Want Better Meetings? Know when NOT to meet

photo credit: schipulites

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

I’ll admit it.  I love meetings.  I love the socializing, I love the energy of people working together toward a common goal.  I love the excitement generated when a group of people come up with an idea no one would have considered on their own.

I realize, however, these meeting joys aren’t a sure thing.  Some meetings go on and on forever, wasting everyone’s time and generating nothing but mental lists of ways to end your suffering with office supplies.

There is a way to have more meeting joy and less meeting sorrow.  All you have to do is learn when to back away from the flipchart.

When Not to Meet

Meetings have a bad reputation because they are often used inappropriately. If you attend meetings under the following circumstances, all the great planning in the world won’t take away that “stab your eyes out feeling.”

When you (only) want to deliver information

Meeting so you (or anyone) can “hold court” to pontificate about your latest ideas is an ego trip–and thus a terrible use of time.  If your meetings basically involve one person (or worse–a series of people!) talking, and everyone else listening (or pretending to listen) you need to stop having meetings and start disseminating information in more appropriate ways.

Ideally, the alternative will be a written report.  Reports make the information available in an easy to access format that doesn’t depend on the memory or mood of the listener.  It’s also more concrete, so the presenter is likely to be much clearer than he might have been if he were giving the report off the cuff.  It does take a bit more time to prepare–but if you consider the total amount of time used by the speakers and the listeners–it’s a big savings.

If a written report just isn’t going to happen, consider video reports or audio reports.  These reports can then be transcribed–providing most of the benefits of the written report in much less time.

When being in the same room adds nothing to the process

It is common for a team working on a  project to assume regular meetings are required to “keep everyone on the same page”.  Thanks to the internet, many of these meetings are no longer necessary.  Hold one meeting at the beginning of the process to develop parameters, make sure the group has a shared understanding of the task ahead, and then do the rest of the collaboration using an online tool like Wiki Spaces, Google Docs or Google Wave.*

These tools allow for asynchronous communication and create instant documentation of the work that is done.  This means instead of holding a meeting and then going off to do the work– team members do the work as their schedules allow.  By using the collaboration tool, the team still gets the value of group input but they don’t have to do the work at the same time, and they don’t have to send the document back and forth as an attachment.  This means no more updating the wrong copy of the document.  The online tools also offer version control so it’s easy to see who made what changes when, and to revert to old copies if necessary.

When you are finished, use the meeting time you saved to go out  and to celebrate.

When the right people can’t attend

Meetings work when the right people come together to discuss the right things.  Having a meetings with only some of the players, or with people “representing” someone who can’t attend don’t work.  If the key players can’t or won’t attend, all the meetings in the world won’t help you make progress.

When people aren’t prepared

If the agenda didn’t get out on time, or if participants haven’t come to a meeting prepared to work (for whatever reason) it’s really best to cancel.  Your preparation time may feel wasted ,but by holding the meeting will waste more time, and  you will train participants that preparation isn’t required.

When you don’t have something specific to discuss

Holding a meeting just because you’ve got it set up as a re-occurring appointment on your calendar is not a good reason to get everyone together.  If there are difficult, complicated or controversial topics to discuss–by all means, have a meeting.  If not, skip it (or get together for drinks instead).

Your Turn

What types of meetings do you wish to cancel forever?  Under which circumstances do you enjoy a good meeting?

If this post was helpful, please sign up for e-mail updates at the top of the page, or add this blog to your RSS feed .

* If you need a Google Wave invite, I’ve got extra.

Want better meetings? Use Ground Rules

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

photo credit: djprybyl

If the thought of adding “rules” to your meetings makes you feel rebellious on general principle, you aren’t alone–especially if you define “rule” as a restriction used by the powerful to maintain control.

There is, however, another kind of rule.

Games have rules that that have nothing to do with power dynamics.  Game rules are about creating the environment in which the game is played.  Without rules, games would not be fun.  They might not even exist.  Rules define the objectives of games, they create an even playing field, and keep players on the same page.  Without rules, it would be almost impossible for new people to join a game–because there would be no way to teach them how to play.

Ground rules are like that.  They provide a way for a group to decide together how they want to work, how they want to be treated and what is expected (of participants and the facilitator).  They ensure everyone is on the same page, and focused on the same objective.  They are about making sure there is a way (for everyone) to win.

Like games, different meetings with different people require different rules.  Eventually you may create new ground rules of your own or adapt rules you see other places–but to begin it is useful to have a “starter set.”  The rules shared here are  used by Dayton Diode and are adapted from the set used by Laird Schwab in his work with co-housing communities.

