I am done with bad meetings

Paul Boag

We cannot do away with meetings. I know that. But I am done with attending badly run meetings and if you have any sense so should you be.

I have just sat through a meeting about having a meeting. Now I am a huge fan of Inception but that is a step too far in my book. It is the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. I am drawing a line in the sand and I encourage you to do the same.

My problem with meetings

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with all meetings. I just think that often they are the wrong tool for the job.

Recently I was doing some work with a major UK charity. I was excited to help them out as I admired their work. In fact I decided to reduce my fee for the workshop I was to run. I wanted to support their cause.

Yet despite this the MD kept talking about the 'cost' of the meeting. To begin with I felt quite demoralised. After all I had already slashed my prices. But it turned out she didn't mean my fee. She was thinking about the cost of pulling those members of staff away from their day job to attend the meeting. She saw meetings as an expense and she was right to do so.

We often overlook the cost in time (and money) of the meetings we run. The more people we add, the more we are costing the company.

Then of course there is finding a time to get everybody in the room. This is a common barrier to progress in my line of work. While digital is evolving on a daily basis, sometimes it can take weeks to get the 'right' people in the room to make a decision. This is especially true with web steering groups that are often made up of a large number of middle managers.

The cost of meetings has a significant impact on businesses.
The cost of meetings has a significant impact on businesses.

When these meetings do finally take place there is often a lot of talk and limited action. In fact it is common to come away from a meeting with no specific action points. Even when the meeting agrees actions they often are never implemented. This is because nobody has the authority and responsibility to make them happen.

All this is frustrating because running a good meeting is not exactly rocket science.

Running a good meeting isn’t rocket science

In truth running a good meeting comes down to the following:

  • Minimise the number of people attending. Don’t invite every stakeholder to a meeting. You only need the decision makers in the room. You can gather the contribution of stakeholders beforehand via email or other methods.
  • Have a clear goal. Provide attendees with a short summary of what you want from the meeting and what you expect from those attending.
  • Provide a frigging agenda! If the meeting is to cover more than one subject make sure you have an agenda with associated times. This will allow people to just come to the part of the meeting that is relevant to them. Don’t make me sit through subjects I don’t care about.
  • Produce assigned next actions. Let’s not go through the pain of the meeting without deciding what we are going to do next. Establish concrete actions and make sure somebody has the job of doing each one.
  • Keep on schedule. Start on time even if some people are missing. Also stick to the agenda schedule so people can attend only the relevant parts of the meeting. Most of all, end at the agreed time. This is not just common curtesy. It will also put pressure on people to make decisions.
  • Limit the length. In my experience the longer the meeting the less you get out of it. People get tired, distracted and make bad decisions. Limit meetings to no more than an hour. This might involve scheduling a second meeting. But often it just means preparing better and focusing people during the meeting.

See! That isn’t so hard is it. But do you know what the best thing you can do to improve a meeting? Don’t have one.

Why do we need so many meetings?

There are so many unnecessary meetings in the world. Do not add to the problem. So often we could avoid having a meeting completely.

For a start we can avoid a lot of meetings through collaborative working. Many interpret collaboration as an excuse to hold yet more meetings. In reality it should do away with the majority. Collaborative work is about sitting side by side and working together on a problem. It is not about holding a meeting to discuss it. When you are in the room with somebody all day working together there is no need to hold a meeting.

Of course this is not always possible. But there are a lot of alternatives to a meeting. Slack conversations, Skype calls, shared Google docs. These are fast ways to collaborate without the need to call a meeting.

You see we all suffer from a weird logic when it comes to meetings. If you call a meeting you feel the need to make it ‘worthwhile’. After all you don’t want to drag people out just for a few minutes chat. That means we extend meetings to make them feel more meaningful. If you resolve the issue in a couple of minutes you don’t bring the meeting to a close and move on. You discuss it further to make the meeting worthwhile. How mad is that! You don’t have that problem with a Skype call or chat in Slack.

Send this graphic to all your colleagues. Perhaps it will stop them calling a meeting.
Send this graphic to all your colleagues. Perhaps it will stop them calling a meeting.

But sometimes you need approval from decision makers. Surely that needs a meeting? Yes, yes it does. But do you know what? It needs only one meeting. It doesn’t need a regular series to approve each step of the way.

Call a meeting and do two things. Agree on a framework for decision making and then give somebody the authority to make those decisions. Beyond that you need no further meetings. That person can make the decisions based on the framework and report back via email. You could even use a responsibility assignment matrix if you wanted to be clever about it.

Not all meetings are bad, but they are expensive

So there you go. Not all meetings are bad. But a hell of a lot are. It is time that we started taking the cost of meetings seriously and investing in getting them right. We need to think before we call a meeting and encourage our colleagues to do likewise.

With that in mind I have produced a nice flowchart to help us make good decisions about our meetings. I hope you find it useful.

Download the Meeting Flowchart