Friday, January 24, 2014

Tony's Guide to Better Meetings

After spending over 30 years in Corporate America, here are a few things I've learned that might make life in cubeland a little easier.  I'll admit that I am not an exemplar of meeting behavior, but at least I try.

Conducting and Attending

  • Start on time.  Meetings that are scheduled for 10:00 am should be at full steam by 10:05.
    • Don’t interrupt to ask late joiners to audioconferences to identify themselves – wait until a break or change of topic (unless you’re in a super-secret meeting where you need to know exactly who is there)
    • Don’t recap every time someone joins – they can read the minutes or you can catch them up later.  The folks that did make the meeting on time don’t want to rehash this stuff again.  And again.  And again.
    • Setting up a videoconference or a Webex and a projector can take time – try to get into the conference room a few minutes early, otherwise your meeting will automatically start 10 minutes late.  If you need to, schedule the conference room earlier than your meeting so you have set-up time.

  • End on time.  Better yet, end 5 minutes early so that folks can get a cup of coffee or heed the call of nature before their next meeting.  And so the next users of the conference room can get set up.
    • Meetings running over time are one of the main reasons for other meetings starting late, which makes that meeting likely to run over, making the next meeting start late, ad infinitum.

  • A meeting without an agenda is not a meeting – at best it’s a party, at worst it’s a riot.
    • Publish an agenda before the meeting and stick to it.  Even a staff call should have an agenda.
    • Make it clear whether it is an update meeting or a working session and conduct them accordingly – they are NOT the same thing!

  • A meeting without a leader is not a meeting – at best it’s a mob, at worst it’s an angry mob.  With torches and pitchforks.
    • Stick to the agenda – cut off tangential discussions and table them for another time.  It’s better to schedule a second, targeted meeting than to tie up everyone for longer than scheduled for a different topic that they might not all have any interest in
    • Cut off non-productive discussions – if a discussion reaches a back-and-forth stage with no progress, table it for later.  Put things in the parking lot to be addressed in a separate forum.

  • Most meeting result in actions.  Those actions are too often misremembered, vaguely worded and not assigned.
    • Make sure you leave time at the end of the meeting to review actions
    • Actions are not really actions unless they have an assigned owner and a due date.
    • The leader should schedule a follow-up on the actions, either a subsequent meeting or an email exchange or some other way of notifying the interested parties of the status and completion of actions.
    • If possible, have someone take notes and actions that is NOT running the meeting as it can be difficult to do both effectively.

  • Unless you’re specifically scheduling a working session, most meetings are for updates and getting everyone on the same page.  That means attendees need to prepare ahead of time, rather than derailing the meeting by trying to do the work they were supposed to have done since the previous meeting.

  • If attendees are spending more time IMing and catching up on e-mail, they either need a swift smack on the head or they probably didn’t need to be in the meeting

  • Trying to listen to multiple meetings at once is annoying as heck to everyone else.  You are probably not really that important and you are not nearly as good at multi-tasking as you think you are.  If you really ARE that important, then people should be happy to reschedule a meeting so that you can give it your full attention.

  • Don’t hesitate to cancel a meeting if there’s no longer any reason for it but try to do it far enough ahead of time that invitees can make good use of the time you’re giving back to them.  Last second meeting cancelations are almost as annoying as meetings that are no longer necessary.


  • Just because your calendar defaults to an hour for a meeting invitation, that doesn’t mean that meetings can’t be shorter.  Meetings tend to fill in all the time allocated for them.
    • Schedule meetings for only as long as you need.  Half hour and forty-five minute meeting invitations are most welcome – just be realistic

  • Most meetings should be focused – if they’re too wide-ranging, too many people that only have interest in a small piece of the meeting are invited
    • If it is necessary to schedule a wide-ranging meeting, have people join at scheduled times rather than sit through the whole thing.  That also forces you to stick to the schedule.

  • Invite only the people that need to participate.  Avoid the tendency to over-invite “just in case” someone might be needed. 
    • If possible, have someone available via phone or IM if needed rather than subjecting them to the whole meeting.
    • It’s okay to not know all the answers to unanticipated questions – take an action to get the information after the meeting.
    • On the other hand, go into meetings as prepared as possible – if you’re supposed to know it, make sure you know it.

  • Not everything needs to be a formal meeting.  Some things are better dealt with via a three-way conference call, an office drop-in, an email exchange or some other method that requires less time to plan and fewer participants.