If you’ve never used ground rules, these will get you started, but they are not the only set out there.  Roger Schwartz outlines 9 as part of his Skilled Facilitator work.  If your group is fairly advanced or you are dealing with highly contentious issues, I recommend his set over the ones outlined here.  Also, check the comments for ideas for other useful rules from your fellow readers.

Ground rules to get you started

Take care of yourself
Meeting participants have the right (and responsibility) to do what they need to be comfortable in the meeting.  If they need to step out for a moment,  they should feel free to do so; if they can’t hear the conversation, they should let the facilitator know.  This rule doesn’t give anyone the right to be rude; it simply states individual needs are important and participants have a responsibility to make their needs known.  This rule also means participants are only responsible  for themselves.  Everyone can and should express their own opinions– there is no need for anyone to speak for another.   As one of my meeting participants once put it, “Please don’t express opinions you don’t have”.

We are all on the same team
It is common (and beneficial) for meeting participants to approach issues from different perspectives, and to have (very) different ideas on how goals should be accomplished.  Getting all of those different ideas on the table is the reason to have meetings.  All that diversity can also lead to disagreements and since most of us have some baggage around conflict  this is the place where meetings can get uncomfortable.

This rule is not about avoiding the conflict (Oh, look we disagree–but we are on the same team so let’s just ignore it).  This rule is an invitation to  re-frame.  Traditionally, we assume conflict means one party wins and the other loses.  With this rule in place, conflict means working together to find a solution big enough to encompass both party’s requirements.

I’m not suggesting this is an easy task.  for more support in this endeavor read Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

If confused, ask
Many meeting problems aren’t caused by substantive conflicts, they are caused by misunderstandings.  The purpose of this rule is to remind participants to check out their assumptions early and often.  By following this rule groups ensure their energy is spent working in the areas where real conflict exists.  This rule is really a subset of “take care of yourself” but avoiding misunderstandings is important enough to state twice.

When in doubt (about process), the facilitator decides
The purpose of this rule is to focus as much group time as possible on the actual work.  It’s important for group members to decide together on the outcome of the items being discussed, but it’s (way) less useful to spend time deciding how to decide.  If the group is in agreement on how to proceed on a process issue it’s generally a good idea for the facilitator to move in that direction.   When there is confusion or disagreement,  it’s generally best for someone to pick a direction quickly.  That person should be the facilitator.

Love ground rules? Share your favorites and why you love them in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, sign up for e-mail updates at the top of the page, or add this blog to your RSS feed .

Want Better Meetings? Cut your agenda in half

Photo Credit: Ollie Crafoord

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

I know it sounds counter intuitive, but one of the best things you can do to increase meeting productivity is to plan on doing less.

Why? Because by stuffing your meeting agenda you don’t allow time to focus.  This means when you uncover a tough spot, you won’t work though it, you will “address that later,” which means next month (and, let’s face it, probably the month after that) it will be back on the agenda.

If you want your meeting time to be spent doing the work that can’t be done in any other way, try this instead:  Aside from “housekeeping” items like an icebreaker, agenda review and meeting evaluations, allow only one agenda item per meeting hour.

That’s Impossible!!!
If you are used to traditional marathon meetings with 10 agenda items (not that anyone has seen the agenda), tons of reports by people who talk to hear themselves talk, and no clear direction on what is supposed to happen after the meeting, I’m sure a meeting with only 1-2 main topics seems crazy.  But I assure you, it is possible and it is better.  Here’s how to to make the transition.

Trim the fat
Remove everything from your agenda that doesn’t benefit from face-to-face interaction.  The most likely suspect?  Reports.   Don’t spend any time in your meetings presenting information that can be distributed in advance.  Send the reports in writing, save a bit of time for questions if you must, and move on. Not sure what to cut?  Be on the lookout for times when one person is talking and everyone else is doodling or trying to check their e-mail without getting caught.  Get the “talker” to deliver his info in some other way (outside the meeting) and spend your meeting time on the work that you must do together.

Be prepared
No one should come to a meeting wondering what is going to be discussed.  Send the agenda a week before the meeting, include any reports or background materials that are required for full participation, and expect that everyone will do the work in advance.  It’s better to cancel meetings for which people aren’t prepared than build a culture where it’s alright not to do the pre-work because “we can just go over it again in the meeting.”

Additionally, If there are specific questions that need to be answered, or decisions that need to be made–make that clear in the pre-meeting materials.  This gives participants every opportunity to come prepared for the work at hand and also gives people who need more time to reflect a chance do start their work before the meeting.

