A meeting’s a meeting, right? Think again!

If there’s one thing I have heard more than any other complaint about corporate life, it’s that we spend too much time in meetings. Everyone’s “back to back”, “away from their desk right now” and “playing catch up for the rest of the day” – but how effective were those meetings? Were they really worth attending, and are there alternative ways of working that are more efficient? Being “disruptive” at a meeting meant something very different when I started out!

Meetings in one form or another are essential for companies to devise their strategy and then monitor events to ensure that they are on target. It’s an ongoing cycle of brainstorm – agree plan – execute plan – evaluate – and start again, to meet the company’s end goal. But not every meeting makes the same contribution to that end goal. Not all meetings are as fruitful as Pixar’s legendary 1994 lunch meeting where they hatched the ideas for "Monsters Inc.," "A Bug's Life," "Wall-E," and "Finding Nemo". Why not? Because most meetings are poorly planned and poorly run, and they don’t bring out the best in people.

How can you improve your meetings so that they inspire your colleagues instead of irritate them? Get it right, and you create value and inspire team spirit. Get it wrong, and you waste everyone’s precious time again and again.

I decided to look at other cultures for a few suggestions, and at some recent variations on the traditional meeting arising out of the need to streamline the corporate day and get stuff done. Try changing your meetings and let me know how it worked out for you. You may be getting home a little earlier in future, or at least getting time for lunch.

Strict timekeeping

Meetings that ramble don’t help anyone, especially if they have another meeting to go to straight afterwards. A few techniques of use here, which are appreciated across the globe:

  • Start on time – no excuses, no repeating, and no recapping. In fact, arrive 5 minutes early to prepare the room/make sure it hasn’t been stolen by an interloper, get something to drink, test passwords and dial-in numbers etc
  • Break the ice with some brief banter, pass round doughnuts, etc – keeps the chit-chat to a minimum later
  • Stick to the agenda – the Chair and/or a moderator can make sure this happens by watching the clock
  • Don’t book a whole hour – your calendar may work in one-hour meeting slots but do you really need the whole hour? Why not 45 minutes, giving everyone a comfort break and heaven forbid, maybe even time to execute one or two actions on returning to their desk
  • Avoid complicated technology, or if you are going to present/Skype/demo something, set it up 15 minutes earlier and have it running by the time your participants sit down to meet
  • If everyone around the table needs to perform a brief update, time it, and use a stopwatch to make sure everyone sticks to the allotted time
  • Don’t take minutes (unless mandatory) – the only thing worth noting is the actions, who will execute them, and by when. Make sure these are circulated as soon as possible after the meeting
  • Actions from previous meetings should be followed up by the Chair prior to the meeting to ensure that they are cleared. Only open items need to be discussed at the start of the next meeting. Saves time and avoids cleared issues being unpicked all over again.

Standup meetings

A standup meeting or simply "standup" is a meeting in which attendees typically participate while standing. The discomfort of standing for long periods is intended to keep the meetings short. A daily standup is part of the "scrum" or "agile" methodology borrowed from software developers. This project management technique aims to keep updates daily and brief to avoid getting the project bogged down in meeting admin. Meetings (“scrums” or “huddles”) normally take place first thing in the day to re-focus the team on the objectives for the day. Interested? Find out what it takes to become a ScrumMaster here.

Make it effective

To ensure you get the most out of your meetings, try the following tips:

  • Never invite more people than it takes to eat 2 pizzas: a tip from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
  • You need to hear from everyone: not everyone speaks up at meetings but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. If someone is quiet, don’t be afraid to ask: “Amy, you’ve been quiet, what do you think?” This is a good way of steering the focus away from the people who tend to dominate meetings to other participants and ensure a more democratic participation. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk allegedly takes this to an extreme and has been heard to ask: “You haven’t said anything. Why are you in here?” Read more on Elon Musk’s approach to meetings here
  • If there are 3 people in your department invited, ask yourself if one of you should be assigned to go and then update the others afterwards? You may have nothing to say, but if someone goes in your place at least you will not miss out on any significant points raised by other attendees
  • Keep the meeting on topic – there is time for going off at tangents in your own time
  • Close down any “second meetings” that start up during the meeting
  • Close out the meeting with a brief recap and a canter through the agreed actions and their owners. That way, expectations are set for the next meeting, and everyone is accountable for the next steps.

Global meetings

More and more meetings are happening cross-border, face to face and over Skype and similar. This can be a minefield in terms of different meeting etiquettes and potential cultural faux pas – a quick review of local meeting practice may help. Communications challenges are further exacerbated by different time zones. It sounds obvious, but to avoid wasting time on an international scale, check and double check your times for multi-country meetings, and take into account the one hour difference when clocks change in the spring and autumn.

Mobile phones

Answering a mobile phone during a meeting in the US and Europe may be a sign of disrespect, but it’s just the norm for the Chinese, who often come to a meeting with more than one phone in hand. Rather than banning the mobile phone, why not try agreeing to the use of mobiles with certain conditions? After all, the meeting may not be as critical as the call, so it is not unreasonable to allow phones in the room on vibrate or quiet mode. Why not let the participants decide for themselves what is more important to them? That way they are more engaged when in the room, rather than worrying about what they are missing outside of it. Make sure they take the call out of the room though.

“Prewiring”

It’s always good practice to send an agenda ahead of your meeting to ensure everyone knows what is being discussed, what’s expected of them, and whether they need to attend. A new development along these lines is to “prewire” the attendees, especially where you need to persuade them of something, and you don’t want to stand on any landmines during the meeting itself. Prewiring consists of catching up with each participant briefly a day ahead of the meeting to identify any sticking points. An hour spent in this way may save a lot of people significant time overruns the next day at the meeting. Seen by some as an attempt to direct the outcome of the next day’s meeting, it is actually a good way of getting alignment if possible to avoid unnecessary confrontation and debate. It may also help to reduce the number of attendees if the point of the meeting is better understood, or to assign the meeting to a smaller committee offline, or even eliminate the need to meet at all.

Finally, perhaps there will always be an element of “meeting fails” however hard we try – perhaps it’s human nature from NYC to W1A.

Now you are ready to start the week with a lean and mean scrum tomorrow morning!

Next week I’ll be looking at combining a career break with a career change – and why you don’t have to go back to your old career.

Until next week…

Anonymous