Making a meeting suck less

What if a meeting could be okay? What if it could be productive; even valuable?


Doc Norton

2 years ago | 4 min read

Meetings - they happen every day, to thousands of people. Millions upon millions of corporate dollars are spent every year on them. Countless hours dedicated to attendance. And they mostly suck. They are quite often mind-numbing, pointless, disruptive wastes of time.

Can I get an, “Aw, yeah”?

What if we could make them suck less?

No. Wait. Hear me out.

What if a meeting could be okay? What if it could be productive; even valuable?

I have a few questions

I believe we can drastically improve a meeting by first answering the following questions:

  1. Why are we meeting?
  2. What will make this meeting successful?
  3. Who needs to be involved and how?
  4. What are the mechanics?
  5. What resources do we need?
  6. Do we need to meet?

Let’s briefly take them one question at a time.

Why are we meeting?

It is pretty common for folks to lack a shared perspective on the purpose of a meeting. Let’s take a common daily stand up as a simple example. For some team members, the purpose is to give a brief report to the manager or scrum master.

For others, the purpose is to get aligned on the work being done as a team. For others still, the purpose might be to connect with the team once per day and get news or status updates.

None of these are wrong. And maybe your stand up includes all of these or even other purposes.

But I’ll bet most of us have been involved in stand ups where the team doesn’t have alignment on the purpose. One team member is annoyed at the lack of direction from the manager while another thinks the manager talks too much in the meeting.

One team member is annoyed at how few problems get resolved while another is aggravated by team members who waste everyone’s time bringing up questions that don’t need to be group discussions.

For each meeting, there should be a known purpose - some value we can realize or some specific problem or challenge that is being addressed.

What will make this meeting successful?

Now that we know why we are meeting, we can identify what success looks like. What will we have achieved or accomplished? What outcomes will we get? What output will we produce?

This meeting will be successful when .

Be clear. If we are meeting to get aligned on the work plan for the day, what would that look like? Is it assignments on a board somewhere? Is it formation of the pairs/mobs for the day? Is it each team member saying their assignment/goal out loud?

How will we know that we’ve successfully fulfilled the purpose of the meeting?

Who needs to be involved and how?

Ever been in one of those meetings where a key player doesn’t show up, but the meeting continues anyway? Ever been in one of those meetings where some people think it is a group decision and others think it is their individual decision?

Make sure you have the right people and clarity around how the decision(s) will be made.

We often use Collaboration Contracts to help clarify who will participate and in what capacity.

What are the mechanics?

This is about how the meeting will be run. What is the structure and timing? Will you utilize any Liberating Structures?

Some basic structure, designed with the end in mind, can drastically improve the quality of a meeting. Think about simple things like Fist To Five as tools for checking in with a team on consensus or perhaps introducing a lean coffee structure.

What Resources do we need?

So we know why we are meeting, what success looks like for the meeting, who needs to be there, how decisions are made, and the mechanics. Now, let’s think for a moment about what we are going to need.

What information will help? Do we need metrics, dashboards, financials, or roadmaps? When I run a parallel thinking exercise, I almost always start with facts. Often, the financials, baseline data, or metrics are available, but we don’t have them in the room with us.

If we don’t have the information we need to make a good decision, there is little point in continuing. Yet many teams plow on through without the data because the meeting has started.

What tools, such as writing utensils, collaboration tools, stickies, etc. will we want? When coaching, I keep a collaboration kit on hand. It has pens, note cards, post-its, and other items that prove quite handy.

Of course, most of these are great for in-person meetings. Are there remote participants? What will they need? How will we effectively involve them?

Do we need to meet?

This is the most important one. I put it last on the list, but I think you should be asking it all along the way.

Is a meeting actually necessary? Can we achieve the outcomes in some other way? If it is a status update, can’t we share status in a slack channel or post it to a wiki somewhere - I don’t know, email one another?

The best way to make a meeting suck less is to not have the meeting at all. Many meetings really are unnecessary.

If you are going to have a meeting, do everyone involved a favor, make it suck less by taking some time to think through the other five questions first.


Created by

Doc Norton

Coach, mentor, writer, and speaker. Author of "Escape Velocity".







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