Better meetings please

The other day I came home from work feeling completely inadequate. I had been at a meeting, which had been fine. The problem was that I had to leave early because while I had allocated an hour and a half for the meeting, which was plenty based on previous experiences of similar meetings, when I got there, the chairperson announced that we would reserve a total of two hours for the meeting. Argh… I didn’t know that. Had I known I would have allocated two hours, but now I had another appointment two hours later and would have to leave 30 minutes early. I mentioned this to the chair and he took it well enough, although I have to say, he didn’t look terribly pleased. I, on the other hand, having a slightly unhealthy guilt complex, felt bad that I was letting them down and I was kicking myself for not being able to foresee that the meeting would in fact be longer this time.

I was feeling pretty bummed when I got home, until it dawned on me: I couldn’t possibly have known the meeting was going to be that long and had I known, of course I would have reserved the right amount of time. And do you want to know why I didn’t know? Well, because although I was sent an email with the starting time, I was never sent an agenda nor any information about how long the meeting was going to be. And that, my friends, is just bad meeting manners.

Seriously though. I generally don’t like meetings. I remember my first job out of business school; I was working with the marketing team at a company and they had the longest meetings. They would go on and on and on and most of the time we would talk about things not on the agenda, which would have been fine except that as I was sitting there, bored to oblivion, work would pile up on my desk in my absence and I would have to work late to get everything done. It was just a total waste of time.

Later I found that bad meeting habits are really quite ubiquitous. In all my different jobs, I would go to countless meetings and much of the time I would wonder if we really all needed to be there for all of it. As a result I have developed a strong dislike for meetings over the years, but recently I’ve realized that it’s not meetings as such that I don’t like, but rather bad meeting culture.

Meetings serve an important function. They allow people to meet and discuss issues or get updated on important information. Often, however, people call meetings and invite all too many people to discuss all too many things that aren’t even relevant to everyone. Sometimes a meeting isn’t needed. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation is much more efficient. Or a ten-minute huddle in the hallway where team members can effectively update each other on what they are doing, how it is going, and what they need help with. Everyone doesn’t need to be involved in every discussion.

Also, if there is no agenda, I tend to avoid going altogether (although in the aforementioned meeting that wasn’t an option unfortunately). Meetings without agendas are more like social gatherings. Don’t get me wrong, I like social gatherings, but not at work when there is business to attend to.

In order to avoid bad meeting behavior and seriously frustrated colleagues, I’ve taken the liberty to write down a short checklist to help you create a better and more productive meeting culture where you work. It really is quite simple.

  1. What is the purpose of the meeting? Plan the agenda and participants accordingly. People who just need to be informed do not need to be involved in a lengthy discussion. If it is a matter of FYI for some people on your invitation list then maybe you need to plan a separate meeting or just use another medium to spread the information.
  2. The invitation should always include: starting and ending times, place, and an agenda. See my comment above regarding social gatherings. Also people need to know what is going to be discussed. Is the meeting even relevant for them to attend?
  3. Stick to the agenda and the schedule. Preferably have someone chair the meeting, but if no one is chairing, see to it that someone is responsible for making sure you stick to the agenda and the schedule. People need to be allowed to leave when the meeting is supposed to end. They have other things they need to do and running overtime is just disrespectful of their time. If you have more to discuss, plan a follow-up discussion with the relevant people.

That was it, not very complicated. So here’s to productive meeting behavior. Trust me, it will make all the difference.

 

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