The skills for getting work done in meetings

Marin Alsop will conduct the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra at the Hong Kong Arts Festiva
Marin Alsop will conduct the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra at the Hong Kong Arts Festival on Thursday and Friday night in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui.

How many work meetings do we fondly remember?

This was a thought I had after attending yet another meeting that felt pointless. An hour went by, some people were there in person but not really there (they were on their phones), we weren’t sure who was facilitating the meeting, and the agenda was loose. We didn’t get any work done.

These memes do a great job of explaining how I felt:

Meme 1
Meme 2
Meme 3

I think it is safe to say that most work meetings are like this. If you are lucky, your meeting has a clear agenda and involves a small group of participants who aren’t distracted. If you are really fortunate, the meeting has an excellent facilitator who keeps everyone in the room enthusiastic, and you all focus on getting work done in the meeting.

But let’s be real here, a lot of the meetings we attend are pointless. How common is this problem? Ready to have your mind blown?

Pointless meetings will cost companies $541B in 2019.

Meeting statistics

$541B…What!? When I first looked at these numbers, I just about spit out my coffee. I read into the report put together by Doodle, and it was clear that the magnitude of the problem was real. I haven’t been looking at meetings the same.

I have been pondering on how the cost of terrible meetings could accumulate to such an enormous amount. On a recent walk, I thought through some basic math on how the cost of a useless 1-hour meeting can add up so quickly.

We might think of a 1-hour meeting as a 1-hour cost to our company, but that isn’t true unless there is only 1 person there, which doesn’t make it a meeting.

If it is an 8-person meeting, it is really an 8-hour meeting because it is using up an hour of each person’s quality attention. If it is a pointless meeting without a facilitator helping everyone get work done, that is 8-hours of quality work taken from the organization. One pointless meeting can add up to an entire workday wasted.

Considering the cost of just a single 8 person, 1-hour meeting, it is no longer a shock to me that ~24 billion hours will be lost to pointless meetings in the next year. We all have felt the pain of a meeting where no quality work was accomplished. I was intrigued that the Doodle report discovered that 100% of the report’s participants (a combination of 6,528 professionals and analysis of over 19 million meeting responses) described poorly organized meetings as a waste of time or money.

So what is the solution to a poorly organized meeting that ends up feeling pointless?

A facilitator who knows how to conduct room intelligence.

The business meetings that I still feel fond of involved a facilitator who helped us all get work done in the meeting. We didn’t feel like we had our time stolen from us, but that we had jumped ahead on our progress. A facilitator who has the skills to control a room is essential for a meeting to be progressive rather than painful.

I feel one of the few good reasons to hold a meeting is that the collective intelligence in a room is stronger than one participant. No single person is smarter or more creative than the whole room, and this is why we have meetings. We want to gather to harness that collective intelligence and get work done. But another gathering without a facilitator will likely end up feeling pointless.

A great meeting facilitator conducts a room of specialists just like a conductor holds a symphony together. They both control the room. A meeting without a facilitator is like a symphony without a conductor.

Jake Knapp workshop
A great meeting facilitator is analogous to a conductor.
A great meeting facilitator is analogous to a conductor.

A facilitator who conducts a room well is competent at:

  • Protecting the room from distractions
  • Guiding everyone through a clear and timely set of discussions and activities
  • Controlling the room by conducting everyone around the same focal point
  • Creating an even playing field so that they can extract the wisdom from all participants, regardless of personality type
  • Holding space for people to feel psychologically safe as participants
  • Using an array of exercises that keep everyone engaged and entertained
  • Ensures the meeting ends with accomplishment and limited ambiguity

To help rid us of shitty meetings that waste our time, we need better facilitators.

A meeting without a facilitator is like a symphony without a conductor.

Our ability to facilitate meetings, both virtual and in-person, is a vital skill for the dynamic, decentralized, autonomous work we all participate in today. Can we imagine if we start doing quality work in the meetings? Can we imagine looking forward to a meeting because we feel assured there is a facilitator who will help foster room intelligence to get alignment, direction, and progress on the project our team is enthusiastic about?

Paul Axtell, author of Meetings Matter shares that,

“Any collective that masters the art of leading (and participating in) effective meetings will see an array of tangible benefits in completing projects to time and budget, achieving their specific strategic aims, and doing all of this with less human resource — which are all directly related to successful communication..”

The companies and people who become facilitators of effective meetings will thrive and preserve positive work cultures.

As a facilitator myself, I have been successful in using several methods and principles to control a room and run more effective meetings.

  • I use the “Note and Vote” from Design Sprints to prevent groupthink.
  • I deploy Liberating Structures for helping a team make entertaining, collaborative decisions. They enable tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide and relate to one another.
  • I lead with a “Do the work in the meeting, not after” viewpoint
  • I follow the No Prototype No Meeting philosophy from Dennis Boyle.
  • On calendar invites, I replace the word “meeting” with titles like “prototype review”, “make [something you need to make] session”, or “pivot or persevere decision”. The reason is to prevent us from just having a meeting where we semi-update each other and instead come to the meeting with something to review, make, or decide on — which in theory should lead to less “meetings.

I am constantly learning and trying out new methods for running effective meetings because I want to be a great facilitator. A great facilitator helps prevent a meeting from procreating — one meeting leading to another meeting leading to yet another meeting. A great facilitator extracts room intelligence and makes the most of the group in the room.

A great facilitator helps prevent a meeting from procreating.

There isn’t one way to control a room and run an effective meeting. In fact, there are hundreds of proven methods and frameworks that any leader can benefit from.

I realized that I am not alone in wanting to save us from yet another pointless meeting. It is why we started Control The Room. Control The Room is a Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together. An intimate gathering for people to actively upgrade their facilitation skills so they can get quality work done in their meetings.

I will be there sharing facilitation skills and learning from other facilitators so that we can all help reduce the enormous cost associated with ineffective meetings. I hope you will attend and take your learnings back to your meetings.