Running effective meetings isn’t simply a matter of doing the obvious things like sharing the agenda and starting on time. While those things are important, they’re just table stakes. The real key to effective meetings is organizing and running them with a human touch – not like some corporate management automaton.
Most of us don’t have formal training in meeting facilitation, but anyone can learn to do it well. Same goes for knowing whether to hold a meeting in the first place and what to do afterward to make sure it wasn’t a waste of time.
This guide will walk you through the ingredients you need to organize and run effective meetings. You might be surprised by what really matters (and what doesn’t).
What is an effective meeting?
It’s important to distinguish between effective and efficient.
An efficient meeting starts promptly, stays on track due to good time management, includes as few people as possible, and achieves the stated objective. Job done, right? Wrong. Efficiency is a superficial quality. It says nothing about whether the right people were in the room for the right reasons, or whether the meeting generated any value for the business.
An effective meeting brings a thoughtfully selected group of people together for a specific purpose, provides a forum for open discussion, and delivers a tangible result: a decision, a plan, a list of great ideas to pursue, a shared understanding of the work ahead. Not only that, but the result is then shared with others whose work may be affected.
Effective meetings have a clear purpose
Let’s face it: most of us have too many meetings on our calendars. And few things are a bigger waste of time than recurring meetings that no longer provide any value to attendees (or the business). It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing meetings as the one and only way to collaborate. That knee-jerk tendency is what gets us into trouble and what gives meetings a bad name.
Determine whether you really need a meeting
Some types of meetings are legit, while others aren’t. Meetings should never be held for the sole purpose of sharing information. That’s what email, chat, and company intranets (e.g., Confluence) are for. Department and company all-hands meetings are a notable exception. They provide a unique chance for people at all levels of the business to hear directly from executives and other leaders – and, if you include time for Q&A, vice-versa.
At the very least, a meeting should center on a discussion that will be more effective in real-time than asynchronously via emails or comment threads. Examples include team or project retrospectives, brainstorming, and 1-on-1 meetings between managers and their direct reports.
In the best case scenario, a meeting’s purpose is to make a decision or create something collaboratively. Project planning, mapping out customer journeys, setting goals, solving a problem, choosing X vs. Y… all these are situations where holding a meeting is probably the most effective way to get it done.
Choose meeting attendees who can make a unique contribution
Meetings are expensive, so be thoughtful about who you invite. To be sure, you want to invite the minimum number of people needed to achieve your goal. But you also want the group to bring diverse perspectives and knowledge, especially if the purpose of the meeting is to solve a tough problem or brainstorm. Sadly, there’s no magic formula for balancing cost against the potential for creativity. Use your best judgment.
Tip: Try this meeting cost calculator from Harvard Business Review next time you’re planning a meeting. It’ll make you think twice about your attendee list!
Craft and share an agenda
Few things are more irksome than the person who sends a meeting invite with no indication whatsoever of what will happen in the meeting, and therefore invitees have no clue as to why they’re being invited. Don’t be that person. Include your agenda in the invitation so people can determine whether they really need to be there and, if not, decline the meeting or suggest someone else.
Your meeting agenda might have just one item. That’s fine! The point is to have an agenda that speaks to the result you want – e.g., “Brainstorm 10 or more ways we could reduce customer churn 10% by the end of the year.” If you can’t describe what you’ll be doing in actionable, results-oriented terms, that’s a sign holding the meeting would be a waste of time.
Tip: Include a 5-minute agenda item at the end to capture any open questions or follow-up tasks and assign owners for them. Don’t skip this! Better to cut a discussion short than to leave loose ends dangling.
Effective meetings keep attendees engaged
It’s okay to start the meeting by setting the expectation that everyone is 100% focused on what’s going on in the room.
Let the group know that if someone has work that is so pressing they’d be tempted to multi-task, they have permission to go do that work and catch up on what happened in the meeting later. They’ll produce better work, and you’ll have more engaged participants. Win-win.
Schedule for maximum engagement
In our age of globally distributed companies, a bit of thought around timing goes a long way in maximizing your meeting’s effectiveness. As much as possible, avoid scheduling your meeting during someone else’s lunch hour, or at a time when they’d otherwise be reading their kids a bedtime story. When that can’t be avoided, at least check in with the people who’ll be inconvenienced to get their buy-in in advance. (Depending on your company culture, that might not be strictly necessary, but it’s always polite.)
Even for co-located participants, timing can make a difference. Our capacity for creative thinking is the highest right after sleep, so schedule that brainstorming session first thing in the morning. By contrast, we solve problems best later in the day when our minds are a bit tired. Our focus relaxes, so we’re able to see more opportunities and connect more dots. Plus, we’re less likely to be distracted by a looming list of tasks for the day.
Close the lid
Unless you’re acting as the designated scribe, laptops should be closed and phones should be off the table. “Oh, but I can focus on the discussion and check my email at the same time,” some might say. Please allow me to call bullshit on that. Besides, for every person with a laptop open, there’s a person sitting next to them distracted by their typing or peeking to see if they’re actually just cruising Facebook. (There’s a 71% chance it’s Facebook.)
Tip: Instead of having a scribe type up meeting minutes as you go, have the facilitator jot notes down on the whiteboard, snap a photo of it, then share it out afterwards. That way everyone can close the lid.
