The concept of billable hours is definitely familiar for companies that bill their clients by the hour. Software consultancies and agencies often work on the so-called "time and materials" basis. It means that they need to track...
It’s probably not a surprise for you that meetings are often associated with a waste of time. According to Atlassian’s report, people may be spending as many as 31 hours each month sitting through unproductive meetings. That’s almost a full week of work!
Understandably, team leaders and managers try to take some steps to cut down the meeting costs. For some companies, it could be a ban on e.g., all status meetings. For others, it means introducing apps and techniques for increasing the effectiveness of meetings. In this article, we’ll share tips you can use to plan and run successful meetings.
What makes a meeting effective?
Effective meetings produce tangible results that have a positive impact on your project or the organization as a whole. That’s their general idea. The details depend on the objective of your meeting. Effective meetings are those that achieve goals set by the meeting leader. As such, it’s absolutely crucial to come up with a clear purpose for every meeting you hold and share the objectives with attendees. More on that in the next section.
How do you plan an effective meeting?
Start with a goal. What do you want to accomplish by running this meeting? Do you need to make some important business decisions? Are you planning a brainstorm? Are there updates that should be shared with your team in the spirit of project transparency? The goals you identify will likely influence the nature of the meeting. They may even convince you to...not organize the meeting at all.
Do you really have to hold this meeting?
Many companies follow the meeting as a default policy: when in doubt–call a meeting. Unfortunately, that’s not the most productive way to spend employees’ time. Many reports published in recent years emphasize the sheer amount of unnecessary meetings. Atlassian analyzed the data and concluded that half of the meetings are considered a waste of time. Half of them! That makes me think that almost everyone could cut down the number of sessions they decide to organize.
One kind of meeting that is often criticized is the infamous status meeting. Jason Fried, the founder and CEO at Basecamp, writes that status meetings are the worst kinds of meetings. Eliminate them, and you’ll actually know more, save a pile of money, and regain dozens of hours a month. He’s not alone in this sentiment. Several organizations openly admit that they gave up meeting just to exchange the current progress of work. Instead, they communicate more efficiently with written statuses. This approach is especially valuable for distributed teams where, in order to gather a group of people on a call in real time, you need to make a significant scheduling effort. Status reports published on Slack or within project management software of your choice require less time than their in-person equivalents.
I can imagine that some of you might be wary of this idea: after all, people speak faster than they put things in writing. Aren’t meetings more efficient than writing things down? Well, not in this case. Status meetings for groups of people take longer than preparing a short note on one’s progress. Plus, meeting attendees are not likely to pay equal attention to all of the things said by everyone participating in a given meeting.
On top of that, writing things down is an excellent opportunity to synthesize information and communicate each item concisely. As a result, you’re able to produce insightful and long-lasting pieces of information. There are plenty of apps and add-ons that will support your company in transitioning from in-person status meetings to asynchronous summaries. Try Standuply or Carrot, for example.
Status discussions are not the only type of meetings that could be eliminated from your calendar. If you’re not sure whether a given meeting should be held or not, you can seek advice from a fun, yet useful app: Should it be a meeting?
Now that you’ve established valid reasons for running a business meeting, you need to plan it carefully. There’s no room for impromptu “I was just passing by your desk” sessions: data shows that 40% of people consider them to be significant distractions.
Invite the right people to your meeting
One of the key ingredients of productive meetings is to gather the right group of people. Invite employees who are likely to contribute to your meeting’s goal. Run a project team meeting if you want to share important updates and organize a short Q&A afterward. If your objective is to produce an executive decision during this session, make sure decision-makers are actually attending it. Otherwise, it will hardly be an effective discussion.
When it comes to the number of meeting participants, you may have come across the two-pizza rule popularized by Jeff Bezos. It states that two pizzas should be enough to feed the entire meeting group. It’s a handy rule, but I would suggest you look at it not so much as a measuring formula (after all, pizzas come with very different sizes). Instead, use this as an opportunity to think your list of attendees through before you send out an invite blast.
Another point that you should take into consideration here is the costs of your meeting. Sometimes we feel that we’re saving the company money by organizing a meeting and thus “moving things forward.” The longer the meeting and the more people involved, however, the bigger the business costs will be. Next time when you’re trying to decide whom to invite to your meeting, you may want to check the meeting cost calculator shared by Harvard Business Review. The results may surprise you.
Create a meeting agenda
With the goals of the meeting planned and a list of employees attending it in mind, you need to come up with an action plan. In order to design the agenda of your meeting, try to answer the following questions:
- How should the meeting look like?
- Who should speak, and when?
- Which steps are required to achieve the goal?
- Which decisions need to be made?
