Meetings have a bad reputation, and it’s not unwarranted. Sixty-five percent of senior managers said meetings keep them from completing their own work, and 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient, according to Harvard Business Review. Why are there so many bad meetings?
“Almost no one is taught effective practices,” says Mamie Kanfer Stewart, author of Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging, and Enjoyable Meetings. “You’re expected to automatically know how to run a good meeting or to pick it up through osmosis. Because of this expectation, it’s embarrassing to ask for help.”
We’re also in denial; terrible meetings are always someone else’s meeting, says Kanfer Stewart. Organizers need to understand that they’re part of the problem, too. Successful meetings could be as easy as addressing the four common practices that sabotage them:
1. Not documenting decisions
Lots of meetings end with a sentence like: “Sounds like we’ve come to a decision,” but is everyone clear on what that decision is, asks Kanfer Stewart?
“The grand ‘we’ does not exist, and few people are willing to say, I’ll take it upon myself to do the next steps,” she says. “It’s very likely we all have our own ideas, and will walk out each thinking something different.”
Instead, the meeting leader should conclude with, “Here’s the decision I think we’ve made. Is my description accurate? Can someone else describe the decision for the record?”
What comes next needs to be pinned down, says Kanfer Stewart. “Ideas get thrown out, but actual next steps need to be captured and articulated, with a responsible person assigned,” she says.
2. Inviting too many people
When it comes to assembling participants, too many of us have “meeting FOMO,” says Kanfer Stewart. “When we invite people, we are not as thoughtful as we should be and often invite everybody because it’s easy,” she says. “Nobody questions meeting invites, and the only acceptable reasons to decline are if you’re out of the office, sick, or already booked.”
Too many people can make a meeting unproductive, but being in the meeting is not the only way to have someone contribute, says Kanfer Stewart. “A better use of time is to have quick check-in with leaders beforehand, and then bring that information to the room,” she says. “Also allow people to send comments via email.”
If you’re invited to a meeting that you don’t think you need to attend, ask the inviter what perspective they hope you’ll bring. “It can feel like you’re trying to get out of work when you decline meeting invites, and that doesn’t feel good,” says Kanfer Stewart. “Instead, spread the message that you’re trying to optimize your time.”
3. Not taking good notes
Taking notes in a meeting can be seen as an administrative role, and some organizations assign someone to the task. More often, though, teams fail to take meeting notes at all.
“Many organizations have a culture that if you’re not in the meeting, you’re not in the know,” says Kanfer Stewart. “You shouldn’t have to attend to get key takeaways and next steps.”
Meeting notes don’t have to read like a court transcript, but they also shouldn’t be random bullet points. “People will read meeting notes if they contain a few bullet points that say, ‘Here’s the decision. These are the three next steps, and here are two takeaways,’ ” says Kanfer Stewart. “When you don’t take notes, you’re forcing people to come because it’s the only way to know what’s going on.”
4. Not aligning with your culture
Meetings are a good way to deliver your company culture, but often they do not. If you value transparency but fail to send meeting notes, for example, you’re not in alignment. Meetings that don’t fit company culture are often due to a lack of processes and tools.
“Letting everyone do meetings how they want feels great because it’s not bureaucratic,” says Kanfer Stewart. “Some leaders might encourage disagreement in meetings, while others don’t. This lack of consistency adds to the cognitive load of the team. If every meeting is structured differently, it takes more brainpower to prepare.”
The solution is to pay attention to people, processes, and tools. “People need to be trained on skills and practices for productive meetings,” she says. “What does it mean to have an agenda? Just because you provide a template doesn’t mean everyone will instantly start writing thoughtful agendas.”
Organizations should also create a shared process. “This doesn’t mean every meeting needs to follow the same process; there are different kind of meetings, such as weekly meetings or company-wide town hall meetings,” says Kanfer Stewart. “In general, though, project meetings can follow the same process.”
Create processes that identify how to write an effective agenda, the type of pre-work that participants should accomplish, and where minutes are shared and stored. Then use tools that fit your process, such as Word or Google docs, or a meeting content management tool like Beenote.
“It’s helpful to give people guidance and structure so they don’t have to remember everything,” says Kanfer Stewart. “Tools and templates standardize and alleviate pressure on the brain. Filling in the blank is much easier than figuring out what to write in the first place.”
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