Meetings can either be soul-sucking wastes of time or super productive collaborative gatherings—and here’s some good news—you get to decide.
To ensure that all meetings are the latter and not a black hole of dead air and loss, make sure you all actually need to meet.
If you’re unsure of when or why to call a meeting, here are the ONLY reasons a meeting is the right format for a gathering of people.
THE WHEN + WHY OF MEETINGS
1. You need collective wisdom.
You’ve tried to solve a problem and you haven’t been able to. You’ve asked your mentors, colleagues and other members of your brain trust and no one has come up with a viable solution.
So now you want to get the collaborative power of the entire group to brainstorm and help you solve the problem.
To ensure that they come prepared to do their best work, give everyone attending whatever briefing materials you can BEFORE they arrive so they have some time to think on their own before joining the group.
2. You need to make a decision.
You are at a pivotal point or a fork in the road and a decision needs to be made. To make sure you get buy-in and adoption, you want everyone to be a part of the decision rather than just handing down an edict from above.
Make sure everyone who is attending understands why they are there and then make sure everyone gets a vote. There’s no point in bringing everyone together if you’re not going to let them participate.
3. You’re launching a project.
Whether you have a fancy shovel and helmet or just a simple metaphorical ribbon to cut, the kick off of a new project typically requires a meeting.
The shared experience of starting something together is one of the best ways to get everyone off on the right foot.
This is a great time to share the WHY of the project and also the WHEN and the HOW MUCH. Keeping everyone invested in staying on budget and on time is essential to any project’s success.
4. You’ve got big news.
Good news or bad news, if you’ve got something to share that is likely to prompt big reactions from folks, it’s a good idea to share it in a common setting. This way everyone’s feelings can be addressed at the same time.
You can safely bet that if one person is feeling something, others will be, too. And that way you’re not having to have the same conversation over and over.
A meeting also gives you a good platform for everyone to ask all their questions—or at least all the questions they can think of in the moment so you can answer them for everyone.5.
5. You’re at a project milestone.
Just like the kickoff meeting, there are times when you are approaching or at a milestone in a project when a meeting is required.
Just like with any project itself, watch for scope creep in these interim meetings. They can quickly derail into a complain-fest where people dump their frustrations and disappointments rather than focus on the goals of the project or the agenda for the meeting.
6. It’s an actual emergency.
Should something catastrophic occur, meeting at the designated location is a great way to check for everyone’s safety and execute your emergency plan.
Running out of toilet paper or Post-its does not qualify as an emergency. Inconvenient, definitely, so make sure you always take your phone to the bathroom with you.
HOW TO RUN EFFECTIVE MEETINGS
Based on 2+ decades of attending meetings, coaching clients on running their meetings and speaking to thousands of people at events, these are my current suggested best practices on how to run a meeting for your success AND the success of everyone attending.
Even if you’re not particularly creative, it’s easy to envision the colossal shift businesses and each of us in our personal lives would experience if we had that time to do something else rather than sitting in a conference room doodling in the margins of the agenda counting the minutes until the meeting is over.
1. Call Standing Meetings.
By standing meetings, I don’t mean recurring meetings. I mean meetings where everyone stands. They are sometimes called stand-up meetings, but why quibble over the name?
The point is, if you call everyone into the conference room and feed them sugary, starchy foods and make them sit for 60-90 minutes, you shouldn’t be surprised that they are not focused or particularly engaged.
If instead, you bring them into a room and meet for 15 minutes and everyone is standing up, they will be in and out of that meeting as quickly as possible.
2. Handouts + agenda are distributed no less than 24 hours prior.
When you call people to a meeting, you want them to come ready to do their best work. You don’t want them guessing or making things up to get out of the room or satisfy some artificial idea of participation.
One of the best ways to ensure this happens is to give them the agenda and any handouts at least 24 hours before the meeting—72 hours is the ideal window. Any longer and they will not look at it and any shorter and they’ll be reading it as they are walking down the hallway into the meeting. And then they’ll tell one of their 200 Lies about why they didn’t come better prepared.
You have engaged them in real work and real work takes thought, and deliberation and even revision. Why not give them the time they need to come with, as a professor of mine used to say, “a full lunchbox?”
