Every company, even a startup, struggles with meetings that don't achieve anything or are too long and wandering. Over the years, I've picked up some great tips from other companies and learned a little from trial and error, as well. Here are some quick takeaways on meetings:
Ask yourself, "Is a meeting even necessary?"
Many times, I have found myself in meetings that were not. A phone call might have sufficed. Occasionally, even email might have done the trick. Before I set up any meeting, the first thing I ask myself is whether it's even necessary. You also need to understand that people sometimes need the ability to brainstorm or crowdsource a problem, but that need is not as frequent as you may think.
Always set a time limit for a meeting -- a point at which the meeting does not go beyond.
I also mention that a meeting is not a football game; it is a baseball game. In baseball, there are nine innings. Those innings might take an hour to play, or they may take 10 hours. The point is that once the innings are played, the game is over. Meetings are the same way. Once the meeting objectives are achieved, the meeting can end. We don't need to run out the clock like a football game.
Have a clear statement of purpose.
Every meeting should begin with the comment: The purpose of this meeting is to achieve the following objective, or the reason we are meeting is to solve the following problem, or the resolution of this meeting is to do X. Everyone should know what the specific reason for the meeting is. Just this idea, alone, will minimize the possibility of stray meetings, which we've all been involved with. A stray meeting can eventually end in the development of a unified theory. Good meetings are friendly and crisp with an end point. I once worked with a company at which people were required to log their names into a computer prior to a meeting. After the meeting was over, the software program would gather everyone's salaries and calculate the cost of the meeting. I'm not recommending it, but this was really interesting, because it reinforced the idea that meetings and time have an implied and actual cost.
Include only people who are necessary for the meeting.
This is actually a big deal. I've been in many meetings with 15 to 20 people, and I'll ask myself if this many people are necessary to solve any problem set. I think the Founding Fathers had about 15 to 20 people, but then again, they were forming a new country. Too many people in a meeting directly leads to meeting drag, because you are introducing a higher probability that people will start to stray off topic. By the way, this is something that I learned from Chris Lee, founder of the software company MYOB -- when forming a board, aim for about five people. That's what he did at MYOB, a much larger company than I had when I started Sageworks. Chris intuitively understood that more is not always better.
Remember, meeting and talking ain't doing. We need to have meetings to bring people together and brainstorm, but meetings should be minimized for sure, especially in startups.