Here’s a sad reality: Managers spend anywhere from 35% to 50% of their time in meetings, and yet executives consider over half of those meetings to be failures.
This isn’t that shocking. All too often we find ourselves in a brainstorming session that’s just a little too long, or not long enough, or confusing or frustrating or utterly unproductive.
There are several solutions, of course. We could cancel. We could reschedule. We could turn the meeting into an email chain or a Slack discussion.
Those are all appropriate steps in certain cases. But sometimes we need to actually make an effort to understand where our meetings are falling short and actively work to fix them. Because after all, we can’t just refuse to meet with people ever–nothing would get done.
If you’re looking for the culprit, try asking yourself these questions, and apply these tips to run more effective meetings at work:
Before the meeting
Yes, your meeting can fail even before it starts. Here’s what you should be thinking about as soon as you send out that invite.
1. Do you feel prepared?
Are all your materials set? Is there a plan in place for how the meeting will go? Is there a conference room available and booked?
Your biggest friend will be an agenda–you can’t have a great meeting without one.
The other important thing to prepare ahead of time is your goal for the meeting. Ask yourself (and maybe write it down): “What’s one thing I want to accomplish?” It could be something small, like update your team, or big, like come up with a strategy to increase user engagement. Make sure everyone is aligned on this goal so you’re not trying to cover conflicting ideas in one short session.
“You must have a section on the desired outcome, which is different than the agenda,” says Devanté Lewis-Jackson, manager of mid-market sales at The Muse. “An agenda discusses what will take place during the meeting, but the desired outcome builds consensus about what must be done before the meeting is over. This helps especially when the conversation gets derailed around agenda topics.”
2. Do other people feel prepared?
Not every meeting you run or attend will require people to review, fill out, or obtain materials beforehand. If they do, however, I highly recommend ensuring everyone has the proper time and resources to do so (again, use that agenda!).
But often we create meetings before considering context and transparency. As a result, people come into the conversation in the wrong headspace. Take, for example, someone who’s new and has zero background on your company’s history. Or someone who’s attending a sprint meeting and has never worked with an engineering team before. They’re probably not going to get much out of the meeting or contribute any valuable insights, or they may take the discussion off course with their interjections.
So, before walking in, ask yourself the following:
- Does everyone know why we’re having this meeting?
- Does everyone know why they specifically were invited to this meeting?
- Is everyone up to date on what we’ll be discussing in this meeting?
- Does everyone know everyone else in this meeting? If not, what do they need to know?
- Is there any tension between people that may hinder progress in this meeting?
- If the answer is no, you can either pull the person (or people) aside, or shoot them a quick email to give them some background.
3. Are people excited?
Obviously, no one’s going to be jumping up and down at the thought of your meeting, unless you’re holding one to pet puppies (in which case I have to ask where my invite got lost).
But your team should feel some kind of way about it, and hopefully more toward the positive end of emotions. They may not be ecstatic to chat about quarterly earnings, but they may be relieved to finally get some exposure to important information, or to have a space to ask their burning questions.
If they’re groaning–and their groans have nothing to do with hating meetings and everything to do with this specific kind of meeting–dig a little deeper. It’s possible this would be a repeat of a previous conversation and thus a waste of time, or certain members feel unprepared, or someone’s being excluded and everyone’s upset about it. It’s even possible your team’s swamped and doesn’t have the bandwidth and energy to sit through an hourlong presentation. Regardless of where the negative energy is coming from, you have to address it before entering the room.
During the meeting
Just because you prepared properly doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. There are several things you need to be aware of in the moment to ensure everything goes smoothly.
4. Are you hitting all the most important points?
You came in with a job to do–answer a question, brainstorm an idea, outline a new process, whatever. The sign of a good meeting is one that achieves this in the confines of your time limit.
To do this is pretty straightforward. Follow your agenda to a T (or at least as closely as possible). Every 10-15 minutes, check yourself to see if you’re still on topic. If not, steer the conversation back and agree to put a pin in whatever tangent you were on for later. Agree to revisit anything you missed either offline or in another meeting (and assign that task to someone in the room). Don’t run over unless everyone else can agree to meet longer. By taking more of people’s time, you make it harder for them to meet other important deadlines you may have set for them.
