Anatomy of a Successful Meeting

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“We used to have project meetings, but they fell off calendars because people got too busy.”

“I hate our team meetings…they just feel like everyone is rattling off their to-do lists.”

“We meet every Monday morning as a company, but everyone shows up late and there is no structure.”

Can you relate to the above quotes? Everyone has experienced a meeting that they felt was a waste of time or wasn’t nearly as effective as it could have been. A poorly run meeting is one of my biggest pet peeves, and meetings have come up frequently in recent conversations with my clients as well as colleagues and friends.

Many smaller organizations fear meetings because team members have often come from large organizations where there are too many meetings (or too many ineffective meetings). Thus, they worry that meetings will make their organization “too corporate”. However, in my experience, regular touchpoints have numerous benefits:

1)    Address issues proactively rather than reactively.

2)    Cut down on random, one-off questions (Think of team members just popping by colleagues’ desks multiple times a day. If you think about how much time these one-off encounters take up, wouldn’t you rather just have a 30-minute meeting once a month?).     

3)    Create more efficiency, transparency, and collaboration across the organization, department, or project group. 

4)    Create a greater sense of community and engagement within the organization.

5)    Provide a regular venue for sharing feedback.

While there has been a lot written on the subject of running an effective meeting (see the Additional Reading section at the end of this blog post for a few of my favorites), this post is specifically focused on running meetings within a smaller company or organization. Keep reading as I dissect the anatomy of a meeting—I believe there are three chronological phases of a meeting that are all equally important.

Phase I: Before the Meeting

A meeting is not just the 30 minutes, 1 hour (or more) that you spend with your colleagues. Preparation for a well-run meeting must begin prior to the meeting (it’s not a coincidence that this section of the blog post is the longest).   

The first step in this phase is asking yourself: Does the topic necessitate a meeting…or would an email (or other communication) suffice? Do not have a meeting just for the sake of having a meeting; all meetings must have a reason. The top three reasons for having a meeting are:

1)    Brainstorming & Solutioning: A meeting is a great way to get multiple people with different perspectives in the room to solve a problem or create something new. These meetings are usually one-off meetings that should be scheduled as needed (e.g., when a problem arises, when a new business proposal is due, when a new process needs to be created, etc.).

2)    Sharing: Meetings provide a venue for sharing knowledge, learnings, best practices, statuses, or retrospectives with multiple people. Common meetings include: company meetings, leadership team meetings, department meetings, and project meetings (which can include kickoff, status, and retrospective meetings).

3)    Training & Professional Development: Meetings can be helpful for training, such as new hire training (see my “6 Ideas for Successful Onboarding” blog post for reference), rolling out new processes or tools, and one-on-one/feedback meetings (between a supervisor and direct report).   

Stay tuned for future blog posts on one-on-ones and project retrospectives meetings—both are so important but can be difficult to do well.  

The second step in this phase is deciding who needs to be involved and the cadence for recurring meetings. Not everyone in the company needs to be invited to all meetings—you can share anything important with the entire company at a company meeting or via email. See below for a general guide for who to invite to recurring meetings:

  • Company meetings: Everyone in the company

  • Leadership team meetings: Just members of the leadership team or the owners of the company

  • Department meetings: Only members of the department

  • Project meetings: Only those involved in the project

  • One-on-one meetings: Only between the supervisor and direct report

The cadence of meetings will vary based on the individual organization (especially company meetings). However, see below for general guide:

  • Company meetings: Once a week, once or twice a month, once a quarter

  • Leadership team meetings: Once a month

  • Department meetings: Once a week or twice a month

  • Project meetings: Once a week (though sometimes daily, 15-minute “stand-up” meetings work well if the project is quite large or has an aggressive deadline)

  • One-on-one meetings: Once or twice a month (once a quarter at a minimum)

When scheduling a meeting, be clear about the purpose and/or goals of the meeting in the calendar invitation.  

The third and most important step of this phase is setting the agenda and circulating it prior to the meeting. You can include the agenda either in the meeting calendar invitation (see previous paragraph) or you can mention in the invitation that an agenda will be forthcoming.

The agenda should include the key items that need to be reviewed and discussed during the meeting as well as identify who will be leading this topic during the meeting. For example, company meetings should have the leads from each department speak, pulling in any key team members, as needed. Company meetings should also focus on high-level topics and not get into the day-to-day details—those can be saved for project or department meetings. This will help eliminate the feeling of attendees rattling off their to-do lists!  

