How To: Maximize Meetings

UPDATED: October 10, 2011
PUBLISHED: October 10, 2011

Meetings are a fact of life, whether you’re running a three-person startup or a growing company with hundreds of helping hands. But not all managers are born to run them, and that can prove detrimental—in part because unproductive meetings can eat into valuable work time, undercutting the company’s performance and competitiveness.

“Time is currency,” says Jon Petz, a business consultant and author of Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Your Meetings, or Get Out of More Meetings . “If you’re pulling workers away from their tasks to attend a meeting, you need to think in terms of results, of focus.”

How do you know if your company or team suffers from bad-meeting syndrome? Aside from the obvious signs (lack of eye contact from employees when you speak, too many PowerPoint slides, sub-meetings or texting going on during your meeting), other indicators of unproductive meetings may include the following:

► Workers leave meetings without specific tasks and deadlines for completing them.

► Discussions during meetings don’t lead to decisions.

► Brainstorms become complaint sessions versus idea-generating machines.

► The meeting rehashes but doesn’t advance prior meetings’ accomplishments (what Petz calls a “déjà meeting”).

► Meetings force attendance from nonessential employees (“over-invitation syndrome,” in Petz-speak).

Fortunately, taming bad meeting habits isn’t difficult—if you pay attention to a few basics.

Define Your Mission

Petz says meeting organizers need to develop two statements going in: a mission statement that includes goals (make decisions, assign tasks associated with a big project, etc.) and an outcome statement (who will do what as a result of the meeting’s findings?).

For instance, Petz says he was recently in a meeting in which the goal was to narrow a list of five possible technology vendors down to two finalists. If the meeting’s goal had been simply to debate pros and cons of the vendors, its purpose would have been vague and wouldn’t have resulted in a useful outcome—actually selecting finalists. But with shortlist formation as a goal and a time limit for participants to share feedback, the group came to a consensus efficiently.

“I’d say 99 percent of people miss doing an outcome statement,” he says. “If you have an outcome statement—a sense of what your goal is from the meeting—you can end meetings on time.”

Choose the Right Meeting Format

Meetings have different purposes. Is your meeting a short, weekly status update? A brainstorm and pitch session? Is it a problem-solving or decision-making effort? Is it an all-day offsite mixing morale boosting, big-picture thinking and mission building? Are you making major management or business announcements? Or does your meeting incorporate a mix of elements?

Depending on the meeting’s goal and your organizational goals, you may need to rethink meeting formats, says Todd Cherches, a consultant who has worked with clients ranging from small businesses to American Express in his role as co-founder of New York-based Big Blue Gumball.

“Problems with the standard meeting in many organizations are the question of who is running the meeting and whether the meeting is dialogue-based or presentation-based,” Cherches says.

The meeting organizer needs to set expectations. If the meeting is presentation-based, with a leader explaining a new practice or breaking some news to the group, that’s different from a dialogue-based meeting, where attendees might need to prepare by pulling numbers, doing some solo brainstorming beforehand or doing research so that the group can make collective progress.

“You have to let people know beforehand if they have homework,” Cherches says. “Otherwise people show up unprepared and sit back like they’re going to the movies.”

A good meeting is like a stimulating conversation that fires workers up, sending them back to their corners with a sense of mission and excitement about tackling clearly defined next steps and making specific things happen. A bad meeting is like a long, frustrating dinner with in-laws.

First Person

Company: Cerebyte in Lake Oswego, Ore.

Source: William Seidman, co-founder and CEO

Staff size: 4

Strategy: Declaring “early and open discomfort” when a meeting is veering off course.

How it’s going: Management can swiftly see who can make course corrections during decision-making and who can’t, then assign and prioritize tasks accordingly.

When our company swelled to more than a dozen employees, I noticed that meetings had become political, places where staff jockeyed for resources or credit. We said to ourselves, “We’ve got 12 people. What’s going on?” We didn’t want to become bureaucratic.

Meetings are a reflection of a company’s overall performance, and improving performance at a company involves changing the elements of a workplace’s culture. Dan Pink, in his book, Drive , says that if you want to change an organization, you need to have a sense of “compelling purpose.” In the absence of that strong sense of purpose, meetings can be territorial, competitive, status-reporting sessions.

The dot-com crash in the early 2000s forced our company to shrink, but as the years passed and we began growing again, we decided to stay small—we have a four-person team—and hire outside vendors. This means we hold meetings only when all brains need to hash out a decision, or when the team and a vendor need to reach agreement on a scope of work.

