No matter the purpose, it’s easier to articulate what goes on in a great meeting than to organize and run one. Meetings take more work than most people realize. They’re an important execution, team-building, and management tool, but when they’re not treated as such, they become a complete energy suck.
It’s a good exercise to calculate how much time you and key members of your company and team spend in meetings. They are costly! And although I’ve been known to try to get work done as part of a meeting, they’re generally not when the actual work happens.
Running effective meetings requires investment and strong foundations. Bad meetings can expose and even create poor group dynamics: the person who’s always on their laptop, the person who never talks about what’s actually going on, the person who always wants to see the data before making a decision, the person who dominates, the person who shrinks.
Good meetings, on the other hand, are expressions of your team at their best. Great meetings are generative, dynamic, challenging, individualistic yet collaborative, and, my favorite: decisive!
There are two components to good meetings: the groundwork you lay up front, and the mechanics of running the meeting itself.
Managers often forget one very important fact when it comes to meetings: They’re only as successful as the relationships between the people involved. You can’t form these sorts of connections during a weekly 30-minute meeting. If you’re going to have a recurring meeting with a set group of individuals, you should first invest in creating a common understanding and setting meeting norms up front.
BUILDING COMMON UNDERSTANDING
Set out the basic stuff: who’s on the team, what each person’s role is, and how they prefer to work. If it’s a new team, get on the same page about its purpose and agree on team norms, such as responding to requests for input on one another’s work in a timely fashion, excusing yourself from the meeting if you have to take care of something that’s distracting you, and so on.
The goal of this session is to emerge with a shared comprehension of your team members’ work preferences and mutual agreement on team norms. Ideally, you’ll begin the process of understanding how people’s preferences manifest when under stress and in flow, both for each team member and for the team as a whole.
Once you’ve started laying the groundwork, it’s helpful to review meeting roles. The meeting owner is often the person who called and organized the meeting, but that doesn’t mean they should own all the roles. Make sure you’re all clear on who will fulfill these functions:
DRI: The person responsible for the meeting’s success. This may be the meeting owner, or it may be the leader of a critical project the meeting will support.
Facilitator: This is often the DRI or meeting owner, but it doesn’t need to be. Perhaps the organizer would like to listen and observe more closely and can’t do so while also facilitating. The goal of the facilitator is to keep the meeting on time, get through the objectives and the agenda, and capture key decisions and actions in partnership with the notetaker.
Notetaker: Since it’s difficult to facilitate and take notes at once, it’s advisable to ask someone else to record key discussion points, decisions, and action items.
MUTUAL MEETING OWNERSHIP
Every participant must commit to a good meeting. I sometimes find participants arrive at a meeting expecting it to be a show the meeting owner is putting on for an audience. Instead, folks should know why they’re there and what’s expected of them as participants, which encourages them to own the meeting’s success. You’ll know your meeting participants are acting like owners if:
Participants maintain, monitor, and correct for good meeting norms.
Participation is broad and evenly distributed.
Participants take on different roles in different meetings.
Here are some ways to create more meeting ownership:
Off-site or not, any recurring meeting should have mutually agreed-upon meeting norms.
Remind the group of the norms if there are violations.
Have clearly assigned or rotating facilitators and notetakers.
Model ownership. Be on time, try not to reschedule the meeting, and show that you value the time and the outcomes.
MEETING PURPOSE AND STRUCTURE
Any meeting becomes less useful when it tries to fulfill too many objectives at once. A meeting should have only one or two purposes: updates and priorities, for example, or alignment and decision-making. Establish the purpose with the participants so that they feel bought into what you’re doing together and use the meeting agenda to be clear about what specific topics you’ll cover to serve that purpose.
USE “PAL” AS A GUIDE
Purpose: If the purpose is alignment and decision-making, each instance of the meeting should serve that purpose, such as deciding on the features to build in the next sprint.
Agenda: The agenda lists the topics to be covered in service of that purpose.
Limit: Set guidelines for how long the meeting and agenda items will take. A common meeting mistake is to try to cover too many topics in too little time, which can make the conversation too surface level or lead to frustrating cutoffs with no resolution.
SET MEETING NORMS
Meeting norms represent the commitments you make as a group about how the meeting will run and how you agree to show up as participants. Setting expectations and norms up front means you can set the meeting back on track when it gets derailed by referencing the norm or commitment that is being violated. It’s much harder to course-correct if you haven’t all agreed ahead of time on what a good meeting looks like. I recommend the following best practices:
FIGURE OUT LOGISTICS
Meeting time: Set an optimal meeting time and agree that participants will arrive on time. Because I often lead global teams that span many time zones, I find that agreeing on the meeting time is an important step to build empathy between participants and generate buy-in.
Delegation: Decide whether someone can send a delegate if they’re out of the office or have to miss a meeting.
Pre-reads: Agree on whether pre-reads must be complete before the meeting or if you’ll set aside 10 minutes of reading time at the start of the meeting. Be very clear about what is expected, and if you assign prework, hold participants accountable by asking if everyone has completed it when the meeting starts.
Action items: Decide whether their status will be updated asynchronously or at the start of each meeting.
Electronics use: If in person, decide whether anyone but a presenter or notetaker can have their laptop open. If folks are joining by video, decide whether laptop use will be permitted beyond video contact. Note that any phone use should be brief, ideally nonexistent. If something urgent comes up, invite the person to step out of the room and return when they can be present.
NO TOPICS ARE UNDISCUSSABLE
Benjamin Franklin reportedly once said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” I turned this into a meeting norm with my teams. We all agree to bring out the “stinky fish”—any issues lurking beneath the surface, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable—and put them on the table, because we’re going to smell them eventually. This is the meeting equivalent of Operating Principle 2: Say the thing you think you cannot say.
A great meeting involves active participation from all attendees and group reinforcement of each other’s opinions—meaning people avoid interrupting one another and reference what others have said, in contrast to my meeting pet peeve, when someone uses up meeting time to restate another person’s idea from five minutes prior and doesn’t even credit the previous speaker. The facilitator should monitor participation and gently call out when someone hasn’t shared their point of view.
DISAGREE AND COMMIT
This principle is attributed to Andy Grove and is used by Amazon. The gist is that participants can disagree while a decision is being made, but once the decision is made, everyone commits to supporting its success.
HAVE A PARKING LOT
Any participant can put ideas or questions aside to come back to later if they’re not immediately relevant to the work you need to get done in the meeting. Just make sure that the facilitator addresses next steps for parking lot items before the meeting ends or at the start of a subsequent one—otherwise, the parking lot will become the town dump.
RESPECT ACTION ITEMS
Before a meeting closes, make sure all action items are clear and have owners and timelines. Agree as a group on how you will monitor progress on action items and hold one another accountable for completion.