Setting an agenda helps attendees be in the right mindset prior to even walking into the meeting room (or dialing into the conference call). Every agenda should include a section at the end to address any questions plus summarize key takeaways and next steps.

If you will be reviewing presentations or other materials as part of the meeting, be sure to send these with the agenda to allow attendees enough time to review and come prepared with questions/feedback. Jeff Bezos instituted a “memo” style agenda at Amazon for all meetings where he requires that everyone write and circulate a memo prior to a meeting so that the meeting can be spent on discussions and feedback rather than review.  

In your agenda, be mindful of the length of the meeting—it’s often very helpful to assign a specific number of minutes to each topic. Also, if it’s a long meeting (2 hours or more), schedule in short breaks to allow people to check their phones, stretch, grab water or coffee refills, go to the bathroom, etc.

Send the agenda at least one business day before the meeting (or more if there are attachments to review).  

The fourth step is simple in theory but can be difficult in practice: Once the meeting is set, don’t cancel it just because one person is out of the office or because “it’s a busy time”. Obviously, if it’s a one-on-one meeting and the direct report is out on vacation, the meeting should be canceled. Or if the entire team is away on a company trip, the team meeting that week should be canceled. However, do your best to keep meetings. If one person can’t attend, they will still be able to review the meeting recap (see Phase III). If it’s a busy time, shorten the length of the meeting and focus only on the top priority items.

Phase II: During the Meeting

If you have done the appropriate preparation for your meeting in Phase I, running the meeting is usually easy. Whoever scheduled the meeting and sent the meeting agenda is the leader of the meeting. This person is responsible for kicking off the meeting, keeping the time to ensure everyone stays on topic according to the agenda, and adjourning the meeting.

If you are the meeting leader, you should start and end your meetings on time! If you end up getting through the agenda faster than anticipated, adjourn the meeting earlier—nobody will ever complain about getting an extra five, ten, or fifteen minutes back in their day. 

It is also the responsibility of the meeting leader to make sure everyone is participating in the meeting. It’s a good thing to ask pointed questions to certain people (“What does the [X team/X person] think of this idea?” or “Does [X team/X person] agree with this feedback?”). This becomes even more important if there is a remote team member involved in the meeting.

Timekeeping plays a pivotal role in the success of the meeting. I attended a very large meeting once where the timekeeper was ruthless and said: “You’ve spent too much time on that slide…we’re moving on” and then proceeded to advance the slide. While this is an extreme example, the essence of it is true. The timekeeper must keep the meeting moving and be able to say things like: “That’s a great topic…let’s schedule separate time to discuss, or why don’t you talk about that in the next department/project meeting?” Or “That’s a great idea. Can you write up your thoughts on that initiative and circulate with the team after this meeting?”

Prior to adjourning the meeting, the meeting leader should verbally summarize key takeaways and next steps (see Phase I above) and confirm that a follow-up email will be sent.

Phase III: After the Meeting

The follow-up email does not have to be long, but it should include any next steps with deadlines and the person who is accountable plus any important decisions or takeaways that were discussed. At the end of the email, it’s always nice to ask if anything was missed or if anyone has feedback.

These emails are important for everyone, especially for anyone who wasn’t able to attend the meeting. They can also serve as a nice starting point for the next meeting’s agenda. 

Similar to the agendas, these follow-up emails should be sent no more than one business day after the meeting.

For recurring meetings, be sure to think about if the cadence is appropriate. If you find yourself not being able to fit everything into the agenda at each meeting, it’s probably time to increase the number of meetings. If, on the other hand, you are ending meetings early, it’s probably time to cut back the number of meetings.

A Final Thought on Meetings:

Sometimes, meetings are just a great way for team members to have face time with one another. Often, even in small organizations, team members can feel siloed so meetings can provide a great team culture boost. Other ways to do this are team lunches or outings. These types of get togethers certainly don’t need to have an agenda—the purpose is just to get to know one another on a more personal level and have fun!

Do you have any questions about meetings? Do you have meeting horror stories? Do you have any tips for running a successful meeting? I’d love to hear from you so please contact me.

Additional Reading about Meetings:

“How to Run an Effective Meeting” [New York Times article]

“Seven Steps to Running the Most Effective Meeting Possible” [Forbes article]

“How to Run Effective Meetings” [Slack blog]

 

Jamie Ousterout