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Sunday, December 5, 2021
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How To Have Better Meetings

This essay series examines best-in-class business and strategy models, and adapts them for use by creative enterprises. Check out the first essay for a short introduction, or dive right into the model below.

I don’t like meetings. I don’t think anyone really likes them. A big part of that is probably the many ways in which meetings can be absolutely, soul-suckingly terrible.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

  • meetings without a clear goal or agenda that go in a million different directions;
  • meetings with a clear goal, that end up going in a million different directions anyway;
  • meetings with dozens of people and no clarity on why anyone is there;
  • meetings that end without clear decisions, commitments or actions;
  • meetings that go on forever (and still end without clear decision, commitment or actions)

These are just a handful of real examples off the top of my head, and I’m sure you’ll have no problem coming up with your own.

These kinds of meetings have both an immediate cost and an opportunity cost.

The immediate cost is in the precious and expensive time people have to invest to attend these meetings, often leaving them exhausted and in need of recharging – sometimes long after the meeting itself has ended.

The opportunity cost is in the many, many ways people could have spent their time more productively, instead of attending that meeting that didn’t really require their input in the end, after all.

One of the many, many examples of comics making fun of bad meetings

The good news is that there are a number of things we can do to make meetings much more productive, and get the most out of the time and energy invested by their attendees.

Better meetings

To have better meetings, we want to minimize their cost, both in time and energy, and maximize their impact. The impact you should be aiming for, with every meeting, whether it’s an operational stand-up or a strategic two-day off-site, is nothing less than moving the company towards its strategic goals.

Right off the bat, we could take that goal to mean a few things that seem simple, yet require extraordinary diligence to see through:

  • Minimize the amount of meetings planned
  • Minimize the amount of people in a given meeting
  • Run meetings more effectively and efficiently

Each of these can be broken down into smaller, practical guidelines for better meetings, and we’ll get to those. But one of the best things you can do to ensure that your meetings are more effective and contribute to your company’s goals is establish a meeting rhythm.

Establishing a meeting rhythm

A solid meeting rhythm is essential if you want to stay firmly at the wheel of your company. By making a small number of specific meetings with specific goals and outcomes a set part of your company’s routine, you’re creating two immediate benefits.

First, you can ensure that the most important topics are more likely to be discussed, because there is a predetermined moment and structure for doing so.

Second, because the most important meetings are already in place, and important topics are already being discussed regularly and structurally, it’s very likely that you need fewer ad-hoc meetings.

When done correctly, your meeting rhythm forms the pulse of your company, and is one of the most robust systems in the company to fall back on.

If this sounds good to you, you might be wondering, what does a good meeting rhythm look like?

Example meeting rhythm

Two of the most prominent business authors advocating the use of a meeting rhythm are Patrick Lencioni and Verne Harnish. Their proposed rhythms differ slightly, and the overview below is a combination of the meetings they recommend including*. Obviously, if you’re a small team you will likely not need every meeting on the list, so consider this an example that you can tweak to create a rhythm that suits your company.

Daily standups

Most companies are used to daily standups by now, and for good reason. The goal is to have a short operational meeting, no more than 15 minutes, where everyone informs the rest of the team of any relevant news, their top priorities for the day, and any places where they’re stuck and might need help. Ideally, you do these standing up (hence the name) to encourage keeping the meeting short and snappy. Do not cancel these if someone can’t make it, the rhythm is the point.

Weekly staff meetings

Once a week, instead of a daily standup, Verne and Harnish recommend a more extensive meeting, about 30 to 90 minutes. The meeting is more tactical than the daily standup, focussing on reviewing the team’s progress against quarterly goals and priorities, and 1 or 2 additional focus topics. Don’t get bogged down when broader, strategic issues come up; push these to the strategic monthly meeting, below. As with the daily standup, no cancelling if someone can’t be there.

Monthly

Monthly meetings should focus discussing, analyzing and deciding upon long-term, strategic issuess. These should generally last between 2 to 4 hours, and limited to one or two key topics. Preparation is key for these meetings, and research should be done up front to make the most of the time available.

Now we start getting into territory that might be less familiar for smaller teams and companies, namely the quarterly and annual strategic meetings. For creative companies especially, structural strategy meetings might seem like overkill. Very much to the contrary, I fully believe that the quarterly and annual meeting can play a critical role in keeping not just big corporate organisations, but also small and creative companies aligned, focused and positioned to work on the kind of projects that give you the most energy AND the best chance at commercial success.

