This is what it takes to make a meeting successful

People tend to think of meetings in a binary way: it was either a good meeting, or a bad one.

I don’t believe that’s a fair assessment.

First of all, in order to talk about what makes an effective company meeting, it’s important to define what defines a meeting. You could call two people talking in a room a meeting, and you could put a thousand people in an auditorium and call it a meeting. Which is precisely why so many companies struggle to define what makes a meeting effective, because any rule in one context can be good and in another can be bad.

“Speaking up” is a great example. In a small group, speaking up and sharing your ideas might be highly encouraged and seen as a good thing. In a large group, that same behavior may be seen as distracting or counterproductive.

In psychology, we would call this a debate on “truth.” If you proclaim a generalized truth and don’t realize the opposite of it is an active truth as well, then you haven’t actually gone that deep into the subject.

I think the topic of meetings as a perfect example.

Skipping past all the generalized industry-speak on best practices for meetings, here are a few things company leaders and members should consider when quantifying these time blocks:

1. Meetings are not always bad.

There is a business stereotype that meetings are a waste of time.

They’re not.

Plenty of good work is accomplished in meetings. The breakdown occurs when great opportunities arise and then people don’t take advantage of them and sprint to put them into action. Which means, going back to our debate on “truth,” to insist that every meeting follows a rigorous agenda is to miss the other side of the coin, which is the spontaneity that happens when likeminded people are all in the same room.

For example, Jeff Bezos, the prolific leader of Amazon has very specific company rules—and yet one of them is to not have tight agendas for meetings. At this year’s Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, he gave this glimpse of how he runs meetings when being interviewed by The Verge’s Executive Editor and columnist, Walt Mossberg.

“I make sure all my meetings do not have tight agendas,” Bezos said. “Tight agendas assume you know where you’re going, which for a certain kind of meeting is right, [like] if you’re doing your weekly business review and going through your metrics. But most meetings should be used for mild brainstorming. Thinking you know exactly where you’re going is a lack of humility that doesn’t let you invent,” he said.

Better agendas aren’t the answer. Most people get that wrong.

Studies, in fact, show the opposite. Meetings that are lightning efficient with tight agendas accounting for every minute don’t forge effective teams, just groups of individuals. The back and forth dialogue, giving everyone a chance to speak, understanding where people are coming from, are not what you do if you’re optimizing efficient meetings. It’s what you do if you’re trying to create effective teams.

2. The bigger you get (as a company), the harder you have to work to stay concise.

Here at Morphic, I can say we’re not a very meeting-centric culture, which is by design.

In biotech, particularly, I value our scientists spending time deep in thought and working hard to solve new problems, far more than I value how quickly they respond to an email—or how many meetings they attend.

Now, what I’ve seen in creating this sort of company culture is that even though we have less company meetings, the compromise is that our meetings are far more intense. Attendees are expected to put in the effort and bring their A-game, and the reason is so we can continue to protect each other’s time.

In order to do this effectively, platforms like Slack allow everyone to know what’s going on, at any moment. There’s no need to set aside meeting time to go around the room and share status updates because everyone already knows the information. Which means far more time can be spent in discussion, instead of disseminating the information and getting everyone up to speed.

So, another thing leaders tend to get wrong is in thinking meetings are the appropriate time to update everyone on everything. Personally, I’ve found this to be an unnecessary use of time. Be biased to more intense activities over shallow ones.

3. What you bring to the table in a meeting can define you (for good or bad).

This is a fairly brutal truth, but one that’s worth acknowledging.

I have been in plenty of employee evaluation discussions regarding employee performance, specifically high-potential employees. And I’ve found that if an employee does something either extremely good or extremely bad during a meeting, it’s remembered forever.

I remember early on in my career—very early on—I would mark meetings on my calendar at least a week in advance, so I could prepare. I don’t mean for a presentation, I mean also when other people are presenting or bringing things to the table, because I wanted to provide thought-out commentary, make thoughtful critiques, and be a beneficial part of the team.

It’s unfortunate, but a good many employees don’t take advantage of the opportunities company meetings provide.

They just sort of show up, or assume they can “wing it.”

But I am believer that if you’re not going to be an active participant at a meeting, you might as well just not show up. At least that way you’re not wasting your time. In the real world, there’s more downside than upside in that situation.

It’s an opportunity cost.

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