Anyone who has been in the workforce for long has suffered through a painful meeting or two (or three). Most of us have enjoyed some great meetings as well. In my career, especially in consulting, I have experienced plenty of both. So, what takes a meeting from pointless to productive?
I've learned that the difference between the two is mostly unrelated to content—you can achieve a stellar meeting even when your topics aren’t the most exciting. What really makes the difference is what happens before and after the meeting (as well as the first and last few minutes of the meeting itself). Having good preparation and follow-through will result in a "productive" meeting that serves a purpose and gives everyone confidence in what we've done or are about to do. Neglecting these will leave people feeling like the meeting was aimless and unproductive.
No, not that UFC.
"Up-Front Contracts" are a concept I heard about a while ago (credit to Sandler Training) and adapted a bit to suit my needs. UFCs solve a very tactical problem for me: how to gracefully and effectively start a meeting. This may seem inconsequential, especially if you have a good relationship with everyone in the meeting, but it really makes quite a difference. We've all been in meetings that start with something like "Ok, I guess we can start by discussing X" or "Anyone have something they want to start with?" followed by meandering conversation until the allotted time is up. Instead, I usually try to start meetings with a few sentences that will include:
- Thank everyone for taking the time
- Comment on how long we have, and whether I think we'll use all that time or not
- Overview of my agenda topics for the meeting
- Open it up to the group to see if they have anything they want to add to the agenda
This framework can be used effectively for nearly all meetings. You can dial the levels of formality up and down, or choose to omit certain elements that don't quite fit the setting. For example, on a big client demo it might sound like:
Thank you all for taking the time out of your day to come see our progress so far. We've got an hour booked and a lot of exciting things to show you so I'm sure we'll use the full hour. I want to make sure we briefly touch on our overall project progress to date and how that compares to our initial scoping and estimation. Additionally, we have 3 major new features to walk through in a live demo. Lastly, we’ll preview what’s up next as the team is already setting eyes on the next phase of work. Does anyone else have anything we need to be sure to cover today?
Or, for a small internal meeting it could be:
Thanks for letting me snag some time on your calendars. I grabbed an hour but doubt we'll use the whole thing. We need to make a decision on X so I'll recap what we're trying to solve and walk through my investigation so far as well as what options we now have. Sound good?
Even a regular 1x1 with a team member can benefit from some components of this. After the "small talk" you can dive in with something like:
I only had two topics to briefly discuss. Did you have anything you want to chat about?
Also, while I typically use this framework as a mechanism for starting a meeting, it's worth noting that it's often advantageous to send this off in an email a day in advance (for more formal or important meetings). It will give folks some time to digest the agenda and think about anything that might be missing.
While the primary purpose is to get a meeting started on the right foot, there are other positive side effects to using this framework:
- It's a forcing function for a little more organization and preparation. It forces you to have a clear picture of how the meeting should/will go, and lays out those expectations for all meeting attendees. Even just setting the stage regarding how much there is to get through can inform how easy it is to move on to the next topic if the conversation is drifting or stalling.
- It instills more confidence in you and your team. This is mostly applicable when working with external clients, but will also shape how your peers see you internally.
- End meetings early if possible. Everyone's favorite! Just watch how concise people get all of a sudden if you include something like "We've got an hour booked but honestly if we stay focused I bet we can get through everything in half an hour and give everyone 30 minutes of their day back."
- Or, cancel meetings. Even better! If you are preparing your agenda and UFC and find that there's not really anything that needs addressing, just cancel it and send out a small update over email instead. Don't meet for the sake of meeting.
Discussion vs Information Relay
While not directly UFC related, this is another aspect of preparation I've found really valuable. If at all possible, you should try to avoid using meetings as a vehicle for relaying new information. Relay the information to the group in advance of the meeting, so everyone can get up to speed and give it some thought prior to attending the meeting. That part shouldn't require everyone sitting in a room. The value of bringing everyone together is in the group discussion/reactions to the information. Getting the information relay out of the way up front should allow more of the meeting to focus on valuable activities.
"Who, What, whEn." Ok, that was a bit of a reach but I couldn't resist WWE after we already had UFC.
Everyone says they hate meetings. They don't. They hate wasting time. Meetings are just a vehicle for group conversation. Group conversation can fall anywhere on the spectrum from pointless to crucial. Everyone says they want to have "more productive" meetings but often can't articulate what that means. In my opinion, a good barometer for meeting productivity is how much change the meeting affected. There are some key things that need to be in place in order for meetings to regularly affect change:
- People need to think in terms of "action items" (who else remembers their massive eye-roll after joining the workforce and hearing that term for the first time?). This can take a bit of training. When someone says "yeah we should probably look into that" you can't just leave it at that or it will never get done. You need to agree, then and there, on who will do exactly what and by when.
- Someone has to actually record action items during the meeting in a space everyone has access to. Atlassian Confluence is great for meeting notes and even better for action items. It has features that will compile action items into lists sorted by due date based on who they are assigned to or what team space they are in.
- Before closing the meeting, confirm the action item list with the group (including owners and due dates.)
- There needs to be a system/culture of accountability in place that will actually motivate people to pay attention to and act upon their tasks. People usually mean well, but if they aren't used to keeping track of these things, they'll immediately start to forget that they even exist. For recurring meetings, it's a great idea to review open action items together as a team as part of the regular agenda. For one-offs, appoint someone (often the meeting owner) to keep an eye on action items and follow up with folks as necessary.
If your meeting isn't resulting in either regular action items for attendees, or real-time decision making, then it's worth questioning the value of your meeting.
In general, if you have good work habits, you will have good meetings. Have a plan, prepare in advance, set expectations upfront, prefer concrete discussion over abstract, do what you say you will do, and hold your peers to all of the same high standards you hold for yourself.