- How much time should you plan for each agenda item?
- What time should the meeting start?
- Who will take notes, and how?
Picking the right time slot for your meeting might be challenging, especially when you’re inviting people whose availability is not fixed. First, take a look at your team’s resource calendar to determine the appropriate date for your meeting. Note that the time your session starts should not be random. As shown in Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report, only 12% of people prefer to have meetings after 2 PM. Tools like Calendly or Meetingbird support you in finding the right meeting time.
Note that agendas for team meetings should ideally be sent together with the invitations, not added to the event description later. The latter option may cause some participants to miss the agenda and, as a result, not know what to expect during the meeting. Your schedule should make it clear that you are the leader and/or the facilitator of that meeting. If there’s no individual owner of a meeting, it’s difficult to complete all of the steps successfully. Make sure that everyone who’s attending the meeting knows what to prepare in advance. Otherwise, you will struggle to manage the discussion effectively.
How to conduct an effective meeting?
As the meeting facilitator, you are in charge of the flow of your meeting. You decide when the meeting starts and whether the action plan is being followed. At all times, keep in mind the primary purpose of the discussion. These are the main elements of effective meetings:
- Time – Mind the time. For example, if the meeting is scheduled to start, but one of the attendees is running late, you should probably just begin the discussion without them. Of course, things happen, and sometimes a delay can be caused by external circumstances. But what if you have someone on your team who is notoriously late and always “too busy” to show up? I’m sure that you’ve carefully chosen the time slot and evaluated the costs of this meeting. Why would you waste all that effort just because someone disrespects the meetings?
- Rules – The meeting facilitator is responsible for setting the guidelines that all participants should follow. One practice that truly increases the productivity of meeting attendees is no multitasking. This usually means that all laptops should be shut down and phones put away. Is there anything more annoying than this person who has been sitting on your meeting while browsing the web and then says: “Can you repeat that last part? I wasn’t paying attention.” It’s a terrible waste of time and money. Plus, it negatively affects the energy of everyone in the room.
- Notes – taking notes is vital for almost every meeting. You can assign a person that will write down the decisions made during the session, or you can do it yourself. Alternatively, you can encourage all participants to write things down (as long as it’s not an excuse to browse the email inbox or Slack). An idea that’s worth exploring is to use visual notes (sketch notes) as the primary technique. Read our guide on sketchnoting for project managers to see that visual note-taking is something everyone could do (no drawing skills required!). If you picked a single note-taker on your meeting, send their notes to other attendees. You want everyone to be on the same page regarding the outcome of your meeting. See more on that in the last section of this article.
Effectively managing different types of meeting participants
You’ll find a lot of online resources that describe various types of meeting personalities (like this one, or this, or that one). All these articles differ a little bit when it comes to the number of meeting personas or their names. What they all have in common, however, is that you’re likely to encounter attendees that will dominate the meeting with their opinions, loud remarks, or even off-topic discussions. On the other hand, you will have people who may have something extremely valuable to say, but for one reason or another, they will stay quiet.
One method to conduct productive meetings with different personalities on board is to try and remove the power structure. This way, you encourage all attendees to contribute, without them having to worry about speaking out of turn. A great example of that approach comes from Pixar’s co-founder Ed Catmull. He elaborated on this in his interview with Slack’s CEO: [during a meeting] no one, from the creative director to Catmull himself, can override the production team who come in for feedback. The reason is simple: they already know something isn’t working—they don’t want judgment, they want solutions. Catmull admits they don’t always get it right. “Every once in a while, it’s a friggin’ disaster,” he says. “But sometimes, magic happens. And by magic, I mean the ego has left the room.”
The ego in the room can also be verbalized by overriding the agenda and starting off-topic discussions. The meeting leader may easily be caught by surprise when this kind of behavior occurs. This is why it’s best to prepare for such interruptions beforehand. You can establish the so-called parking lot for ideas: a whiteboard or a piece of paper where you write down things brought up by attendees that weren’t included in the action plan. Running an effective meeting is much easier when you’re able to say: “that’s an interesting point, let’s put it on a parking lot and get back to it after this meeting.”
Steps to take after a meeting
Effective meetings rarely end when you leave the conference room. Usually, there’s some action to be taken. You may need to implement a decision that was made during the meeting. Or perhaps there’s a list of ideas generated by the group that needs to be shared with other people.
Share notes from the meeting with everyone who participated. Make sure to include action points and the next steps in your notes. Owners should be assigned to all tasks that need to be done.
After the meeting, assess it and check if there are any meeting management elements that could be refined in the future. Such an approach will help you make meeting less of a struggle and more of an effective business instrument. Good luck!