In November, a team of meeting researchers from York University, University of Utah, and Stanford worked with business leaders from Logitech and the human performance experts at Liminal Collective to comb through more than 400 research studies about meetings. Their goal: to identify the ten best evidence-based rules leaders could follow to lead better meetings.

The rules they found for better meetings are simple to understand, but challenging to follow. Let's take a look at their results. 

1. Experiment with meetings.

Great meetings become possible when you get specific about why you're meeting and what you want to achieve. 

Once you have a goal for your meeting and some ideas of how you might achieve it, you're ready to experiment. For example, let's say you want your one-on-ones to increase employee engagement and team performance. Cisco tested exactly that and found a great way to run those meetings. 

Meeting research suggests this kind of experimentation is key to success for every meeting. Of course, before you can run an experiment, you'll need a hypothesis.

2. Define meetings.

The research suggests you need to define a clear purpose and function for your meetings. I'd add expected outcomes, or results, to that list.

Often when I start working with a group, they might list team meetings, one-on-ones, and customer meetings. That's nowhere near specific enough. Saying you're having a team meeting or a client meeting just tells us who you're meeting with, not why that's a useful thing to do.

The best definitions state the meeting purpose (why you need to meet) and your desired outcomes (what you expect to get out of your time). For example, instead of scheduling a "Project Team Meeting" (that's just saying who's invited), you'd schedule a meeting to "Update the Project Plan and Clear Roadblocks." Much clearer.

3. Use technology.

There are lots of meeting technologies, such as video conferencing, polling, brainstorming, and meeting management platforms.

Given how much time professionals spend plugged in, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that when people use good meeting tech, they're more engaged and get better results. 

Pure conference calls, though, are still lousy. Those of you who obstinately refuse to turn on your video? You are making bad meetings worse. 

4. Avoid drift.

Keep the conversation on track. To do this, you've got to start by defining that track in the first place. Then, stick to it. 

You can adopt a mini-ritual to make this easier. You might agree to say "ELMO" (Enough, let's move on!) or "Squirrel!" when the conversation strays. You can also adopt a 'parking lot,' where you write down cool ideas that arise but aren't on target. 

5. Build larger teams for some meetings

The common wisdom states that smaller meetings are better, but the research shows this isn't always true. In fact, some meetings actually work better when you get more people involved. 

When do you want bigger groups? Any time you're looking for lots of creative input (think brainstorming) or need to build large-scale buy-in for a new initiative. In short, any time you might benefit from the wisdom of the crowd, you'd better make sure you've invited the crowd to the party.

6. Embrace diversity.

More diverse people create more ideas, more interaction, and more possibilities, but only if you get all those people productively engaged. Otherwise, more uninterested people just increases the number of folks who lost a precious hour of their life. 

You can't wing bigger, more diverse meetings, which is why many leaders have come to believe that meetings only work with four or fewer people. That's a myth. The research clearly shows that larger and more diverse meetings work great when you have the skill required to lead them. 

Leaders who haven't learned how to lead large group sessions are a bit like folks who only travel by car. Their range is limited. Just like you can go a lot farther in a plane if you're willing to put in the time and resources needed to get off the ground, you can achieve more when you acquire some meeting chops.  

7. Build commitment to the meeting process.

Companies with the most consistently effective meetings establish strong meeting guidelines. Each company adopts different rules. Some create rules about when to meet. Others adopt the ELMO rule. 

If your team doesn't have meeting agreements in place, consider starting that discussion. Writing your own rules is a great way to build commitment to the process.

8. Plan the design of meetings.

This research shows there's value in looking at the larger meeting context. How's the setup in your meeting space? What about breaks, and snacks? These choices impact meeting success.

9. Use leadership to enhance performance.

This research dealt mostly with the person leading the meeting. Leaders who are missing meeting skills create a real handicap for ‌many teams.

Leadership within meetings matters, but so does organizational leadership. For sustained meeting performance, your company's leadership group needs to make that performance a priority and an expectation for all teams.  

10. Plan for creativity and capture these outcomes.

The research points out that great value can arise in any meeting, but if it's not captured in some way, it's quickly lost. If you run a business and you don't currently require teams to capture and publish meeting records, you're squandering your investment. You paid for the results created in those meetings-every great idea, every decision, every agreement-and you didn't get them. 

Like all the rules, this concept is simple, but it requires lots of real work in practice. Perhaps that's why so many companies neglect their meetings; it all just seems too hard.

Lucky for you, their neglect is your opportunity. 

Published on: Feb 10, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.