Business meetings can be the death of productivity. Yes, I said it. If you’ve got a meeting and there’s no structure to it, run and hide.
We’ve all been there. You’re summoned to a meeting by a colleague, or put on a repeating meeting schedule where the idea is to “check-in” or “brainstorm”. There’s little to no objective, poor preparation, and an overall lack of focus. With every passing minute tension grows, your brain slows, and the immovable calendar block that began as a business meeting sinks into an infinite abyss of banality.
Let’s face it: you’d rather be productive somewhere else.
And for good reason. We use meetings as a way to ‘catch-up’, aimlessly ‘brainstorm’ and “share information” — but those aren’t effective meeting strategies.
Because of this, we see meetings as pointless and something that should be avoided. Sadly, we’re right. Most are.
But herein lies the paradox. Meetings, when done well, are actually extremely valuable tools that can (and should) be used to enhance your team’s performance. As Warren Buffett says, “You will never see eye-to-eye if you never meet face-to-face.”
He’s got a good point.
When done well, a structured meeting with others to exchange ideas, solve a problem or get feedback at the right time can rocket your team’s progress forward.
The question, then, is how do we restore innovation, participation and progress towards effective interaction to our meetings? We looked at the top tech companies in the world (along with a host of other resources) to outline the key points.
Set Your Boundaries
It seems counter intuitive, but innovation flourishes when constrained by boundaries. Time, money, resources, demographics — they’re all components that help encourage and drive creative thinking. The same goes with meetings.
And although these constraints may seem obvious at first glance, they don’t always come naturally. The top two tech companies in the world (Apple and Google) have worked incredibly hard to make sure these all happen in their meetings.
State Your Purpose or Intention
The only thing worse than attending a meeting with no stated purpose is attending a meeting that has thirty-six different stated purposes, all with their own subheadings. Both meeting types lead to aimless, circuitous discussions with little to no chance of success.
Every meeting should have one clearly stated intention. Ideally, this should come in the form of a question to be answered, a problem to be solved, or be addressing specific feedback at a defined point in your project.
This objective can, of course, be broken up into manageable units. But each of those units should serve the initial stated purpose.
Structured Agendas & Timelines
Although it’s widely assumed that meetings will both start late and go overtime, your credibility (and the credibility of your meeting) will crumble if you can’t keep to the time-frame you set.
Recognizing the value of others’ time is key to successful meetings, and successful businesses know this. Case in point: Google projects a four foot image of a ticking stopwatch to keep their meetings on track.
It’s essential that every item on your agenda clearly flows out of the stated purpose and is given a specific amount of time to be dealt with. Don’t clog up the agenda with unrelated items or issues that can be addressed outside a meeting.
Handle Note Taking Properly
Clear and accurate notes are critical. Again, Google takes this so seriously that they project a live transcription of the meeting onto a screen, so any mistakes can immediately be caught and changed.
That may sound a bit extreme, but try using whiteboards or live screen shares and you’ll begin to feel the impact of tracking the discussion immediately.
The note taking should help keep everyone on the same page, up-to-date and accountable for actions and next steps. (We’ll get to that last point later.)
Recognizing The Chair
Yes, autocratic leadership can close down innovation and creativity. Having one person dictate what’s good and what’s not is can be killer to free-form innovation. And it’s probably because so many people have been affected by this that we’ve found ourselves fully on the other side, where meetings are now effectively managed via committee.
However, although we should applaud the steps towards broader participation, we should lament the black holes and dark spirals these committee meetings can lead to.
It’s important to recognize one person as holding the authority to close down conversations, push the agenda forward, steer discussions back to the initial intent of the meeting, and, if necessary, make the final decision.
When conflicts arise, they can be resolved by mediating through the chosen chairperson.
Only Invite People Who Need To Be There
Overcrowded meetings unhelpfully muddy the agenda and devalue the contributions of attendees.
Kristen Gil, Google’s VP of Business Operations says, “meetings should ideally consist of no more than 10 people, and everyone who attends should provide input. If someone has no input to give, then perhaps they shouldn’t be there.”
That may sound a bit harsh, but consider this: those stellar meeting notes now being taken can be passed on to non-contributors, instead of having them sit through a meeting where they aren’t necessary. You’ll keep them in the loop and your meeting is less likely to be derailed by someone who is bored and distracted. Everybody wins.
Clear Action Points
If you leave without a clear and meaningful actionable task, then you should ask why you had a meeting in the first place. At Apple, each task is given a DRI or ‘Directly Responsible Individual’ to be specifically accountable for it, so there is never any confusion over responsibility.
Save Sharing Updates For Elsewhere
There is an epidemic of using meetings to simply share updates and give reports. This is one of the key reasons for the current crisis of boring, substandard meetings, and it further encourages employees not to read often crucial memos. Save updates for emails and make your meetings places of action.
Meetings are only useful if you take the time to save time. Structure, constraints, and awareness are the building blocks. It’s up to you to lay the foundation for creativity and effectiveness.
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