Ten habits for highly effective meetings
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I’m obsessed with better meetings. I’ve already written about the top reasons that meetings go poorly, so now it’s time to look at the positive. I’ve outlined the ten tried-and-true rules we adhere to at Voltage Control to ensure that our meetings are as productive and effective as possible. They help us so much that we decided to put them on the walls of our meeting rooms to remind us each meeting. Behold, our ten habits for better meetings.
The ten guidelines below — our holy grail for successful meetings — can serve as a checklist for your team or organization.
Before I run through the list, why are bad meetings such a big deal? And, what will you get out of banishing bad meetings forever? Well, there’s clear evidence that poorly-run meetings not only waste time, but they also squander (a lot) of money. $541 billion globally is lost every year on common meeting mistakes. Strategies like identifying a clear objective for a meeting, creating and sticking to a thoughtfully-constructed agenda, and inviting the right people, for example, can make all the difference for optimum creativity and success.
The ten guidelines below — our holy grail for successful meetings — can serve as a checklist for your team or organization. We pay careful attention to keep these commandments top-of-mind every single time we meet. When you follow one, or all, of these commandments, you’ll find much better meetings in your future.
1. No Purpose. No Meeting.
There must be a clear purpose to have a productive meeting, period. Without it, there is no tangible goal to work toward. Discussion around a vague objective is wasted time and money, and with an estimated 37 billion dollars lost every year to unproductive meetings, every minute and intention counts.
“The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept. It is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial.” -Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering
Take the time to determine your objective before setting a meeting. Ask yourself, “Do decisions need to be made, or do new concepts need to be developed, or both? Am I seeking advice from the team or asking for their help to make a decision?” Once the purpose is clear, you can create an agenda equipped with the necessary structure to achieve it.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg takes her meeting agendas very seriously to stay focused on her objective and get the job done as efficiently as possible. She sticks to a strict agenda that she outlines in a spiral notebook and brings with her to every meeting she attends. The schedule includes discussion points and action items, which she checks off as they’re completed. And once they’re finished, the meeting is over even if there is time left—concise and to the point!
2. Disagree & Commit
Good meetings involve decisions being made. Otherwise, your sessions will continue to procreate. Having a preselected “decider” in the meeting will guarantee an agreed-upon path forward. All participants should be in the service of the decider. Who should be the decider? Depending on your situation, it should be the person who has the most influence, responsibility, or experience to make the call on how to move forward. The decider must make a decision and explain their reasoning with all participants.
This helps teams understanding the consensus and the overall plan. Speaking of, many people have the wrong definition of consensus. It means to have a general agreement. So in a great meeting, when a decision is made, we want to make sure that everyone agrees to support the decision, not that everyone agrees 100%. Not everyone will agree on the path forward, and that is okay. Not everyone will like it, but they can all commit to the way forward as a team.
3. Bring Your Best Self
To enable great participation, we make our meetings optional. We think it’s up to the individual to choose if it’s right for them to attend a given meeting because you want each participant to bring their best self and be enthusiastic about contributing. When you give employees the choice to attend, you allow them to take ownership of how to spend their time. In essence, making meetings optional eliminates excuses. Now, there is no excuse for anyone to sit idly by in a meeting they don’t want to attend. Or, say, work on other material that they find more exciting or urgent.
If they value doing other work over being an active part of a meeting, they have the freedom to do so. The people who choose to be in the meeting, then, are much more likely to be engaged, creative, and responsive, because they decided to be there. This elevates productivity in the room and leads to more productive meetings.
4. Do the Work in the Meeting
Say what? That’s right. We focus on doing the work in the meeting, not after. How much more willing would you be to attend a meeting if you knew it wasn’t all talk? When you knew you’d be productive in the meeting, not after? We like to follow the saying, “No prototype, no meeting.” If there is not a clear and tangible “prototype” or idea to flush out and explore, then there is no reason to have a meeting in the first place.
What do we mean by prototype? It’s not necessarily as complicated as the traditional idea of a physical prototype, like a piece of furniture. Nowadays, prototypes can take various forms, and they depend on your objective. For a strategist or project manager, a “prototype” might be a storyboard, written brief, or sample pitch of the idea. A designer may make a mood board; a developer might quickly code something. Whatever prototype best fits your needs, create it, and then plan your meeting to present it and work through it with your team.
“A prototype is a question embodied.” -Diego Rodriguez Telechea
5. Foster Emotional Safety
Once the meeting is underway, it’s essential to include everyone in attendance for prime productivity and to create an environment where everyone feels safe to be themselves.
A study by the enterprise decision platform, Cloverpop, found that inclusive decision-making leads to better business decisions up to 87% of the time, and decisions are reached twice as fast in half of the time.
Creating a safe container is an essential upgrade to your meeting dynamics.
