At my first software engineering job at Google, I remember being in my fair share of meetings where I didn’t participate much because I wasn’t quite sure what the purpose was. The meetings were often dominated by two or three people, rabbit-holing on some topic where there was some controversy.
To be honest, that’s just what I thought all meetings were like — I had to show up because it was on my calendar, but it’d be kind of a waste of time, and afterward, I could get back to my real work.
In the past decade, I’ve spent countless hours observing and facilitating effective meetings, and know that meetings don’t have to be that way, but unfortunately, many still are.
I don’t want people to suffer anymore from horrible meetings, so that’s why I’m hosting a series of events to help share best practices for better meetings, including a mini-conference on August 25th about remote and hybrid meetings that don’t suck!
I recently hosted six small-group Effective Meetings sessions, where engineering managers and team leads shared their biggest meeting pet peeves. Here are the ones that showed up over and over again, and a few quick tips on how to address them.
Someone hijacks the agenda, and the rest of the meeting is spent on an unrelated topic, irrelevant to most of the people in the room. People start to disengage, but no one takes the initiative to get the meeting back on track. You run out of time and need to schedule another meeting.
Tip: Get clear on the purpose of the meeting, and have an explicit facilitator who is responsible for keeping the meeting in service of the purpose.
This is the standing 50-person meeting that really could be an 8-person meeting. Perhaps people were invited to one session where they were needed, but they keep showing up because FOMO. And maybe only 5-6 people actually contribute to the meeting, while everyone else is disengaged.
Tip: Figure out what it is that people need from that meeting. You may be able to meet their needs with thorough meeting notes that others can review asynchronously. Then you can slim down the attendance, or delete the meeting altogether and create a new one with the appropriate attendees.
If it actually needs to be that large (i.e. a company or department all-hands), set up an explicit purpose, structure, and facilitator to make sure the time is well-spent.
It’s all too easy for people to check their email or do other work in another tab or their second monitor. Lack of engagement is a sign that the meeting is not relevant to the people in the room. Instead of thinking of fun ways to keep people engaged, consider: what is the purpose of the meeting? Are the right people in the room? What could be taken offline? We are so accustomed to meetings being aimless, that we just automatically disengage when they start to meander. One common example is standups — when even one person starts to go into overly excruciating detail about their work, everyone tunes out. Good luck getting people to tune back into the rest of the standup.
Tip: Get clear on the purpose of the meeting, and make sure you have an explicit structure and facilitator to make it un-hijackable. Start off with an opening round for people to share how they’re doing and answer an ice-breaker — they will be more likely to contribute later on. If the meeting is relevant, people will be engaged.
One extreme of this is the meeting that should have never been a meeting or the meeting that could have been an email. There’s also the 20-minute agenda that is always a full-hour meeting. That extra meeting time is time that is wasted, where people are disengaging, and losing trust in the relevance of that meeting.
Tip: Schedule meetings for the right length of time. Time-box recurring topics. Instead of letting some less relevant discussions go on because it feels like there’s time for it, keep the relevance of the meeting as high as possible for the duration of the meeting. End the meeting early, and give people time back. People who have unrelated topics they want to discuss more deeply can choose to use that time to do so.
Being a facilitator is hard. Being a participant in a meeting where there is a “facilitator” who isn’t facilitating can be even harder. You want to be respectful of their meeting, but they consistently let the meeting run long or go off-topic.
Tip: Offer your help. If you need a reason, share some meeting tips you’ve been reading about or an event you’ve recently attended, and say you’d like to try out some of the ideas as an experiment. Propose a structure and agenda. Good facilitators are hard to come by, and it’s easy to become acclimated to inefficient meetings. Be the change you want to see on your team and in your organization!