It's the fuel for movies like Office Space and Scott Adams' Dilbert comics: the inefficiency and bureaucracy of the corporate world. Boring, pointless meetings are just one of the symptoms of an entire ecosystem of poor organization and communication.
So why are meetings often so ineffective? You'd think that nobody involved would want to waste his or her valuable time. Many managers and business owners simply have unrealistic expectations for how meetings will operate. They think, "We'll just have a free flowing, open, brainstorming type of meeting and lots of good ideas will come out,'" says Glenn Parker, a team building consultant and the author of Meeting Excellence: 33 Tools to Lead Meetings That Get Results.
Parker says there's a time and a place for that kind of meeting, for example if you're gathering some creatives to pool ideas for an ad campaign, but a lack of structure is likely to yield a lack of results. The style of meetings you run can range from this freeform discussion mode to a one-way information dump, in which the leadership updates their staff on strategic developments.
For some companies meetings are a tumor of unproductiveness waiting to be excised, while for others they're the lifeblood of the company's communication in chaotic times. In either case, there are plenty of ways you can make sure your meetings are productive.
How to Run an Effective Meeting: Types of Meetings and How to Run Them
Just as meetings can serve a wide variety of functions within your company, you want to tailor your leadership approach depending on the sort of meeting you are running:
- Action-oriented meetings - These meetings are intended to solve a pressing, or time-sensitive problem. In this case, key strategies include making sure people prepare well for the meeting so that you don't waste everyone's time trying to come up with solutions but rather debating the merits of potential solutions that people propose. You want to use language and choose a space that welcomes people to share their ideas while also letting people know that they should come prepared to defend their ideas fiercely.
- Brainstorming or creative meetings - For a meeting like this you want to make sure there's food and drink to fuel long sessions churning out ideas. While these meetings can last longer than regular meetings and be a bit more free flowing, you still want to have a cap in mind for how much time you're willing to spend. Bringing in unexpected but relevant items can also spur creativity. For example, if you're discussing the design of a new office space, bringing in some Legos might give people a good outlet for their imaginations.
- Short-term planning meetings - For short-term planning meetings, the list of people you invite is even more important than it is at a regular meeting. These meetings are likely to require a lot of team interaction, for example if you're working on a current project that involves, the sales, business development, and advertising departments. Make sure that people are on the same page before the meeting itself to save time and set out expectations for how and how often they will communicate both with the level of management above them and with their fellow teams.
- Long-term planning meetings or retreats - Long-term planning meetings are likely to include most if not all high-level executives, though many small companies like to include their entire staffs in this process. However, lots of people means lots of opportunity for digression and irrelevance. If you have a lot of sharing going on make sure to choose a format that either maximizes the opportunities for the upper echelons to share their vision with the employees or for the employees themselves to discuss improvements or changes that they feel could help the company meet its goals.
Dig Deeper: Let's Start With an Icebreaker
How to Run an Effective Meeting: 3 Tips for Meeting Success
While Parker outlines 33 tools for honing your meeting leading abilities in his book, he boiled the essentials down to three key ways to keep your meetings from being time wasters:
The first tidbit sounds obvious, but enough people disregard it to make it necessary. "Make sure there's a purpose for the meeting," Parker says. "Don't just have a meeting because it's Tuesday or don't just have a meeting because you haven't had one in a month and you feel like you should." Phone calls, e-mails, and calling folks into your office can be valuable replacements for larger group meetings.
Secondly, having a purpose for the meeting isn't enough unless people know what that purpose is so they can come prepared. There should also be a list of agenda items that get distributed to everyone involved, and ideally a specific amount of time alotted to cover each one to partially preempt digressions.
Finally, for a meeting to be successful rather than wasteful, you need to make sure the right people are there, no more no less. Do you need multiple representatives from the sales department or can one of them report back to their team. If someone consistently stays silent during meetings you either have a shy employee or someone with nothing to contribute in the context of that particular meeting.
Dig Deeper: What's the Best Time for a Meeting
How to Run an Effective Meeting: Keeping In Touch
Mike Mastous' business operates at a breakneck pace, so if he found that meetings were time wasters, he'd have to trim the fat, and fast. At Delta Disaster Services, his Arvada, Colorado-based property restoration company, they get a call whenever a fire, flood, or similar disaster wrecks a commercial or residential building.
"When our phone rings, we're in business, and my phone could ring 20 times today and we've got 20 jobs that are real-time starts," he says. Though much time is spent gutting, draining, and rebuilding houses and stores, dealing with insurance companies, contractors and code violations eats up even more time and require real organizing chops.