“The whole point of a meeting is to make a decision about something, and what/who/how the action is executed,” says Heatherlyn Nelson, office operations manager at The Muse. “Simply put, if you can’t come up with actionable items, or decisions to make, don’t hold a meeting.”
5. Is everyone (or at least most of everyone) paying attention?
Getting 100% of the audience to have all eyes on you, phones down, on the edge of their seats is probably a stretch (we’re easily distracted human beings after all), but almost everyone should be listening to you almost all of the time.
To make people listen requires a little effort on your part. Keep things short and sweet. Outline clear next steps. Use easy-to-read-and-understand visuals. Ban laptops (if you can).
This is a great read as to why no one’s listening in your meetings–and how to fix it.
6. Are people asking questions, and are they getting answered?
I’d say it’s rare to have a meeting where no one asks a single question. If that’s the case, people are probably not paying attention, and they’ll likely ask you a ton of questions after the meeting wraps up (and you’ll need to read No. 5).
But as important as it is to have an engaged audience, it’s also important to actually address their concerns. All too often we say, “I’m getting to that point later on,” or, “I promise I’ll answer that at the end” and never come back to it. So make sure you’re covering all your bases, even if it means writing their question down or asking them to repeat it at the end of the presentation.
Keep in mind that there could be other reasons why people aren’t asking questions. Maybe you’ve created an environment, perhaps unintentionally, where they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Or maybe people are so thrown off by the discussion that they’re not sure where to even start in asking questions, in which case you’ve probably slacked on giving them context (see No. 2 for advice on that).
7. Is there a significant pattern of certain people speaking up (or not speaking at all)?
You most likely invited everyone into the room because you wanted their opinion or input on a project–and ultimately the ideas and actions that come out of your meeting will be stronger and more aligned if everyone chips in. So you want to make sure everyone contributes at least once over the course of your time together.
This sounds great in theory, but it isn’t always the reality. Some people are louder and more confident than others, some people are in higher positions of power than others, and some people don’t feel as included or respected as others in the room. Case in point: Research shows that women are more likely to be interrupted in conversations than men.
Try to be the right kind of discussion leader. Shut down rambling coworkers. Don’t interrupt. Stick up for people who are interrupted. Call on people who haven’t said much or who may be shy. This goes especially for remote folks who aren’t physically in the room.
Also, remember you fall into this category, too, even as the meeting organizer. In some cases, it makes sense to be the person talking the most, but even then you should make sure all the voices in the room are being heard and amplified. (Here’s some advice to stop yourself from rambling and recognize when you’re talking too much.)
After the meeting
We’re almost there. If you want your meetings to be a home run every time, consider the below.
8. Is everyone taking the right next steps?
You can tell when a meeting went poorly when everyone leaves the room and goes off to do things exactly how you didn’t want them to do it.
Avoid this by being direct and clear about next steps. Before breaking off, address the following:
- What needs to get done?
- How does it need to get done?
- When does it need to get done by?
- Who’s going to be responsible for doing it?
- Who’s going to supervise/track the success of it?
9. Was the larger purpose of the meeting achieved?
Do people seem more motivated to get stuff done afterwards? Do they seem to be working more effectively? Is there less confusion or fewer questions being asked? Did you achieve your original goal? Chances are if the answer is yes, you did alright (and if the answer’s no, read the above sections to figure out where you went wrong).
10. Did other people also feel like the meeting was productive?
I separate this question from the above because this requires you to actually ask people how they felt about the meeting, rather than make assumptions.
Getting direct feedback (especially as a manager) is important. It’s possible you felt the meeting went off without a hitch, but everyone else disagrees–hearing that will help you address why it wasn’t successful, and how you can do better next time. Sure, you can’t ask everyone every time you meet how it went, but doing so every once in a while will ensure you’re on the right track.
Nobody loves meetings, so why make them stink? Address these questions head on, and you’re a lot less likely to make your meetings failures.