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Five Tips to Have More Effective Meetings

As a leader it's inevitable that you will have to organize a meeting. Whether it's for updates, 1-1s, or making decisions, the team is looking towards you to lead the conversation and have it be a good use of time.

But how do you have a good meeting? That's not something that's covered in leadership training. Is it the perfect invite? A well honed pitch? Throw something out there and see if it sticks?

Like anything else, a good meeting needs some preparation, however, if you follow these five tips, I guarantee your meetings will be better than before.

Step 1: Does It Even Need to Be a Meeting?

The best kind of meeting is the one that didn't have to happen. Have you ever sat through a meeting where everyone did a bunch of talking, you halfway listened and thought to yourself, "this could have been an email?"

man looking out window
Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

Been there, done that have, and have the t-shirt.

When I think about why we need meetings, it's because we're trying to accomplish something that one person alone couldn't get done. With this assumption in mind, I find that meetings take one of two shapes: sharing information (e.g., stand-ups, retrospectives, all-hands) or to make a decision (e.g., technical approach, ironing the business rules).

Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, then next thought is determine if the communication needs to be synchronous (get everyone together) or asynchronous (let people get involved at their own pace).

For example, if the team has been struggling in getting work done, then it makes sense to have a meeting to figure out what's happening and ensure that everyone is hearing the exact wording/tone of the messaging.

On the other hand, if your intent is to let the team know that Friday is a holiday, then that can be done through email or message in your chat tool.

One way you can figure out if the meeting could have been an email is to pretend it was a meeting and you canceled it. Is there anything that can't proceed? If not, then maybe you don't need that meeting.

Step 2: How Do We Even Know If We're Successful?

Have you ever attended a meeting and didn't know what it was about or why you met? These types of meetings typically suffer from not having a goal or purpose behind the meeting.

Recall from Step #1, we're meeting because there's something that we need from the group that we couldn't do as individuals. So what is it?

When scheduling the meeting, include the purpose (here's why we're meeting) and the goal (here's how we know if we're done) to the description. Not only is this a great way to focus the meeting, it can also serve as a way for people to know if they need to attend or not.

dartboard with darts in it
Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma on Unsplash

This is also a good litmus test to see if you know why there should be a meeting as this forces you to think about the problem being solved and how it should happen. If you're struggling to determine the purpose and the goal, then you're attendees will also struggle.

Step 3: Do You Have The Right People?

A common mistake I see people make is that they invite everyone who has a stake or passing interest in the topic which can make for a large (10+ people) meeting.

Even though the intent is good (give everyone visibility), this is a waste because the more people you have in a meeting, the less effective it will be. A meeting with four people will have a better conversation and get things done more than a meeting with nine people.

Let's pretend that you're at a large party and you see a group that you know, so you walk up to the group, hoping to break into the conversation.

As more people join in the group, they're going to naturally split up into smaller groups, each with their own conversations. The main reason is that the large the group, the less likely you have a chance to participate and get involved. So you might start a conversation with 1 or 2, split off and then start a new group.

Meetings have the same problem. The large the group, the more likely that side conversations will happen and it makes it harder for you to facilitate and keep everyone on track.

To keep meetings effective, be sure to only include the necessary people. For example, instead of inviting an entire team, invite only 1 or 2 people.

At a high level, you need the these three roles filled to have a successful meeting

  1. The Shot Caller - This is the main stakeholder and can approve our decisions. Without their buy-in, no real decision can be made.
  2. The Brain Trust - These are the people who have the details and can drive the conversation. You want to keep this group as tightly focused as possible.
  3. The Facilitator - Generally the organizer, this is the person who ensures that the goal is achieved and keeps the meeting running.

One way to narrow down the invite list is to answer this question:

If this person can't make the meeting, then we can't meet.

If you can't accomplish the goal without them, then they need to be there. I'm such a believer in this advice that if it's the day of the meeting and we don't have the Shot Caller or the Brain Trust, then I'll reschedule the meting as I'd rather move it than waste everyone's time.

Woman presenting task board in front of team
Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Step 4: Running the Meeting

It's the big day and you've got everyone in the room, now what?

In Step #2, we talked about having a purpose and goal for the meeting. Now is when we vocalize these two things to kick the meeting off. From there, we can seed the conversation with one of these strategies:

  • Asking an opening question to prime the Brain Trust.
  • Throwing to the Shot Caller to frame any restrictions the attendees need to be aware of.
  • Start with a specific person to kick the conversation off.

Once the conversation starts flowing, your job is to keep the meeting on track. For those who've played games like Dungeons and Dragons, you're acting like a Game Master where you know the direction the meeting needs to go to (The Goal), but the attendees are responsible for getting there.

It can be challenging to keep the meeting on track if you're also driving the conversation, so pace yourself, take notes, and get others involved to keep the conversation going.

When leading longer meetings (more than 60 minutes), make sure to take a 10 minute break.

For attendees, this allows them to stretch their legs, take a bathroom break, and to stew on the conversation that's happened so far. For those who are "thinkers" than "reacters", this gives them time to compose their thoughts and have better conversations after the break.

As a facilitator, this gives you a way to think about the meeting so far, identify areas that the group needs to dig into, and if needed, it can break the conversation out of a rut.

Step 5: Wrapping Up - How Do Things Get Done?

As the meeting comes to a close, we need to make sure that action follows next. A meeting with no follow-up is a lot like a rocking chair. Plenty of motion, but no progress being made.

In order to make sure that next steps happen, make sure to define action items with attendees owning getting them done. Action items don't have to be complex, it could be as simple as:

  • Defining stories for the team
  • Sending summary notes to other stakeholder
  • Following up with Person about X.

When defining action items, be wary of items that are scheduling another meeting (e.g. let's schedule a meeting with Team Y to get their perspective). This implies that you didn't have the right people in the room (see Step 3). Also, remember, meetings are to get alignment or to come up with a solution, so what purpose does this follow up meeting have?

As the meeting wraps up, take a few moments to summarize the outcome, verbally ensure that actions items have been assigned and thank everyone for their attention and time.

Congratulations, You're an Expert With Meetings Now, Right?

Running effective meetings can be made easier if you take the time to do the necessary preparation. Even those these steps may seem heavy on the documentation, you'll find that it'll help you focus on the core problem at hand, which helps focus the group, which makes everyone that much better.

By following these five steps, you'll increase your chances of having a great meeting and as you gain more experience, you'll become more comfortable running them.