Make it remote-friendly
Even if everyone in the group has a desk in your office, set the meeting up to be accessible and valuable for people joining remotely. Because last-minute business travel and WFH days happen. Video conferencing is the closest thing to being there in person, and fortunately, there are loads of options available: from enterprise systems like Zoom (used by teams at Atlassian) to group video chat.
You might even have the entire group join remotely from their desks. The team at Trello does this if even one person is remote. It puts everyone on a level playing field and encourages more balanced participation. Plus, nobody likes being the giant head on the TV screen at the front of the room.
Effective meetings provide a safe space for divergent thinking
A bit of divergence goes a long way when you’re looking for creative ideas, puzzling through solutions to a problem, or exploring options. You don’t have to put a specific brainstorming exercise on the agenda, but you do have to make the group feel comfortable expressing non-conforming opinions or offering up off-the-wall ideas.
Build trust in the room
People need assurance that stepping outside the norm won’t be a career-ending move. Known as psychological safety, this is one of the leading indicators of a high-performing team. (And what is a group of people in a meeting, if not a temporary team?)
As the meeting organizer and facilitator, you have a chance to lead by example and be the first to offer up a controversial perspective or idea.
You can also build trust by asking questions that prompt a deeper discussion, even when you think you know the answer. Questions like “Why do we think that’s true?” or “Can you expand on that?” or “How could we measure that?” demonstrate humility and curiosity on your part, which sets the tone for the rest of the group.
If you’ve done a good job gathering a group with diverse knowledge and perspectives, everyone will be “the odd one out” in one way or another.
The only introvert… the only person from Finance… the person who just started last week. Your job now is to take advantage of that diversity by making sure everyone is (and feels) heard.
Ask the new hire how things look from their still-fresh point of view. Draw out the introvert toward the end of a discussion by asking whether they see points the group hasn’t considered yet. Encourage the lone representative from Finance to share how the decision would affect her team.
Tip: If one person starts to dominate the meeting, ask them to take over the role of capturing notes on the whiteboard. This transitions them into listening mode and gives the rest of the group more chances to speak.
Effective meetings produce real, sharable results
Okay, statistics nerds, here are a few gems for you. 47% of workers complain that meetings are where productivity goes to die. Furthermore, workers consider roughly half of their meetings to be a waste of time, and 73% confess to sneaking in some real work during meetings. That’s unfortunate. If you’re doing meetings right, they are where “real work” gets done.
Focus relentlessly on results
You know the meeting’s purpose because you’ve thought it through. You crafted an agenda designed to achieve the goal. Now stay the course! Be mindful not to meander off-topic for too long or dive too deep into technical discussions. (Just how long is “too long” and how deep is “too deep” is up to you as meeting facilitator to decide.)
Tip: A “parking lot” on the whiteboard is an easy way to capture ideas, topics, and questions that are out of scope for the moment and keep the meeting moving along. The catch is that you’re honor-bound to follow up on them, or you’ll lose the group’s trust.
If the meeting centers on a decision, don’t let the group off the hook and settle for a “maybe.” Push for that decision or recommendation so people can start to take action as soon as they walk out of the room. You might not reach full agreement, but that’s okay. Effective teamwork means agreeing to trust each other enough to rally behind the decision once it’s been made. Consider using the DACI method to clarify each person’s role in the decision: driver, approver, contributor, or informed. (More on DACI in the Atlassian Team Playbook, including a silly video starring yours truly.)
Chances are, your meeting will generate some kind of artifact: a plan, a collection of ideas, a user journey, a list of follow-up items, etc. At Atlassian, we capture all that stuff as a page in Confluence (the wiki-flavored intranet tool we make) and share the page with everyone on the invite list and other relevant people. Sharing via email and Google Docs works fine, too.
Err on the side of sharing with more people than is strictly necessary. It’s really hard to keep track of exactly what everyone around you is up to, or how the outcome of your meeting will intersect with their work. Sharing broadly reduces the chance you’ll discover conflicts late in the game, and might even lead to an opportunity to join forces with a team doing complementary work.
Don’t waste energy worrying about trivial stuff
Be intentional about where you are and aren’t focusing energy. For 99% of meetings, you can give yourself a break and skip worrying about…
- Finding a meeting location outside the office
- Bringing donuts or having lunch catered
- Preparing a snazzy slide deck (death to all “consume information” meetings!)
Instead, focus your energy on the real ingredients that make for effective meetings: purpose, engagement, safety, and results. I’d even argue that starting and ending on time isn’t absolutely critical for success. What’s important is how you use the time you have – however long that is.
Here’s a handy “effective meetings” cheat-sheet you can download and use to help keep you focused on the stuff that matters.
If the meeting isn’t effective, change it!
The fact that you’re still reading means you’re committed to running the most successful meetings possible. Yay! Turns out, though, you’re not the sole judge of whether the meeting was effective or not.
Thankfully, you can ask attendees for feedback with questions like these:
- Did this meeting result in something of value to the business?
- Did we have the right people in the room? If not, who should/shouldn’t be included in the future?
- Were the meeting’s purpose and agenda clear?
- Was it easy for you to contribute to the discussion?
- (for recurring meetings) Are we holding this meeting on the right cadence? If not, how should we adjust?
Even if the meeting was a one-off, this feedback will help you plan even better meetings going forward.
Keep an ongoing, open dialogue amongst the people you meet with most frequently, and emphasize progress over perfection. Continuous improvement for the win!
This article first appeared on Atlassian.