngs which can be easily adpated for different situations and audiences.

Making meetings productive

I will openly admit, in my earlier years in the IT industry I would head into meetings and workshops with minimum preparation powered by a slice of bravado, thinking I knew best. Very quickly I realised I was putting myself in difficult positions and productivity was not what it should have been. How did I know? Simple, things such as the atmosphere in the room, people's body language, and not getting the desired output were setting off internal alarm bells - I had to make things more productive.

I mentioned earlier the "definition of ready", an agile term borrowed from the scrum framework, it's a checklist I follow before heading into any meeting, even if I have limited time to plan. This is not a an exhaustive list but some of the key points I think give structure and productivity:

  • Constuct a strong agenda with estimated timings, circulate early for feedback (where possible)
  • Define the goals and objectives of the meeting
  • Assign a strong "agenda aware" facilitator, if you are not able to fulfil ths role
  • Prepare meeting content, and have any related information close to hand
  • Set some meeting rules (arrive on time, mobiles off etc.)
  • Complete a stakeholder analysis and only invite key attendees, prevent attendees forwarding appointments
  • Start to think about follow-up activities, actions people might need to do after the meting

Remember, you can share these with your meeting invite to save time at the being of the meeting and let your attendees know the thought and planning you have already invested. I adopt the same approach for both office based meetings and digital, there should be no difference.

For those who have managed to get this far, it may all seem a little simple and obvious BUT I'm guessing you started reading because you have "been there". It only takes a couple of non-productive meetings to set the tone on a project, don't be the one to start the trend and challenge when things aren't working out.

Walking out as Elon Nusk suggests is probably a feeling we all get from time to time, I think it is probably best to resist in most instances and work with the team to make meetings more productive.

Practice what you preach

Finally, I cannot stress the importance of leading by example. Meetings don't need to be boring but they need to be valuable. We all have a role to play whether your organising, participating or faciliting - seek feedback, iterate your approach, be dynamic.

Whilst being professional is a good thing it does not necessarily need to be regimented and over formal, if you can have fun in a relaxed environment and be productive then you are winnning. People will see the value in your approach and may start to adapt and apply elements of your meeting preparation and style to their own meetings.


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