When I call a meeting, I don’t want to be someone’s best guess, I want their best work—I’m sure you do, too.
3. Set time limits for every agenda item.
Every meeting should have time limits for each item on the agenda AND a timekeeper.
When choosing the time keeper, do not choose someone everyone already views as aggressive, judge-y or otherwise a pain in the ass. If Bob down the hall is always harassing everyone about cleaning out the fridge, he is not your best candidate for this role.
If you run out of time for a line item or topic, table it and take it up as old business at the next meeting OR see if the discussion is far enough along that you can finish the work through another channel—possibly Asana or another task management app OR Slack or even email.
4. Never schedule back-to-back meetings—ever.
This should almost be #1 but it’s here in ‘clean-up’ position because it’s so important—if the baseball analogy is lost on you, check this out for clarity.
You are deep in bullshit if you are trying to make a case for why back-to-back meetings are ever needed or essential to how your office/business runs. Pure and simple bullshit.
A) Unless you are meeting in the same room as the previous meeting, you’ll be late to the next meeting. A crappy way to start any gathering.
B) You need time to debrief yourself after the meeting. You can’t synthesize what just happened in the last meeting as you’re running down the hall to the next meeting. OR frantically checking your phone as the previous attendees leave and the next crew rolls in.
C) Because you need the time to debrief, you’re not really present in the new meeting. You’re trying to read your notes from the last meeting and memorialize any deliverables or action items so you’re basically only there in body, not in mind or heart for the first 5-15 minutes of the current meeting anyway.
Why not get everyone on the same page about this at work and agree that there is always a 15-minute buffer between meetings? I promise you productivity will go up by 10-15% immediately.
5. Only invite people who need to be there.
No one really calls a meeting because they’re lonely. At least I hope they don’t.
You don’t need to fill the room so the meeting feels like a sold-out show at MSG for it to be a success. Most experts agree that the fewer people you have in a meeting and ensuring they are the RIGHT people to be in the room, the more likely you are to get great results.
This is the in-person version of CC.ing everyone on an email that only 3 people needed to see.
And if you were asked to be in the meeting and after reviewing the agenda think you have nothing to add, please ask the convener if it’s essential for you to attend. Explain why you think it isn’t and see if you can do something better with your time than filling a chair.
6. Send reminders of follow up items at least 72 hours prior.
Be proactive and confirm that deliverables are on target for the next meeting at least 3 working days before the meeting.
Don’t wait until the last minute to check in with key players. Particularly if the meeting involves anyone traveling from out of town.
If you find out that things are delayed and meetings need to be rescheduled, you’ve got a good window within which to do it.
No one wants to walk into a meeting ready to work only to find out then that the required work has not been finished and the meeting is adjourned.
7. Debrief yourself after the meeting.
This item is the bookend to #4—the end of the meeting is NOT the end of the meeting.
The meeting is only finished when you have taken all your notes, recorded them where they need to be recorded, created any action items and deliverables, assigned any deadlines and shared that information with the rest of the attendees.
That is when the meeting is over.
And that is why you never schedule back-to-back meetings.
The more you practice this principle, the faster you will finish the last bits of the meeting.
You always want to give yourself enough time to complete this step otherwise you are wasting time AND risking the success of future meetings and the project itself.
Every task has a beginning and an end—that’s what makes it a task.
Being thorough about this step allows you to move onto your next tasks cleanly and with focus and no lingering questions or doubts about the meeting.
Don’t deprive yourself of this great feeling and sense of accomplishment.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A meeting can be a useful and powerful tool.
As long as you’re clear about why and when it is happening and what you want to accomplish, a meeting may be the best choice for a group of people to move a project forward.
Be smart about how you call for a meeting, how you attend one, and it will serve you well.
Are you ready to take your meeting game to another level?
Then sign up for our Rapid Results Coaching Program. We’ll dive deep into all of these ideas and more to make sure you never attend another useless meeting.
Imagine how productive you could be if you lock up this Time Thief and keep him locked up for good.
One of the pioneers of professional organizing and productivity, Andrew Mellen is the best-selling author of Unstuff Your Life!. He travels the world speaking, teaching, and coaching individuals and global brands including the New York Mets, Genentech, American Express, Time, Inc. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.