Three principles for great meetings

"Meeting" by John Benson
"Meeting" by John Benson
Image: Maria Giannopoulos, Mifflin Street Meeting, John Benson

I bet you can’t wait for your next meeting, can you?

No, I didn’t think so.

Almost everyone will be familiar with the energy-sapping reality of most meetings: waiting for the last, late person to arrive before you start, listening to the domineering attendee who loves the sound of their own voice and that sinking feeling as the minutes tick by and you think of all the real work accumulating on your desk, awaiting your late return.

It needn’t be like that.

There’s a simple problem with meetings: they are completely unnatural, and yet we refuse to accept the fact. We treat most meetings as if they were a gathering of colleagues over a cup of tea. In reality they are far more complicated – and potentially valuable – than that. Just as giving someone Microsoft Word does not turn them into Shakespeare, or PowerPoint transform them into Martin Luther King Junior, so placing people into a meeting room does not automatically result in a smoothly-run, effective meeting. They need a little help.

If you’ve been lucky enough to experience a well-run meeting, you’ll know that it felt different. Things that might have stood out include:

• A clear agenda and sense of purpose to the meeting
• Clarity about everyone’s role and their commitments after the meeting
• Everyone had the chance to speak, and nobody spoke too much
• It started on time and finished no later than planned

How did those meetings work so well, when most meetings are generally so unsatisfactory?

I’ve been involved in some pretty awful meetings in my time, and some excellent ones. Over twenty years, I’ve run or attended meetings looking at product development, marketing and operations and I’ve chaired meetings for shareholders, company boards and local volunteers. And over those two decades I’ve concluded that there are three principles behind any good meeting:

1) Time – Everyone’s time is valuable, so respect it. Only invite those who are necessary, start and finish on time, and demand full focus on the subject in hand during the meeting.
2) Purpose – There must be a clear, collective purpose for the meeting or don’t have it. Usually that purpose is decision making, so be very clear what needs to be decided and ensure that everyone in the room who wants to can make a contribution.
3) Process – A meeting is a point in a process; it is not a regular conversation. Actions from the minutes must be clearly assigned to attendees, with dates for delivery and sanctions for non-delivery made clear.

These three principles might sound stark, but they don’t mean that meetings can’t be positive experiences. In fact, in my experience meetings are far more enjoyable when it is quite clear that they are leading to something. The opposite – the rambling conversation that circles around itself before petering out inconclusively is a bitterly resented waste of everyone’s time.

Depending on your company culture, you might decide to reflect these three principles in any number of concrete actions. Personally, I would choose five, because it’s a number that people can keep in their heads, and keeping the actions in mind makes them more likely to be followed. To help people remember them, I’d have simple posters created like this, and hang them in each meeting room:

Meetings Code PNG

That last point is essential.

Meetings are often treated as the antithesis of action. “We’ll have a meeting about it” usually means that the subject has been kicked into the long grass to be forgotten. It shouldn’t be like that. Meetings should be the spark that starts things happening, and the force that keeps them going to a successful conclusion. By remembering the three principles of good meetings and running them according to the five practical actions, I believe we can transform meetings from energy-sapping nightmares to crucibles of intense conversation that drive our organizations.

I’ll be delivering a webinar on Five steps to turn meetings from purgatory to productive” on Thursday 9th October. I’ll try to run it according to my own principles.

[Added 23 Feb 2015]
Hat tip to Allister Frost for this link: Should you call that meeting?

3 thoughts on “Three principles for great meetings

  1. Good stuff Don.

    You reminded me of one of my favourite and most frequently referred to books – The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner.

    For anyone interested in the design of decision making processes (before meetings, in meetings, after meeting) and problem solving and reaching consensus when facing complex business or community challenges then I highly recommend it. Now in its 3rd edition on amazon –

  2. Hi Donald – all great points, particularly ‘Fully prepared’. Having been involved in many board meetings, the most productive I find are those where relevant information, KPIs etc have been passed to all attendees at least 48 hours in advance, giving everyone a chance to read and absorb the information. This allows everyone in the meeting to focus fully on making decisions and solving the current and real problems in the business – rather than ‘presenting the reports’ and leaving a few minutes at the end for decision making – which is still how a high number of meetings still take place.

  3. Thanks both. I know what you mean about getting the vital documents out to everyone before the meeting, Steve. Often it seems to be almost impossible, and yet it’s essential to a successful meeting. Peter – thanks for the book reference, it sound excellent, and I’m going to buy a copy right now.

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