Clarify next steps
How will you know if the meeting was a success?  Who will do what after the meeting?  Make sure you know–and make sure your participants know.  If everyone is pulling in the same direction and knows where her responsibilities lay, it’s much more likely that problems will get solved (and stay solved) in your next meeting.

Finally, you may not be able to make the leap all at once–but baby steps will help.  Change one element of your meetings at a time and before you know it you too will be getting more done by focusing on less!!

Want better meetings? Do evaluations

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

If you want your meeting participants to be engaged, you must make sure they are getting good value for their time.

How will you know when you’ve done that?  Ask.  (Earth-shattering, I know)

Here’s what you do.  Save 5-10 minutes at the end of each meeting to ask 4 simple questions:

  • When did you feel we were at our most productive?
  • When did you feel we got bogged down?
  • What can we do to make our next meeting better?
  • Anything else?


  • Finish the evaluation during the agreed upon meeting time.  If you extend the meeting for the evaluation, your participants may be too focused on leaving to give good responses.
  • For your first evaluations, go around the room/table and ask each person to respond (allowing them to pass if they choose).  This gets everyone used to the process.  Once you’ve been doing evaluations for while you may be able to skip the go-round.  However, if you skip it in the beginning, you are unlikely to get good feedback.
  • Write responses on your flip chart.
  • Be sure to integrate what you learn from the evaluation into the next meeting.

Why it works

Obvious reason

  • The feedback makes your meetings better.

Less obvious reasons

  • The more you involve people in any process, they more they own it.  And as every ex-renter knows, owning something increases engagement exponentially.
  • Simply knowing there will be an opportunity to share issues later reduces angst in the moment.  When there is no evaluation, people can get so distracted by what’s bothering them they are unable to notice anything else.  At best this means they stop participating, at worst they will distract others from the work as well.

Want more facilitation advice?  Read The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz , or contact me for personalized assistance.

Want Better Meetings? Choose your space wisely

photo credit: securecat

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

The key to great meeting space is that it provides everything participants need to be 100% focused on the topic being discussed, and nothing more. With that in mind, a good meeting planner will:

Make sure everyone can see each other–This is a key factor in group participation, so if you make only one change to your current meeting space set-up, this should be it. If you have a small group, (10 people or less) a round table is best.  A large square table or tables set up in a square or U-shape can also work–just make sure there are no more than 3 people on each side of the table. For 10-30 people, you can use this same basic idea, just replace the large center table with a  a circle of chairs or desks.  With more than 30 people, the circle gets too large to hear what everyone is saying; another solution is required.

Traditionally, large groups use a theatre or classroom-style set-up.  The problem is both assume one person is talking (from the front) and everyone else is listening.  If you want people to participate,  a  modified version works  better.  Instead of lots of short, straight rows of chairs facing the front of the room, use fewer (3-4) long rows of chairs in a crescent shape.  Break up the rows with 2-3 aisles so participants can still easily get to all of the chairs.  This shape makes it much easier for participants to see and each other while still providing space for a speaker or facilitator at the front of the room.

Make sure everyone is comfortable–This means you need comfortable chairs, adequate personal space, and room to write (if that’s required).  If the meeting is longer than 2.5 hours, it’s also best to provide some sort of food and/or beverage.

Some experts suggest the opposite.  The theory is if people are uncomfortable they will limit discussion and let everyone get on with the “real” work.  I think that is a little silly.  If the main goal of your meeting is to be done fast, cancel it.  Meetings that are just about delegating responsibility or making reports are happening out of organizational habit.  Find other ways to distribute information (e-mail, shared on-line work spaces, conference calls) and save face to face meeting time for work that can only be done by the right people, working together to find solutions no one would think of alone.  For meetings like that, everyone deserves a chair.

Reduce distractions–Make the space comfortable enough that participants are not distracted by being too hot or too cold, too cramped,  or unable to hear what’s going on, but not so comfortable that they drift off into daydreams (or actual sleep).  Music, excessive street noise and televisions are also generally bad.

A final note of caution.  If you are working with a hotel meeting planner, don’t expect your vision of the room setup matches hers.   Your goal is to make sure your participants have everything they need to be successful, her goal is to get you in to the smallest room possible without breaking the fire code.  Make sure you are very, very clear about your space needs and always check out the space at least an hour before the meeting starts.  More times than not, you will be rearranging the chairs.

What are your “must haves” for meeting spaces?  Tell us, or better yet, link to photos of your favorite (or nightmare) meeting locations in the comments!

Looking for more meeting advice?  check out the first post in this series, and add me to your rss reader to catch future updates.

Rather not deal with the details?  Let me help.