As I slumped my way through another lifeless meeting last week (not my client, thankfully) I got to wondering: With all we know about how to have good meetings, why are there still so many bad meetings happening?

Bad meetings are not just something to moan about. Bad meetings waste energy--the most precious resource of a startup--time and, as a result, money.

So what's the problem? We all know what we should do. There has been decades of research on what it takes to have a good meeting.

Everyone knows they are supposed to have an agenda, but they often don't--and don't even get me started on a clear outcome for the meeting. Good meetings stay on point; they start and end on time. But most meetings run late, especially since people follow tangents all over the place, not focusing on the reason everyone is in the room in the first place. Many meetings have too many people and some have not the right people in the room to make the decision. And, for a variety of reasons, meetings can often be simply dull.

Then why are meetings worse than ever?

The answer is simple: people don't take the time to plan. Leaders schedule the meeting (or let the meeting be scheduled); but they don't schedule time in advance of that to plan the meeting. Not planning your meeting is a meeting disaster waiting to happen. And, perhaps, counter-intuitively, planning the meeting can sometimes be more important than the meeting itself.

When you take the time to plan the meeting, you slow down and actually think through the purpose of the meeting and who should actually be there.

I coach a COO of a fast-growing startup and sorry to say that his team dreaded the meetings he ran. He tried to pack in too much content, and it usually wasn't at the same level of importance: he would include tactical things like "where should we go on the company outing" along with strategic things like "discussion of growth margin for the quarter." In his one-on-ones, he and his direct report would cover the things that were top of mind but did not discuss items that were important for long-term planning.

The COO is extremely intelligent and analytical. When we debriefed the meetings, he always knew where he had gone wrong. He realized that if he would "debrief" the meeting before he had it, he would have a better meeting. The meeting would achieve its purpose, everyone would get more out of it, and overall it would add energy rather than drain him and his team. He immediately decided to put a one-hour time block on his calendar every Monday just to plan out his meetings for the week. The efficiency, productivity, and, overall, enjoyment of his meetings skyrocketed overnight.

Putting time on your calendar to do the basic housekeeping of meeting planning will instantly upgrade the quality of your meetings, too.

Here is a good checklist of some questions to ask yourself when you sit down and plan the meeting:

  • What is the purpose of this meeting?
  • What is the specific outcome you'd like from this meeting? Is it simply to sync everyone up? Make a decision together? Communicate specific things?
  • How will you set up the meeting to arrive at that specific outcome?
  • Who should be included?
  •  Is there pre-reading or other preparation you want others to do before the meeting? If so how will you tell them about it?
  •  Is it a regular weekly or monthly meeting? If so, do you need to re-think the format and purpose and desired outcomes of that meeting?

As you get more sophisticated in planning your meetings, you might see that you don't need a meeting at all. Or you may see that you need to separate out certain topics into their own shorter meetings. Spending the time planning helps you pinpoint much more accurately what you need to do to achieve your outcome.

As a CEO or other leader, you send a message in the way you hold meetings. Every participant in that meeting is having an experience of you--of the company. When they leave that meeting they are taking away a mood, an experience, and some message about what this company is about. What message do you want to send?