One way to actively practice inclusivity is to offer an open platform during part of the meeting for people to share their ideas. Be careful to monitor the time over-sharers have the floor and ask any quiet attendees what they think to ensure everyone feels involved. The more engaged everyone is, the more effective the meeting will be.
Don’t assume you understand how all participants are feeling. A great way to understand is to take a few minutes and ask each person how they are feeling at this moment. Creating a safe container is an essential upgrade to your meeting dynamics and gives you the ability to leverage emotional intelligence.
6. Capture Room Intelligence
Many minds are greater than one when it comes to collaborating to explore and create ideas and solve problems. That is the idea behind room intelligence: no one person is smarter or more innovative than the collective intellect of the entire room. That’s why meetings are held, after all!
Facilitators guide the group through discussion and structured activities.
Bringing minds together in an environment that is both productive and focused requires a facilitator. This person has the seasoned ability to guide the group through discussion and structured activities. They can keep everyone focused and on track, create a safe and creative environment for all, and ultimately ensure the group arrives at a consensus by the end of the meeting.
Make sure you have a dedicated person in the meeting who will facilitate the activities and capture the group’s work and decisions made in the meeting. Consider them the documentarian of your group’s intelligence.
7. Embrace The Child’s Mind
Being active, present, and curious creates a fruitful foundation for discovery and productivity. When play is incorporated in work culture, a safe space is opened to fail fearlessly and to make room for marvel instead of judgment.
You can integrate improv exercises or deploy Liberating Structures to prevent participants from becoming too serious. This means a higher ceiling for creativity, therefore more ideas and more possibilities for solutions. When we get curious about, well, everything, we have more opportunities for discovery.
Lead with the concept that anything is possible and anything goes in the brainstorming stage of innovation. That’s where the magic happens.
“Necessity is not always the mother of invention. The playful state of mind is fundamentally exploratory, seeking out new possibilities in the world around us. That seeking is why so many experiences that started with simple delight and amusement eventually led to profound breakthroughs.” -Writer Stephen Johnson in his TedTalk.
8. Respect Everyone’s Time
It’s imperative to construct a detailed agenda before the meeting that includes an itinerary of the start time, the length of scheduled activities, break times, and the end time. This outline, detailed with clearly defined topics that will be discussed throughout (centered around the objective), is crucial to the smooth running of a meeting.
The structure allows more productivity because it avoids running long on topics or tangents and keeps everyone focused and on task. Of course, a little wiggle room can exist, depending on how the meeting is going. If five more minutes is needed for open discussion because it is highly productive, for example, that’s okay!
Create a schedule. And stick with it.
Be aware and try to shave that five minutes elsewhere so that you end on time. You build a reputation for being prompt and professional when you uphold your schedule, and attendees will accurately know what to expect.
Lastly, in most cases, start the meeting with a no-device rule. By closing the laptops and putting away the devices, you will be amazed by what can be achieved when everyone is paying attention to the activities at hand.
9. Decide What Not To Do
Each meeting is an opportunity to commit to having fewer things to do. You can add an agenda item to decide on some tasks that the team is not going to pursue or move forward with. If our meetings are only filled with decisions of having more to do, we will quickly reach our limit and have “too many things going on.”
Each meeting is an opportunity to commit to having fewer things to do.
Think about this as using the Marie Kondo method in your meetings. When we have a gathering of minds discussing work to do, it is just as important to talk about what we are going to say no to, what we won’t do, or what we will STOP doing.
The result is the creation of more space for the things that we want to tackle. This can also generate more clarity and reduce ambiguity for any members of the team that aren’t quite aligned. Developing the habit of cutting out tasks that are not serving the team gives you the opportunity for more flexible and deep work for what matters most.
10. Debrief For Durability
Take note of the minutes of the meetings and communicate it: summarize the topics discussed, the information obtained, the consensus reached, and the tasks each person is responsible for at the end of the meeting.
Part of doing the work in the meeting is to assign everyone outlined tasks to do once the meeting is over. How will the decisions reached during the meeting be carried out? What needs to be done when, and by whom, to bring the idea to life? Divvy out the tasks in the meeting to appropriate parties and decide on clear deadlines, then unleash everyone to tackle their responsibilities.
It can also be helpful to send out a follow-up email 24 hours after the meeting that outlines who is assigned what tasks and when they should be completed.
Debriefing reminds everyone in the room of the big takeaways and helps retention. It also provides an opportunity to clear up any confusion or lingering questions that may exist and ensures that everyone is on the same page and ready to hit the ground running. If done effectively, a debrief can improve team effectiveness by up to 25%. Always circle back with your team.
Time is money, especially in the innovation process.
Time is money, especially in the innovation process. In light of the poor meeting epidemic, it is more important than ever to clean up meeting structures and adjust strategies to protect resources and produce prosperous results.
Incorporating some or all ten of these good meeting habits can help you be more intentional and efficient in your future meetings.