Quarterly meetings

The quarterly meeting is where the leadership team reviews and adjusts the company strategy. Beyond company goals, progress against those goals and priorities for the upcoming quarter, this meeting can also include a critical look at your competitive landscape, broader industry trends, and team development. Ideally, this meeting takes place outside of the office over one or two days, and has time set aside for (non-forced) social activities.

Annual review

The annual review is a variation on the quarterly meeting, and provides a great opportunity to take a broader view of your company. This is the time to look at the long-term goals you’ve set for yourself, and think broader about the things you’re doing to reach those goals. More so than the other quarterly meetings, the annual review invites reflection, and can be a great catalyst for any necessary course adjustments or creative pivots.

By making these meetings part of your regular operations, you can forge a clear line from strategy down to operations. It ensures that day-to-day operations flow smoothly, and that issues crop up in time for them to be handled appropriately. There’s built in room to tackle bigger issues that require focus beyond day-to-day activities; and room to actively and consiously work on, review and adjust your company strategy. For some companies, putting these strategic meetings on the agenda can be a welcome forcing function to discuss strategic topics that might otherwise be ignored in favor of more urgent, operational issues.

If you get into this rhythm, you will already save your company from a whole bunch of random meetings, as a lot of topics and issues will naturally come up in one or more of these meetings.

Of course, the other half of the battle is the content and structure of the meetings itself. Going back to the list of meeting objectives that I outlined above, here is a list of some of the things that work for me, and some others (h/t to Josh Sawyer who broached this topic on Twitter just recently, for example). Take what works for you and your company, tweak where necessary, and leave the rest.

Ojectives for better meetings

Minimize the amount of meetings planned

With a meeting rhythm in place, many other meetings become obsolete. I recommend only planning meetings with a clear, predetermined goal. This forces people to think about whether there really needs to be a meeting, or if the issue can be resolved another way. Stating the goal up front moreover allows others to check that logic, and suggest alternatives if needed.

Unnecessary meetings should be canceled. Meetings without a stated goal should be canceled.

Information gathering meetings are one of the most common trespassers of this logic and should be treated with the utmost skepticism, unless they come in the form of a structured interview or brainstorm.

Minimize the amount of people in a given meeting

Meetings should only include the people that are necessary to solve the issue at hand. Including more people generally invites uncertainty, distraction and wasted time. So, critical personnel only, everyone else can read the minutes or be informed later as a follow-up action.

Are you invited to a meeting you’re not sure you should be a part of? Say so, and politely decline.

Run meetings more efficiently and effectively

Every meeting has a goal, and it is the job of the organizer to make sure everyone in the meeting is set up to reach that goal. That means doing the prep work to get everyone on the same page BEFORE the meeting, not during (again, be wary of information gathering meetings). When everyone has the same facts and context for the problem, the meeting can then be spent discussing the actual issue.

Besides a goal, meetings should have a clear agenda with points to be discussed, and roughly how long that should take. When you’re running over, you then have the opportunity to make a considered decision to spend extra time on a topic or plan discuss it at a later time in more detail – rather than having long-winded discussions be the standard.

After every meeting, reserve a minute or 10 to define action points. At minimum, define a who, a what and a when for each action point.

If you or your company have a lot of meetings, consider setting the standard meeting time to 25 and 50 minutes instead of 30 and 60. When you stumble from one meeting directly into the next, you have less (or no) time to properly process the information and action points from any given meeting, which means there’s a risk of things falling through the cracks. That’s bad for the company, and bad for you, as you’re then facing increased pressure to process the information from several meetings at a indeterminate point in time. Also, nobody likes being in continuous meetings, so just go ahead build in that bathroom/coffee break.

Closing thoughts

As I mentioned above, none of the suggestions outlined here are particularly complex. The hard part is committing to these or similar guidelines for the long term, and holding yourself and others accountable when you start to slip.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet learned of a way to run a company without having at least some meetings. Hopefully, the tips in this essay should at least help to minimize their cost, and maximize their impact.

Do let me know if you have any additions or comments. I’m always looking for ways to further improve the meeting experience for myself and others!

* Interestingly, much the same rhythm is advocated for personal goal setting and reviewing by productivity authors like Rick Pastoor. Check out my own annual review for an example of what that might look like.

Cover photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Martijn van Zwietenhttps://www.martijnvanzwieten.com/
Martijn is a freelance consultant who helps creative businesses do better business. His 10+ years experience in the creative industry span marketing, PR, business development and management. Martijn completed his Executive MBA at Nyenrode Business University, with exchanges to Renmin University of China and University of Stellenbosch Business School. He is currently working on adapting best-in-class business models and practices to the creative industry.
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