We’ve all been there: stuffy conference room, people squooshed into wheeled office chairs trying to pretend they haven’t noticed that the passage of time has slowed to a crawl. Their faces point forward but their eyes are downcast, staring at their phones or laptops while somewhere, in the front of the room, someone is blah blah blah blah talking. An hour (or two) later, everyone bursts out of that terrible room and scatters like when the lights come on at the end of the night in a dark bar.
Or worse: A mumbly confusing Google Hangout. Chimes sound incessantly as people log in and out. The little Hollywood Squares boxes on your screen show some faces scrunching towards their cameras, while others glow with ghostly Googley silhouettes that make you wonder if that person even knows she’s in an online meeting. “Can you hear me?” people ask. “Does anyone else hear an echo?” Someone’s dog barks in the background. A baby cries. You fight the urge to bark and cry too.
Bad meetings are THE WORST. And if you are the person blah blah talking at the front of the room, chances are that you’re having an even worse time than all the other people sitting in the room, who at least can IM each other about how bad the meeting is, while you are stuck up there alone.
It doesn’t need to be this way!
Meetings are important — and good meetings are the secret sauce in the recipe for Getting Stuff Done Well. If your organization is suffering from a case of Bad Meeting-itis, trying even just the first of these 8 steps will help – and trying them all will transform your meetings from time-sucking evil schedule monsters into opportunities to connect, collaborate, and ultimately feel like you just won the jackpot in the time-management lottery.
Step 1: POP
If you don’t know what you’re doing, no one else will either.
I recently spent time with the very smart people of the Rockwood Leadership Institute and they’ve got a great framework for planning and decision making . Their POP model (Purpose, Outcome, Process) is a simple tool to plan effective and productive meetings. If you decide you need to call a meeting, the very first thing you should do is pause and write out these three things:
Purpose – What is the purpose of the meeting? Why is this important?
Outcome – What do you hope to achieve? What is the desired result of this meeting?
Process – Is a meeting the best way to achieve this? And if so, what kind of meeting? Who should be involved, and what role will they play? A free-for all brainstorm followed by a prioritization? A divvying up of tasks? A go-around where everyone shares ideas?
Taking the time to determine your POP as a first step will help give you clarity and structure, both of which are highly contagious in the best possible way.
Step 2: Build Your Guest List
Who’s not there is just as important as who is.
Once you’ve determined your POP, think about who needs to be there — and why.
One symptom of a bad meeting is that people don’t know why they’re there. Those people tend to contribute little to the meeting, and their un-useful presence actually dilutes your overall meeting energy.
Are you including people just so they are in the loop? Would sending them the meeting notes afterwards (more about those later) achieve the same thing and take up way less of their time and yours?
As you think about your desired outcomes, think about what each person will contribute and what they’ll gain from the meeting.
If you’re not sure what the point of a participant’s attendance might be, but you don’t want them to feel excluded, this is NOT a good reason to invite them to a meeting. It is a GREAT reason to connect with them 1:1 and say, “Hey, I want to have this meeting and want to make sure you’re in the loop, but also want to be respectful of your valuable time. What’s the best way to do that?”
They’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness – and the rest of the meeting participants will appreciate each other more.
Step 3: Schedule for Success
Your meeting begins with that very first email.
Inviting people to your meeting is actually the moment when their meeting experience begins. And if their first meeting experience is a vague reply-all email asking people to respond to dates or suggest times to meet, then you have started a BAD MEETING.
Your invitation and scheduling email should include your POP and a link to a scheduling tool – Doodle, Calendar Invites, etc. – to let people give their availability for the meeting without an unwieldy email conversation. Let them know why they are being included in the meeting, and what you hope to achieve.
When you’re offering meeting date/time options, try to keep the number of choices down to fewer than 5, and offer a variety of times of day that show respect for your participants’ busy schedules.
Remember to think about time zones, and check BEFORE you send the invite for things like federal or religious holidays, big community events, or other things that might be automatic conflicts for some of your attendees.
As soon as you’ve got a date – send out a confirmation to everyone, and let them know that you’ll be sharing the agenda soon. Thank them for their time. Set a note in your own calendar to send out a reminder the day before the meeting if necessary.
Step 4: Space – the Important Frontier
Your meeting will reflect its environment.
