“What we need is — we need more meetings,” Said no one. Ever.
Meetings are often seen as a “necessary evil.” A productive meeting can create and reinforce connections, inertia, and actionable next steps. However, most meetings seem to be more “evil” than “necessary.” In a post-COVID world, meetings are increasing, but the quality and necessity need a massive reset.
Do we have a problem?
Note: The above graphic is harsh. For many, this is their first time working from home. The connections that were just normal no longer exist. So – it’s important to have a little understanding for others that may need meetings in place of organic office connection.
Last week, however, I had 35 hours of meetings. Some I scheduled, but most I did not. Very few of them had an agenda; most had attendees that I would have considered redundant, and all but one resulted in meeting notes with action items (and I wrote them).
I certainly could have written more valuable notes, posted more action items to our projects, and made my meetings more relevant…if I had more time. Those are always the items that slip when I get too busy. And I know that if fewer meetings existed, my coworkers would do the same.
So, yeah, we have a problem.
Why do we have a problem?
Culture: The employee is not empowered enough
I once had a coworker that rejected every meeting that didn’t come with an agenda. I used to think he was a jerk. Now, I’m not going to go so far as to praise him, but I believe he was onto something. We are hard-wired to accept the meetings we are invited to join, regardless of the value the meeting may bring.
I don’t think employees who are invited to join meetings are to blame at all. I have indeed scheduled meetings without agendas — so I own my share of the blame. But, I think cultures that encourage “No Meeting Fridays” show how valuable doing the work is compared to talking about the work. Equally, cultures that promote follow-up notes and shorter meetings create environments where the work is equally valued.
In the end, I think people who ‘over-invite’ do so for a reason and somehow feel one of two ways: 1) I need help making a decision, and 2) I want to invite my allies (and these aren’t them). There is little culture can do about that, but I find there are cultural elements that act as enablers to over-inviters. For example, my company has long held a “no jerks” policy – which is fantastic in so many ways but might be accidentally encouraging “over-inviters” because the behavior could be seen as inclusion – which is so not jerky.
The alternatives aren’t evolved enough.
There aren’t great alternatives to meetings. This goes to the first point, but trust in systems to offset the need to meet face-to-face or via zoom isn’t there yet. There is greater clarity in seeing someone’s calendar than in seeing their workload. And a meeting for 30 minutes helps ensure that you get 30 minutes to discuss a topic. Other ways can’t achieve this, and that has to be fixed.
Until other alternate systems can show us how busy or available, other individuals are — meeting calendars are the best measure. Slack doesn’t do it. Email doesn’t do it. Work Management solutions like Workfront don’t do it.
In other words, Meetings are a necessary evil. There aren’t replacements for the benefits that a Meeting can provide. However, it does not mean there aren’t steps we can take to improve them.
What can we do about it?
1. Keep meetings short, 25 minutes maximum but have you ever scheduled 15-minute meetings and kept to them? This requires a fixed start and end – with the agreement that the remaining 15 minutes are spent working on the tasks created from the meeting
2. Set clear expectations and provide necessary materials ahead of time. Include what will be covered and what preparation, if any, attendees need to complete beforehand.
3. Distinguish discussion topics vs. inform topics. Some topics require debate – ensure that the loudest voices aren’t overtaking the conversation. However, some topics are informational, and it’s essential to be clear on which is which in any given meeting.
4. Stay focused. Suppose a discussion veers off on a tangent or turns into a dialogue between two people; table the conversation for a more appropriate time. This happens a lot in in-person meetings with too many people.
5. Record key ideas and the best next actions. If your meeting produces genius ideas, what’s the point if you don’t capture them and ensure follow-through? And even if they aren’t genius, there are always the best next actions – make sure they are documented.
6. Thinking of adding more attendees? Really? Are you really? Are they essential? Every person in the meeting has to play a vital role in the action items from the meeting. Are you still sure that extra individual is necessary?
7. Encourage a “no meeting” day. These days are, by far, my most productive days. Again, having the CEO mandate this would be great, but I think this one is best incubated within departments and shared up.
8. Rule #8: If you set up the meeting, you are the default note-taker. Unless specified otherwise, this will add pressure to stay on topic, have follow-up notes, and will naturally discourage meetings from lazy leaders.