Mastous makes sure his teams are coordinated with the help of technology, and a broader definition of what a meeting is. "Meetings aren't just skin to skin," he says, "they're getting people involved in conference calls, they're getting people involved in e-mail updates. Our IT IQ is pretty high." As an added layer of technology, everyone carries handhelds in the field to stay in touch and their locations are tracked via GPS to aid in fast response to new disasters.
But Mastous also convenes plenty of in-person meetings, between seven and 10 a week, which is a lot for a company with only 25 employees and 30 subcontractors. Some of the most important communication happens before the meeting even begins. "Everyone's notified in advance what [issues will be covered] and they're to come to meetings with solutions," Mastous says.
Dig Deeper: Joel Spolsky's A Little Less Conversation
How to Run an Effective Meeting: Time Management
No matter how detailed of an agenda you e-mail to your entire team, people will go over the time limits. You need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether that's acceptable or whether the discussion should be tabled for another time, but it helps to have systems in place.
When a meeting participant starts to pontificate a bit, it's up to you "as the meeting leader to say something like, ‘it looks like we've drifted a bit, can we come back and focus on whatever that agenda item is,'" Parker advises. Another strategy is acknowledging the person's experience with the subject but suggesting the issue be raised at a later time. If it's germane but time is still running out, you should assign a smaller group to either gather more information or move the process along once the meeting is over.
At Delta, Mastous tries to strike a tone that's simultaneously business-like and light-hearted. There are two clocks in the company's meeting room and "we have a gentleman in our office named Steve Foster, and Steve is extremely anal about being at a meeting on time, getting to the point, covering topics and getting out of the meeting on time because everybody has secondary appointments. We call those clocks Fosters."
Despite Foster's passion for punctuality, Mastous is still the one in charge of nipping tangents in the bud. "I want it to be healthy and I want it to be upbeat, and I don't want people to feel like it's martial law," he says.
Another time management question is how often a team should meet and how long they should meet for. This obviously varies but, according to Parker, if you want to maintain a level of concentration and involvement "an hour is probably best, an hour and a half at the maximum without a break." As far as whether a group should gather daily quarterly or somewhere in between, there's a correlation between the scope of the project and the frequency of check-ins. Bigger picture planning meetings don't need to happen as frequently while small group projects might require near constant communication and meetings.
Dig Deeper: How to Organize Your Time and Space
How to Run an Effective Meeting: Meetings and Company Culture
The way a meeting will play out is often reflected in the setting where you choose to hold it. If you choose a round table or circular set-up, it sends the message that everyone is expected and encouraged to participate as opposed to an auditorium or classroom style set-up, in which case employees know to hunker down for a lecture.
Mastous espouses the former type of set-up and he solicits the opinions of every meeting participant as part of the company's consensus-based approach to decision making. While this might sound overly time consuming, it makes sense if you did a good job before the meeting began of weeding out unnecessary attendees.
This is also part of the reason why he feels meetings are a great way to introduce new hires to company culture. "I call it the sharing of the DNA," he says. "It's critical for [new recruits] to understand the culture and philosophy of the company and in many cases they're only going to pick that up through meetings."
Dig Deeper: How to Build a Corporate Culture of Trust
How to Run an Effective Meeting: The Meeting Strategies of Great CEOs
There are as many styles of running meetings as there are companies and CEOs but these three entrepreneurs have particularly interesting approaches to communicating with their staffs:
- Caterina Fake, the co-founder of photo sharing site Flckr and currently runs Hunch a Web start-up and "decision engine." She has pretty strong feelings about meetings and they're not positive. "Interaction should be constant, not crammed into meetings once a week. At Hunch, we don't have meetings unless absolutely necessary. When I used to have meetings, though, this is how I would do it: There would be an agenda distributed before the meeting. Everybody would stand. At the beginning of the meeting, everyone would drink 16 ounces of water. We would discuss everything on the agenda, make all the decisions that needed to be made, and the meeting would be over when the first person had to go to the bathroom."
- Similarly, Mark Cuban, an entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks sees meetings as a waste of time. He runs his whole business via e-mail and estimates that it saves him "five to 10 hours per day. No meetings. No phone calls. Everything is documented so the number of "let's talk again," or "get together to clarify," or "get on the same page" are gone. People learn very quickly to document and get to the point without the "intonation" of trying to sell me that occurs in meetings. I'm a Dragnet type of e-mail guy. Nothing but the facts. Leave the BS for other people."
- At the end of his company's all-staff meetings, which are held every Monday, Justin Kan, the co-founder of Justin.tv makes sure people haven't been spacing out, and sometimes even he comes up short. "At the end [of the meeting], Mike, my co-founder and our CEO, gives everyone a quiz based on his notes from the meeting. It's just a fun thing, to test yourself and see if you're paying attention. Sometimes, I'll get five out of five answers right; other times, I might get two out of five."