Meetings get a bad wrap in the business world and to be fair, I can see why.
However, it’s normally because we’ve all been in far too many meetings that are either unnecessary, badly run or too long – or worse, all of these at the same time!
However, I’ll go as far as to say that if you are in a role where you are expected to actually run something significant and manage plenty of people, meetings are probably the key to being productive and successful.
Meetings are critical in so many ways. They are a vehicle and provide a structure for debate, decision making, visibility, feedback, communication and accountability. They can also help keep the week focused and together – in fact it’s just as much about organising your week and days properly as anything else.
Debate and Decision Making
Most things end up get hashed out and decided in meetings. You can’t beat a good 4-5 person lively debate and a clear decision to move forward at the end of it.
There will be a number of important things you will need to stay on top of and know about each week. Whether that’s KPI’s or key projects, meetings provide a dedicated time for you to get the right people around the table, get a solid update and ask some tough questions about how things are going.
Meetings provide a regular opportunity to give feedback to individuals and groups (obviously you need to consider what is appropriate for each setting).
There will be a number of things you will want to communicate frequently aswell as a number of groups that need to be communicated to frequently. Meetings provide the structure for that.
Meetings are great for making people accountable. If people know they have to show up each week to a meeting to present things / progress that people are expecting, you can be damn sure this acts as an incentive to make good progress between scheduled meetings.
Effective Meeting Management
In my experience, I would do a great job of getting all of my meetings as lean and effective as possible and then over a period of 3-6 months they would end up a bit of a mess again.
I think that’s quite normal. Over time, people tend to no longer need to attend meetings (yet keep coming), new people need to start attending (they are unaware and no one invites them), Chairs might need to change (people running the meeting, not actual chairs you sit on!) and meetings may become irrelevant altogether or perhaps new ones need to happen altogether. Keeping on top of these and making changes as you go along is important, but with the busyness of everything it can get gradually get inefficient.
Below is the rough process I would go through to get my meetings in good shape every 3-6 months, which might be useful for you to as you think about how to better structure your meetings.
Before I Start
Before I start the process, I remind myself that I need to remain conscious of being as lean and as stripped back as possible. That will mean being ruthless in some decisions you make (who, how long, how frequent etc.). You should border on the side of too lean if you are unsure. Its much easier to add people, make meetings longer and more frequent than the other way around.
I aim to end up with roughly 50% meetings at the most – and 50% unallocated time (this will be time used to think, do adhoc meetings or other activities).
I find it useful to first of all simply brain-dump all of my meetings out in one list. You might have 5 or you might have 50 – it really depends on the type of thing you are doing and on what scale.
I normally have about 20 -30 (my roles have tended to be running a significant product, needing to communicate heavily with many teams across the organisation and managing 50+ people.)
Once I have the list of all of my current meetings in front of me, I then do a quick first pass to see what I can remove (there are always a few obvious ones which no longer need to happen).
After that I sort my list of meetings into different types of meetings.
For me they tend to be things like – 121’s, weekly management, key project stakeholder, topic based, everything else etc.
The reason I think it’s useful to group meetings into types of meetings is because ultimately you’re role will require you to do a handful of things so it’s useful to think about meetings alongside these.
So, for me that’s normally strategy, managing people, key projects, communication and topic based (topic just means there are a few things that I need to have meetings on regularly – team performance, review of KPI’s etc.)
Once you have your list of meetings categorised in front of you, take a step back and consider whether it feels right – can anything be removed, are you missing something etc?
I then create a table with six columns:
And I repeat for every one of my meetings.
I go back and forth a lot on things like length, attendees and frequency. They are very important and can be the difference between making a lot of progress and wasting a lot of time.
The right mix of people is particularly crucial.
Take a key project stakeholder meeting for example. It’s critical to get the right mix of people there who can provide the right updates, transparency on progress, capable of identifying and solving problems and making good decisions. Normally you need to be doing all of these on at least a weekly basis for a big project.
