Take back your time — a practical guide to reforming meetings


Meetings are probably one of the most actively examined institutions in the modern workforce, yet in many teams, I see very few strides made to improve them.

We've all been there — you look at your calendar and see 30+ hours of meetings in a single week, and you're left wondering, "when am I supposed to do my 'real' job?" This starts to impact the contribution you can make on the work that needs to happen as a result of the meeting because you are just running from one thing to the next, trying to keep your head above the water. With a mountain of email piling up, you end up spending time in meetings catching up on email, or have to dedicate time in the evening to get caught up. There has to be a better way to work!

I spent a significant amount of time on various teams observing patterns around meetings, and over the years, it became increasingly clear that meetings themselves are not the problem. From the mandate of an executive trying to maximize his own time, to a design studio trying to maximize the time and output out of a group — in all cases, the root of both the problem and solutions came down to gaps in processes and behaviors. When we identified these and started to adjust them, the challenges started to melt away.

So what are the processes and behaviors that we can tune to help overcome meeting fatigue in an organization?

Agendas: I think conceptually we all know that meetings should have agendas, but this is surprisingly rare in practice. Far too many of meetings I attend do not have agendas; and of those that do, they are rarely actually followed. In my conversations with people at all levels of organizations, I found them to be most frustrated with a meeting did not have an agenda, because it is a clear indication that the facilitator has not fully thought about the purpose and objectives of the meetings. If you don't have a clear agenda, how can you be certain that you even have the right people in attendance? How do you know people are prepared with work to show? How do you know the meeting is even needed at all?

Keep to time: Once you have an agenda, you must make an effort to keep to it. It might be awkward or uncomfortable at first to interrupt a rigorous debate or chime in that you are almost out of time in a meeting, but is always appreciated. As the facilitator, it is your responsibility to move the meeting along, and to alert the participants that it is time to wrap up.. In one role that I had where I had to facilitate executive meetings, I had a bell that I would ring to signal that we were 5 minutes to the end of the meeting. At that point we would recap actions and next steps, and everyone would leave on time to make it to their next meeting. People came to rely on the bell as a helpful tool to alert them to wrap up. In other teams, I have been in meetings that go on forever. A thirty minute meeting turns into ninety, and because leadership is so overbooked, people treat like each meeting is the last time they are going to be able to ask questions or get feedback for an eternity so they let the meeting go on indefinitely. By making sure meetings start and end on time, you reduce the snowball effect that can blow up an entire day's schedule, and result in further poor time management behaviors.

Purpose: In one of the executive meetings I used to run, knowing if a decision was needed, and who the decision maker was, was very clear. Unfortunately, in many meetings, this is not so obvious. At the start of the meeting or section of a presentation, the presenter should explicitly state the goal of their presentation, what type of feedback they are looking for, and if a decision needs to be reached in the meeting. Creative reviews are notoriously bad examples of meetings where decisions are often needed and rarely made. In creative reviews, it is critical to setup what you are going to share before jumping in — establishing clear context for the problem you are solving, outlining the feedback you are looking for, running through examples or options, discussing why you made certain choices, and identifying where decisions need to be made. Is everything locked but the color palette? Are you looking for buy-in around a new interaction pattern? Do you need sign-off on the look of a new icon? Or is your presentation an FYI? All of these require very different things from the attendees and decision makers.

Tangents: We all have an example of a meeting we've been in that went on such a tangent that you forget why you were even there in the first place — or better yet, where you very much know why you were there, and desperately try to course correct, and get no where. Tangents, when left unchecked, are a mark of a facilitator who doesn't have command of a meeting. Plain and simple. It is one thing for a tangent to be discussed for a minute or two, and another for one to hijack an entire meeting. Unfortunately, more often than not, I've seen the latter. If and when you see a tangent, anyone in the meeting, can and should step in and pose the question of if we need another meeting to discuss this topic. The facilitator can jump to the whiteboard and capture the idea to circle back to at the end of the meeting, or indicate they've captured it in their notes to follow up on later. Tangent hijacking results in even more meetings because you now need a new one to discuss the initial topic, often leads to topics being discussed with the wrong (or incomplete) set of people, and holds the people in the meeting hostage to delve into a topic they didn't come to the meeting to discuss. If a meeting naturally evolved into another topic, it is important for the facilitator to take a moment to make sure they have the right set of people before continuing, and if they do, check in with the group to ensure it is ok to dramatically shift the plan for the meeting. If the group agrees, then more power to them, but it shows respect for the group and for their time to have asked.

Actions: Maybe it is because I learned all of my best meeting practices from engineering executives, but I love action items.. I learned long ago that if you come out of a meeting with no clear actions, then the meeting should not have been held in the first place. And actions are nothing without the follow up. I once ran a weekly engineering leadership team meeting, and we opened and closed each meeting with the actions. At the start of the meeting I would read the actions that we had captured in the last meeting, and people would provide an update, then at the end of the meeting, I would recap the new actions I had collected during the meeting. The day before each weekly meeting, I would follow up on the actions table, reminding each person to be prepared to report on their action in the upcoming meeting. The result — the actions became real activities/followups/deliverables that people held themselves accountable to, as opposed to being a sentence lost in meeting notes.

Declining: This one is the simplest behavior changes of all — just say no. One of the most liberating moments of one of my jobs was coming to the realization that I was so overbooked with meetings and spread so thin, that I had no choice but to be deliberate and selective about the meetings I attended. This meant that I had to decline a large percentage of the meetings I was invited to. Since we are all here to read this, the Earth clearly didn't stop rotating on its axis because I didn't go to all of the meetings, and I found that there were other ways that I could be informed of decisions and contribute than just sitting in meetings all day. Declining meetings does not just mean blindly ignoring them — it means delegating the things that can be handed off to another team member to cover, catching up with peers after the meetings to learn about key decisions, and attending the meetings where you can be an active participant or are required to hear information first hand.

Processes are the set of activities I put in place around meetings to make them run more smoothly — writing an agenda on the whiteboard, following up with meeting notes, sending out the agenda the evening before the meeting — these set the foundation to be able to have the starting point of an effective meeting. But Behaviors are where the real work happens, and where you can really impact a culture that is inundated with meetings. It takes a behavior change to be on time to meetings if you are generally late, to actively manage your calendar so that you are not overbooked, to not let yourself to get lured into talking about tangents, even when they are more interesting to you than the meeting topic. But all of these behavior changes lead to a better working environment for everyone.

A few closing tips for presenters or facilitators include:

  • Send presentation or materials ahead of time when possible so that attendees can review before the meeting
  • Arrive at your meeting room/location at least 5 mins early (sometimes up to 12 mins early depending on your conferencing equipment) so that you can check projection connection, clear a whiteboard, dial in remote participants, etc. Meetings statistically begin 12 mins late due to faulty tech, get ahead of it
  • Write the agenda on the whiteboard before the meeting so that everyone can see it, start the meeting by going over the agenda. If using video conference, show the agenda at the start of the meeting
  • Capture tangents on the whiteboard or in the notes throughout the meeting so that they are noted but you can move past them
  • When the meeting is naturally winding down, end it. You do not need to fill up the whole time just because it's blocked on the calendar, people always appreciate getting some time back in their day
  • If you can spare the few minutes after the meeting wraps up, email the meeting notes or actions before even leaving the room — this way it's done!

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