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5 Steps to Effective Meetings

Who doesn't want to have effective meetings? Especially now, in the age of virtual office, our meetings have become too cumbersome. In order to be more productive, save time and enjoy your work, cut out the unnecessary meetings.
The meeting is dead. Long live the meeting.

We have been meeting, in meetings, doing meetings, booking meetings, running meetings, and conducting meetings for thousands of years now.  In the 20th century, we have formalized meetings, created rules and taught courses on meetings. And, now in the 21st century, we have taken meetings into our homes. 

Some people love meetings.  Most are ambivalent about it and others vigorously advocate for killing the meetings.  What's more, most people agree that meetings kill productivity, disrupt workflow, and are a giant waste of time.

Whole books have been published on this topic. One of the more popular ones was Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier-Hanson.   In their book, the authors argued that meetings are toxic because more often than not they waste the productive time of everyone at the company.  Having  5 people in the room for a 3-hour meeting is actually a 15-hour meeting. That's 15 hours of productive time potentially being wasted on something that brings little value to the business. 

To some extent, this is true. Especially with almost all meetings conducted remotely, they have become a significant drain on our productivity. 

There are many reasons for this. Plenty of meetings have gone over the time limit, at least half of the meetings have too many people involved and are literally a significant waste of company resources and time. Meetings have become a drain on our lives.

But like everything in life, we should not dismiss something potentially useful because it has the potential to allow people to abuse it.  Everything in moderation, as they say.

What are some of the things you could do to turn your waste of time meetings into something more effective?

Step One - Decide How Many People To Invite

The first thing that you need to decide is how many people should be involved in the meeting. Yes, some meetings have too many people, but sometimes you need to get your whole company involved.

The preference is to have as few people as possible at a meeting, though.

Step Two - Cut that number in half.

Some of you may protest at this drastic action. But be patient. This is an exercise in deciding who really needs to be at the meeting.

At a company I used to work at, we've had meetings that were never less than 8 people. We'd all get together in a room, and there would be an agenda, a note-taker, a coffee maker and the meeting director.  We'd spend an hour discussing various topics from the agenda, defining action plans, and putting strategies forward.

One time, I remember, we devised a whole organization change plan in one meeting. We were all very proud of our work, except when we tried to implement it, it failed miserably. It turns out that some of the key people who actually were doing the work had changed many of the processes, and our brilliant plan wasn't relevant.

So cutting the number in half is an exercise in deciding who you should really be inviting to the meeting. This forces you to ask a question, "Who do I need at this meeting to achieve my goal?".

Step Three - Who are you missing?

This is a fundamental question to ask. Who else should be at the table? If your meeting is about product strategy, are you inviting your engineers? Why not? They have as much to say as your product managers. And what about your marketing department? They should be involved as well.

There have been times when we failed to invite the people who do the actual work. This almost always turned out to be a costly mistake.

Always invite someone who actually does the work or will do the work.

Step Four - Leave out the CEO

What is the job of a CEO? The simplest and I believe the most effective answer is: The job of a CEO is to make decisions. The best way to mess up those decisions and make the wrong one is when you're exposed to too much information.

CEOs don't have to be involved in every meeting that you think is important. What they need is a concise set of options with backing arguments so that they can make a decision and move on.

Yes, there are some meetings that CEOs should attend. Usually, these will be the high-level strategy analysis, sales call with enterprise clients and golf.  For everything else, you should leave them out.

Step Five - Forget Meeting Notes

I've learned over the years, and hundreds of meetings that meeting notes are simply a waste of paper (or electrons). You can have someone typing them up as the meeting goes on, and you might even refer back to the meeting notes once in a while. But, this one thing I know. Almost no one reviews meeting notes after the meeting is done. They are put away, never to be read again.

Why am I against meeting notes? First, meeting notes are useful for those long 2-3 hour meetings that we all love to hate. 2-3 hour meetings are a giant waste of time, and you should be breaking them up into 3-4 separate meetings.

Second, in shorter meetings, you can usually remember what is happening and what needs to be done. No meeting notes are needed.

And third, the most important one, I think, when you have a note-taker, many people can tune out the conversation thinking that they can fall back on the meeting notes.  If you remove the note taker, everyone has to take their own notes.  They will write down what they think is important from their perspective, and that's much better than trying to decipher what someone wrote down in a hurry, often leaving the context or the main idea out of the picture.

Bonus - If possible, have walking meetings.

Steve Jobs used to have these types of meetings. He'd come to someone's office and take them for a walk, discussing ideas, arguing about implementation, etc. Walking and talking is a great way to get creative juices flowing.

Walking also has a democratizing influence. When you're walking, you're on an equal footing with your counterpart(s).  You can stop, discuss a couple of things, then move again. 

Ideally, walking meetings are suited for 2-3 people at most. For larger groups, walking meetings could involve walking to the office, parking lot, and park area. Once there, you discuss ideas while standing in a circle.