Selecting a real or virtual space for your meeting is extremely important. If people aren’t comfortable and are straining to participate, the meeting will buckle under the discomfort and your participants will go into fight-or-flight mode. Fight-or-flight makes for a BAD MEETING.
You can do better! Make your meeting space a welcome respite from the grind of the rest of the day. Whether you’re having people from the outside world come to your office or meeting at another location, think about things like parking, transportation, accessibility, and comfort.
Make sure to reserve rooms in advance, and check to make sure there will be enough chairs for everyone to sit comfortably. Think about things like water, restrooms, and room temperature.
If you’re planning a virtual meeting, think about your participants first. What tools have you seen them use before? Is there anyone who might not be used to video conferencing? What equipment will people need to have to participate?
When you send out your agenda, make sure to send any directions (parking instructions, login information, etc.). Let people know that you’d like them to arrive a few minutes early if possible, and if you’re meeting virtually, send along a link for tutorials or troubleshooting for the tool you’ll be using.
For video conference meetings, I always recommend having a conference line ready as backup just in case.
Step 5: Build a Team
If you don’t do everything yourself, everything will probably be better. Really.
Looking back at your POP, are you the best person to facilitate this meeting in order to get the outcomes you need? It’s possible that inviting someone else to facilitate will help shift the energy and let you participate in a different way. Or, this could be a great role for someone who needs to be in the loop but may not have a lot to contribute at this stage.
Your scribe is another key person — and that person should NOT be the facilitator. These are two totally separate and difficult jobs – and trying to have one person do both usually means that neither is done well. Contact someone beforehand to take notes, and talk with that person about what those notes should include before hand. A running transcript of the conversation isn’t that useful, but documentation of who was present, key discussion points, decisions made, and action items is critical.
Step 6: Agenda like your life depends on it
A bad agenda is like Apple Maps when it first launched – likely to send you to the bottom of a deep, dark, meeting lake.
Your agenda, which should be sent out to all of your attendees a reasonable amount of time before the meeting, should include the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting, outline the process, and include the items you’ll be discussing. Any background materials should be sent out with the agenda.
Items that need a decision during the meeting should be marked as such on the agenda – and it’s great to give estimated amounts of time for each item. You’ll also want to let people know who will be facilitating and who will be taking notes.
The first item on the agenda should be reviewing the POP. The second items should be reviewing the agenda.
Always include time at the end of the agenda to review next steps together.
When you send out the agenda, let people know to contact you directly if they have concerns, and use those responses to shape the discussion carefully.
Step 7: Have a great meeting. Listen carefully.
This is a meeting, not a lecture. Listen and learn!
The reality is, if you’ve done Steps 1 – 6, step 7 almost does itself. A few things you’ll want to be thoughtful about:
- Set some ground rules. Ask people directly to NOT look at their email or IM during the meeting. If anyone is calling from their car, see if they’re able to pull over. Our work-culture pushes us to multi-task, but meetings already have multiple tasks – you need to listen, talk, reflect, absorb, and connect. It is hard to do those well while writing an email or navigating an exit ramp.
- Have your note taker keep a running list of decisions and a list of action items.
- Stick to the agenda. If things start to go off topic, remind people of the POP, and see if the new topic might need its own separate meeting or follow up. Record that in the action items list, and then get back on track. Don’t shut ideas down – but don’t derail, either.
- If one person is doing all the talking, let him or her know that you’re interested in hearing what others think.
- If you are using an online tool, make sure you’ve tested it beforehand and that both you and the facilitator know how it works. Pay attention to chats, raised hands, etc.
- Finish on time.
- At the end of the meeting, review decisions made action items together. Make sure each item is assigned to a human or two humans (not the whole group) and give it a due date – including a due date on when the notes from this meeting will go out.
- Thank people. Seriously. Meetings are hard.
Step 8: Follow Up
Your meeting’s not over until the notes go out.
Work with your scribe to get the notes finalized quickly, and send them out to the full group within a day or two. Thank people – again.
You can change the world one meeting at a time – and it’s up to you whether you use that power for good or evil.
A few extra details about meeting in the cloud
Video conferencing and webinar tools are great platforms to bring virtual teams together, but technical difficulties can be a showstopper. Make sure that you and your participants feel good about the tool that you’re using, and have a backup ready for if there are problems. It’s also great to have everyone able to participate at the same level – if only half your participants have cameras, think about using audio only. Building the group is more important than using all the bells and whistles, so make sure that you’ve built a shared space for equal participation.