3 Simple Ways To Improve Meetings

If you could make one thing better at work, what would it be? We ask that question a lot and generally hear variations on these:

  • “I wish I wasn’t always working after-hours and could truly disconnect.”
  • “We have to get better at defining priorities and expectations so we can make faster decisions.” 
  • “I need to concentrate deeply to do my work, so I’d create an environment where that was valued.” 
  • “I’d love to look forward to work—to feel energized, connected and inspired.”

Sound familiar? When we dig deeper to uncover the cause of these challenges, we inevitably end up at the same source: meetings.

“We Have Meetings All Day, Every Day” 

Many organizations are stuck in this vicious cycle: meetings crowd out other work, deadlines slip, so more meetings are scheduled as a structure for accountability, resulting in more missed deadlines and after-hours work, which leads to more meetings—and the cycle continues.

“I Have No Idea What This Meeting Is About, Or Why I’m Here”

When the purpose and desired outcome of a meeting isn’t clearly defined, ambiguity runs wild. As attendees struggle to understand their roles, the quality of listening and participating declines, multitasking pervades, decisions are postponed—and everyone leaves the meeting unsatisfied.

“Our Meetings Are Huge—They Feel Like A Version Of The ‘Reply All’ Button”

Too often, people are invited to meetings because they need to know the outcome, not because they have a key role. Without reliable meeting summaries, they keep attending because “it’s the only way to know what’s going on.” This drains time, productivity, energy and creativity.

“It’s Hard To Focus On Work With Meetings Scattered Through The Day”

Managers move their work forward through meetings, while makers—individual contributors such as coders, writers and designers—get work done around meetings. A programmer will tell you that a 30-minute meeting at 10 a.m. and another at 2 p.m. throws a wrench into her day, preventing her from getting in a continuous flow to produce great work. 

An Age-Old Story

Complaining about meetings is cliché—we’re so used to them being terrible we assume that’s just the way it is. But dysfunctional collaboration is far more than a nuisance—the quality, frequency and timing of meetings have massive impact at every touchpoint of your organization. If you are committed to your people, performance and productivity—it’s time to fix your meetings. 

The Way Forward

Here are three high-value, no-regrets actions you can take right now to improve meetings:

Tighten Up The Meetings You Lead

  • Frame the purpose precisely in the invite and at the beginning of the meeting. For example: “The purpose of this meeting is to decide whether to increase the scope of this pilot to a second team. Sarah will make the call. We’ll use this meeting to get input and data from everyone in the room, then she’ll decide within the next two days.”
  • Double-check your invite list and see if you can remove anyone and give them the gift of much-needed time.
  • Shorten 60-minute meetings to 45, allowing everyone time to breathe and switch contexts—and giving you a window to draft a summary of what was learned, what was decided, and next steps. The summary does double duty: send it to meeting attendees to ensure a shared memory of outcomes and accountabilities, and to people who didn’t need to be there, but do need to know the outcomes.

Hold A High Standard For People Who Consume Your Time

  • When you’re unclear on the purpose of a meeting, ask for clarification before accepting the invite.
  • If you don’t receive a clear answer, take a risk and decline—it might be uncomfortable, but it will encourage meeting organizers to be thoughtful about how they use coworkers’ time.
  • If you struggle to decline meetings, you’re not alone—check out this great TED Talk on the “Mindless Accept Syndrome.”

Empower Your Team To Protect Their Time

  • Ask makers on your team how their ideal day would be structured and support them in creating it.
  • Schedule meetings in clusters at the beginning or end of the day, rather than scattered throughout.
  • Respect boundaries that makers put around their time and be discerning about what merits an interruption.

When used consistently, these actions unleash collaborative practices that are thoughtful, energizing and right-sized—allowing your organization to focus on creating exceptional work, rather than watching precious minutes (and potential) evaporate during another unnecessary meeting.