Your Meetings Suck (And So Do Mine)

My latest efforts to improve my leadership focus on the subject of meetings.  Specifically, how to reduce the number and duration of those meetings and get people back to work.

You have too many meetings, they suck and the people that attend them think so too.  They also hold crappy meetings, and that perpetuates the problem.

OK, so I’m not as eloquent as 37signals’ Jason Fried (his TED talk is here), but I know I’m right.  How?  I asked a few people. Try it.  You know what the answer will be.

Now you, as a leader, have to actually do something about meetings.

I periodically get on a kick to improve my meetings and I’m on one right now, driven in part by Boring Meetings Suck by Jon Petz.   Here’s what I do and have done in the past to cut down the number, duration and attendance at meetings.

  1. Require preparation
  2. Get attention
  3. Categorize meetings
  4. Empower people
  5. Clarify the rules

Require Preparation
The number one cause of bad meetings is lack of preparation. If you just followed one simple guiding principle, Thou Shalt Not Call a Meeting Without Preparing Thyself and Thy Attendees, you’ll eliminate a lot of the problem. What’s preparation? It’s as simple as sending out an agenda with the type of meeting (see below) the agenda and the objective of the meeting.

If you can’t put an agenda and objective together, you have no right to call a meeting. Neither should anybody feel obligated to attend.  I will also defend those on my team who choose not to attend your ill-prepared meeting.  (Please note that I have a technical/support team and they attend a number of troubleshooting and outage bridges at all hours of the day/night, which do not fall under the category of “ill preparation.”)

Get Attention
This falls under the category of “hints and tricks” and you’ll see a lot more good ideas in Jon Petz’s book. By getting attention, I mean do something different. My favorite thing is to book meetings in increments of 25 minutes. Why? Because it’s an unusual time amount, it’s shorter and even if you need two increments (50 minutes total), you still have time to get to the restroom if you’ve–heaven forbid–got a meeting immediately thereafter.

Another way to get attention is to issue–in the agenda–the categorization of the meeting (see below). If you have an informational meeting and you indicate that attendance is purely optional, people will at least read the agenda to see if maybe it’s in their interest to be there in person.

Anything that gets people to notice and really think about the meeting is a good thing.

Categorize Meetings
This is a great way to let people know what’s going to happen in the meeting, even before they read your well-thought-out agenda. Here are my five basic categories of meetings:

  1. Informational–This is for one-way communication of information. It’s entirely optional (although I can, and do, still make you responsible for the material) and can be held over the phone. These should be pretty short and to the point. If possible avoid these. However, don’t avoid them by sending out Powerpoint instead. Anything but more Powerpoint!
  2. Alignment–These are to get agreement on a course of action, consider other options, identify other options and do planning. These should have required attendees and can be held over the phone or in-person, depending on the location and type of attendees. These are generally useful. Please consider the attendee list carefully, or these can turn into a giant cluster.
  3. Decision-Making–These meetings are to make specific decisions. The only people that should be in the meeting are those that have the authority and responsibility for making the decisions. The agenda must be clear on the decisions to be taken to ensure the right folks are there. Tip: If you have to have lots of people in these meetings, you’re not demonstrating leadership effectiveness.
  4. Brainstorming–These are for developing large numbers of ideas (diverging, in Creative Problem Solving parlance). These must, must, MUST be done in-person. No bridge attendees or via VTC. Sorry, it won’t work.
  5. Team-Building–These are meetings specifically to build comfort and camaraderie. Sometimes they are offsite meetings and sometimes (shocker) that’s actually the purpose of your weekly staff meeting. However–be clear on the purpose. Don’t co-mingle alignment or informational meetings with this type of meeting.  I always say these are optional.  In a way it’s a test.  Anybody that doesn’t want to build a team, I don’t want on mine.

Empower People
Make it really clear to your peers that you will hold meetings with agendas and clear objectives and follow up with actions/minutes. And you won’t attend meetings without same, nor will you expect your team to do so. Tell your team it’s ok to ask for the agenda before the meeting. And that it’s OK not to attend somebody else’s goat-rodeo. Just back them up.

Clarify the Rules
Wherever possible, publish the rules. I’ve seen “rules for meetings” in meeting rooms work. Ensure there are technology baskets if your rules say “no devices.” (See Jon Petz–he doesn’t mind technology in meetings. I hate it and don’t think you can be in two places at once. So we disagree on one thing.)  Just make sure everybody knows what the expectations are.

Takeaway: Meetings do have a place.  As long as they have an objective, are prepped and the attendees know why they are there and what they are expected to do.

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11 Responses to Your Meetings Suck (And So Do Mine)

  1. bsurrick says:

    Mark,

    Great post! Every manager can pull out some takeaways from this and improve their meetings. Any thoughts on conducting lunch meetings? Some advocate this as a way to reward (bribe?!) attendees and improve attendance by choosing a less busy time slot. Using your categorizations, I find they work for Informational and Team-Building purposes only.

    Bart

    Like

    • markpilip says:

      Sorry that I didn’t respond to this. I actually like lunch meetings for alignment or decision-making meetings. Breaking bread with somebody is the best way to get to know them (and them to know you) which helps with alignment. On the decision-making front, they’re great when you’ve got the 3-4 people you need to work with to figure something out, align and move forward. Kind of like how much work is done on the golf course.

      Like

  2. This is a great reminder. I think I’ll hang these on a little note next to my calendar, so that I stick to them when planning meetings!
    Thank you!
    Pam

    Like

  3. Jon Petz says:

    HI Mark,

    Appreciate the post and enjoyed seeing what you are getting most out of the book and is working for your team. I’m working on a new piece related to “single mission meetings” that you may enjoy as well. I’ll make sure I post it your way when complete.
    Thanks for your support and look forward to hearing more about what was good….and what sucks in the book.
    Best Regards,

    Jon Petz

    Like

  4. Dan Harris says:

    My Agenda for This Post.
    – Recognize Your Passion For Effective Meetings
    – Comment on the 25-minute meeting format
    – Offer my tip on Preparation
    – Thank you

    As a former manager who worked for you I know how passionate you are about running effective meetings. The 25-minute meetings were great. The reduced time and focused agenda keeps your attention and personally I was better prepared for these meetings. I knew I had only a few minutes on the agenda so I always prepared my key talking points, thoughts, and actions in advance. It helped me better communicate with you as a virtual employee. I also liked the fact that I could send you the list, and update you on results quickly and easily.

    Thank you Mark! I learned a great deal from you and I continue to learn more from your posts.

    Like

  5. markpilip says:

    Thanks Dan! Still lots to do to un-suck meetings that I run and the meeting world in general…

    Like

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  9. Alex Volkov says:

    Hey Mark,

    Great write-up! Check out our infographic http://bit.ly/GGwckt its very relevant and may help you un-suck your meetings further.

    Alex

    Like

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