If you get it right, everything gets covered, you deal with risks head on, come up with some great ideas and everyone knows what needs to happen by next week. It’s a good opportunity to motivate the team too. Get it wrong and the project could be slowly heading for disaster and you tend to only uncover the mess close to or at launch.
It’s also important to understand that things like attendees, frequency and length may change over time. Let’s, take a project meeting again as an example.
Say the project is due to take approx. 4 months.
In the early stages (say first 2-4 weeks) it might require mostly creative and technical people as the nuts and bolts are being figured out. And you might decide for the first two weeks it should be twice weekly for an hour. Other teams such as marketing, customer support will be kept informed and will attend only if specifically invited.
Be careful of isolating people or teams here, that’s not good. You still need to allow for some collaboration and buy in from some teams as you are building up what you are doing – I tend to handle this outside of the regular project meeting and as things are moving along.
Once you get some momentum you will likely need a more regular presence from these other teams as they help support the effort through to launch and after launch. So you will invite perhaps marketing, support, operations etc and perhaps drop the meeting back to once per week and settle into a weekly rhythm.
For the week leading to launch and the week post launch you might decide you want twice a day, shorter meetings to review things through to launch and to work through customer reaction, any issues or risks that have cropped up etc. The attendees post launch may end up also being quite different and may relate more to the type of things you want to watch for and address at and after launch.
I guess what I am saying is just to be conscious of this and adjust as necessary as you go along. And when you do make changes, explain them clearly to everyone.
One word on attendees – watch out for doubling up.
Take marketing for example. It always seems that there tend to be 2 or 3 people from marketing that believe they need to to attend and often at times it seems like they do need to. It could be two people doing different things on a project or just the manager of one team has delegated down the work for a project to someone else but feels they should also attend.
You normally just have to be ruthless and tell people there is one slot for marketing and one person should come along with a thorough update, be in the know to discuss the issues and relate back to anyone relevant. Literally I have seen 12 people meeting with half of those being double ups. Now and again you might need to allow for it, but 90% of the time be ruthless and only allow the one slot.
Once you feel good about all of your meetings and how much time they are taking up on a weekly basis, you need to start mapping them to the week. You’ll have a sense for what types of meetings you want on certain days and mornings or afternoons etc.
For example, I prefer my weekly management meeting and 121’s to happen on Monday and some of Tuesday if necessary. It allows me to get the week off to a good start and everyone pointing in the right way.
I prefer my project stakeholder meetings to be Weds and Thursday as it allows people to have a good few days at the start of the week – that way updates tend to be more useful and discussions around challenges more fruitful.
Then any topic based meetings and everything else get scattered around Tuesday to Thursday.
I try and keep Friday fairly clear as a whole.
And I try and ensure there are a couple of 1-2 hour gaps each day (sometimes easier said than done and not always possible). Back to back meetings between 8am and 6pm isn’t cool. If you’re struggling, only allow one day like that.
You should now be able to take a step back and have something that resembles a reasonable week. The right meetings with the right people and in the right parts of the week.
Before I drop them into my calendar with invites, it’s useful to send the plan to everyone to make sure the timings are convenient for all attendees. Explain clearly that the plan may change a little bit as things get going.
Expect people to come back and ask for some meetings to be rescheduled or to be added to meetings they are not in. I tend to make the rule that I will only change the placement of the meeting if someone utterly key to the meeting provides a very good reason why it should be another day or time – otherwise you’ll be trying to find a gap for it forever as it’s nigh on impossible to make sure it works for everyone.
You’ll need to remember to be ruthless on keeping the size of meetings as lean as possible and not allowing doubling up when people ask to be added or recommend someone else be added.
And whilst this might appear a bit selfish, if you are running the show, it’s probably more important that this whole system works for you and allows you to drive everything forward every week – even if it means some inconvenience for others.
So there you have it, you should have your meetings in good shape. Get this right and it makes such a tremendous difference to getting stuff done and being successful.
Now, of course the above is only half of it.
The meetings still need to be prepared for and run properly – but that’s probably for another post.
If people would find that useful let me know in the comments or on twitter and I will have a crack at putting some thoughts down.