The executive team runs meetings according to three key principles: Everyone has good intentions (meaning all are putting the company first); everyone can disagree by calling “early and open discomfort” with the direction a conversation or decision is moving (meaning bad ideas get shut down fast); and a good decision achieved quickly is better than a great decision made eventually.

The “early and open discomfort” rule is one of the best meeting tools in the company’s arsenal. We actually call it that. People declare “early and open discomfort” all the time. In a recent meeting, a public relations agency kept insisting that we hire them to provide the latest and greatest social media marketing techniques. We declared early and open discomfort in an effort to reorient what seemed the PR agency executive’s personal agenda to use particular techniques rather than listen to the less-sexy but demonstrated direction we needed from her company.

The PR agency principal kept turning the conversation toward why we should buy or use their services. But we agreed in minutes on how to use social media. We were at a conclusion, and she wasn’t. Finally, I had to become the CEO and say, “This topic is closed.” Ultimately, the tension between the visiting agency and the company led us to shrink the PR agency’s scope of work around a few key social media projects.

If it’s clear that someone isn’t aligned to the core purpose of the company from an interaction in a meeting, you can take action accordingly. But you have to create a culture where honest dialogue is possible.

First Person

Company: Envision Marketing & Design in Waltham, Mass.

Source: Jeff Shaw, principal

Staff size: 5

Strategy: Making sure that employees know the “priorities takeaway” from any given meeting.

How it’s going: Employees revisit who’s tasked with what at the end of the meeting, and someone keeps a running list of “interesting, let’s revisit later” ideas.

We’re a boutique graphic design firm, and meetings can go off-topic as creativity starts churning, with ideas begetting ideas that may not be pertinent to the urgent business at hand. On the one hand, the team needs to think on the fly and listen to flashes of brilliance, but on the other hand, we need to make sure client projects are moving forward and problems are solved.

Before and at the start of each meeting, we define the purpose of the meeting, including what actions and decisions need to be made. This frames the meeting and creates a touchstone to return to when conversation inevitably veers off topic—which is a part of life at a creative agency. When conversation does veer off course, we acknowledge the idea. Typically I say something like, “Good point. We do need to discuss that further. But let’s put that on the agenda for next time because we have a problem we need to solve.” Someone will note the idea for a future revisit.

At the end of the meeting, we go around the room with to-do lists of tasks discussed in the meeting. It may sound a bit elementary, but it works. When there’s a lot of back-and-forth during meetings, it can leave staff with different impressions about what next steps should be. So it’s good to end the meeting by going around the room briefly so people are clear on what they are doing and by when.

First Person

Company: Espresso Supply in Seattle

Source: Myra Gold, general manager

Staff size: 10

Strategy: Using one-on-one assessments and a full-day summit meeting to realign job descriptions and company culture.

How it’s going: Espresso Supply trimmed four jobs and added another, while identifying job growth goals that suit both company goals and employee interests.

When I joined Espresso Supply in November 2009, a lot of job functions overlapped. The company employed a small and hardworking team, but over its nearly two decades in operation, the business had begun enabling some workers to devote more time to work that suited personal interests than work that served the company’s goals. Ideally, a company can permit both personal fulfillment and fulfilling the workplace’s needs, but when in doubt, the company’s goals must come first.

We needed to organize around the functionality of the company, not necessarily what people wanted to do personally inside the company. We were keeping some people for personal reasons—we liked them!—instead of company reasons.

So I and other lead executives here began holding meetings to inventory who actually does what inside the business and sort out what those employees like to do along with what the business needed from the person holding their job title. In one-on-one meetings, I learned who wore what hats and that many of the company’s staff meetings were overly inclusive, requiring attendance by, say, warehouse workers, when really only customer-facing roles like sales and marketing needed to show up. The over-inclusivity was a symptom of overly broad job descriptions, but once those job descriptions were unwound and roles were clearer, meetings could become more efficient.

Once the company finished realigning job descriptions, we held a large one-day off-site so people could reintroduce themselves and their roles to one another, and we could reinvigorate morale around a company-focused—not just people-focused—mission. The off-site demonstrated to workers that the cultural change was all-inclusive—and a big deal, to boot.

I worked with each individual at the company in advance of the meeting to prepare a flipchart with what their role involved. And everyone was given time to share their role and goals while also hearing that every single employee was shifting their role to align with management’s mission. With the culture realigned, the business is more efficient. Weekly meetings are smaller and faster and more targeted, essentially quick huddles, but once every few months the company pulls out the BBQ and shares a noontime meal—just to keep things fun.