Why meetings go wrong – and how to get them back on track

Why meetings go wrong – and how to get them back on track

Too often, meetings are unnecessary, inefficient, or both. Consider these six steps to turn your meetings into time well spent

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Meetings get a bad rap for several reasons: Most of them are a waste of time, there are way too many of them, and they result in far too many people being unproductive. This, in turn, shreds organizational effectiveness and morale.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Done right, meetings can be a great tool for doing high-value, productive work. If we just apply some simple guidelines to planning and running our meetings, we can radically improve their value – and their reputation.

[ Want more advice on running better meetings? Read also: Why your meetings stink – and what to do about it. ]

How meetings go wrong and one secret to fix them

The secret to making meetings more effective is to recognize them for what they are: very small projects. If you bring all the discipline you use in project management to planning and running your meetings, they will get much better. It’s simply the lack of effective planning and active management that causes so many bad meetings.

Most leaders don’t apply this project management rigor to meetings for two reasons:

  • It doesn’t seem necessary to invest that much energy in something so short and simple, as they assume there’s little benefit to doing so. But according to a study by Doodle titled The State of Meetings Report 2019, pointless meetings are costing companies and business professionals time and money: $399 billion in 2019 in the U.S. alone, to be exact.
  • There are no templates for such a simple project plan, so it seems like a bigger effort than is necessary to address the problem.

If you follow the six steps below, you’ll find yourself planning and running more efficient and effective meetings.

Six simple steps to plan and manage better meetings

When they schedule meetings, leaders almost always address the When and the Who, but they rarely address the What, the Why, and the How.

Leaders always address the When and the Who of meetings, but they barely address the What, Why, and How.

1. Be clear on the expected outcome of the meeting. Answer the question “What are you trying to achieve with this meeting, and Why is that important?” A five-word meeting title in a calendar invite is not sufficient to enable an effective meeting. Phrases like “Project Update” “Steering Committee Meeting” and “Budget Review” do not convey the Why.

Instead, include a few sentences in the meeting description on the calendar invite: “Review project delays and approaches to recover lost time,” “Steering Committee to review and approve proposed organizational restructuring,” and “Budget Review of 10 percent CapEx reductions.”

2. Make sure you really need a meeting. The core value of a meeting is having participants share in a single, real-time conversation where they can learn from each other and collaborate. If real-time collaboration is not central to achieving your desired outcome, then don’t hold a meeting.

For example, status reports and updates are forms of information-sharing and don’t generally benefit from a meeting. Use email or online applications to report status instead of holding a meeting.

If real-time collaboration is not central to achieving your desired outcome, then don't hold a meeting.

3. Share a simple plan for How you are going to achieve your target outcome in the meeting. Present an agenda that reflects the meeting structure and topics. What works for a brainstorming meeting to create fresh ideas will not work for a decision-making meeting where a choice needs to be made. If you expect people to prepare, tell them what and how to prepare. Include any information they should share ahead of the meeting or in the meeting.

Warning: No one likes unpleasant surprises, especially in public. If there is bad news or a sensitive topic to be discussed, give attendees a heads-up well before the meeting. If you think that one or more key influencers will resist having a constructive conversation in the meeting, work with them one-on-one ahead of the meeting to improve alignment and their engagement. At least you’ll know what you’re up against.

4. Based on the above data points, be very critical in selecting Who needs to attend. Leaders often include too many people, which wastes their time and bogs down the meeting flow. Good post-meeting notes can inform people who need not attend. Don’t use attendance at a meeting to cover up a lack of clarity on people’s roles and responsibilities. If you’re not sure who really needs to be involved in the meeting, work with colleagues to straighten that out ahead of time. Having 26 people in a meeting because you don’t know which eight are the key decision-makers is not an effective strategy.

If there is bad news or a sensitive topic to be discussed, give attendees a heads-up well before the meeting.

5. Actively facilitate the meeting and execution of the agenda. One person needs to be accountable for this activity. Remember, a meeting is a very short project that benefits from a strong project manager. Be clear on who owns the meeting or the facilitation role and keep the meeting and its participants on track. Work the agenda and stop conversations that go off track. This includes ensuring that all voices are heard – which is easier if you have the right attendees – and also that no one person dominates the conversation.

6. End the meeting with a quick synopsis of decisions made and actions assigned. Make sure that there is agreement and get any concerns or questions in real time. Share this in writing shortly after the meeting, including people who need to know but did not need to attend the meeting. These notes should be brief and organized into discussion summaries and action items. Avoid transcribing conversations and instead focus on key points and actions to be taken.

Your action plan for better meetings

Most of us suffer through multiple meetings each week that are unnecessary, inefficient, or both. If you plan and run your meetings like small projects using the six-step template presented here, you will significantly reduce wasted time and staff frustration. In fact, people may even start to enjoy your meetings.

[ The key to a more productive meeting? Organization. Read 10 tips to run more effective meetings in 2020. ]

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As an IT Management Consultant and IT Leadership Coach, Kantor enables IT projects to get done faster, at lower cost, and with less risk. He helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict.

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