Why is it that some meetings feel immensely frustrating while others are exhilarating and fun? Even two meetings with the same attendees, the same environment, and similar topics can feel very different. What are the magic ingredients that make the difference?
At Range, we’re insatiably curious about best practices for the way we work. Since team meetings are a big part of how many teams operate, we recently built a tool to help facilitate those meetings. In the process, we gathered ideas from industry research, systems like Holocracy or Agile, and personal experience to come up with a set of simple best practices.
Although I’ve been attending and running meetings for years, it wasn’t until this project that I finally looked more closely at what makes meetings tick. Looking back, I can see that the meetings which followed these practices have been the ones that felt most exciting and productive.
Do you have a meeting that’s not living up to its potential? Consider adopting some of these practices to move it from frustrating to fun.
Communicate your goal
To improve your meeting, start at the beginning: why are you meeting in the first place? Every attendee should know what a successful outcome for the meeting looks like, because it rallies everyone around a single purpose — whether it’s getting the team aligned and unblocked for the upcoming week, planning the next phase of a project, or something else. If you can’t articulate a clear goal for the meeting, consider whether it’s still necessary at all.
Invite the right people
Once you’ve clarified the purpose of the meeting, you can decide who needs to be there to achieve the goal. Are you inviting a bunch of extra people “just in case” even though they aren’t necessary? FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, even in the workplace, but extra attendees make the meeting less focused and more expensive. Next, are you missing someone who’s critical to making the meeting a success? Without a key person, you could end up wasting everyone else’s time without achieving the goal.
Share your agenda and let others add to it
A clear plan will help you to achieve your goal within the allotted time. Without an agenda, people can’t prepare for the meeting in advance, discussion will be less focused, and you’re much more likely to run out of time. You don’t have to build the agenda alone — let attendees contribute topics to the agenda so it represents the needs of the entire team. Consider using a dynamic agenda by taking a few minutes to gather topics from everyone at the start of the meeting.
Identify a facilitator
Even with all the right people in the meeting and rallied around a shared goal, it’s still important to have a facilitator who’s in charge of keeping the meeting running smoothly by reinforcing these principles. Make sure that everyone in the meeting knows who the facilitator is, and set an expectation that the facilitator’s role is respected. Keep in mind that the facilitator doesn’t have to be the most senior person in the room, and in fact it’s often better when they’re not.
Encourage participation from everyone
A meeting where one person talks and everyone else listens is a concert, not a working meeting. (While there’s a place for concerts too, it’s a different type of meeting.) Since you’ve already invited the right people during the planning phase, each attendee should be encouraged to contribute agenda topics and speak up during discussion to help achieve the meeting’s goal. One tactic to encourage participation is to start the meeting with a check-in round.
Maintain clear ownership for each agenda topic
Each topic on the agenda should represent something an attendee needs in order to achieve the overall goal. When each topic has a clear owner, it’s easy to decide when to move on: once that person has what they need. As the facilitator, you can ask the owner “Did you get what you needed?” to keep things moving along. If the discussion around one topic raises a related topic that someone else needs to discuss, capture it as a new agenda topic and discuss it separately instead of getting side-tracked from the topic at hand.
Keep the meeting running efficiently
With multiple attendees, meetings are one of the most expensive activities that companies do, so it’s important not to let time be eaten up unnecessarily. As the facilitator, it’s your job to make sure that just enough time is spent on each agenda topic. Running the meeting efficiently and ending on time will keep everyone engaged and allow you to wrap up the meeting with clear next steps instead of sprinting out of the room to the next appointment.
Remind everyone that they’re here for the same reason
Hopefully, everyone in the meeting is there to achieve the same goal. (If not, go back to the planning stage and start with aligning everyone around a shared goal.) Once the attendees are confident that everyone is there for the same reason, it’s easier to quickly work through issues and discussion without questioning the motives of others. If there’s disagreement (and a good meeting should have disagreement), encourage everyone to start with the assumption that they have the same goal in mind.
Take notes deliberately
Notes are most useful when people read them, and people are more likely to read when the notes are concise and focused. Constant note-taking during the meeting can be a distraction, especially if the note-taker also needs to participate in the meeting to achieve the goal. Focus note-taking on recording important take-aways or decisions after the discussion, not transcribing everything that was said. If you’re struggling with this, try not taking any notes during the discussion and then deciding as a group what should be recorded between agenda topics.
Record clear actions and give each one an owner
Usually, one of the main outcomes of a meeting is next steps: What does each person need to do in order to execute on the goal? It’s important to record these actions and assign a single owner to each of them. Owners should propose their own actions instead of having actions pushed on them, and everyone should have a shared understanding of what each action means and why it’s important before they leave the room. Consider taking a few minutes at the end of the meeting to review actions so everyone’s on the same page. With clear actions recorded and agreed upon, you can start the next meeting by reviewing the open actions and their current status.
It’s one thing to have a set of best practices for how meetings should run, and another thing entirely to stick with those practices over time. Habits like this can be difficult to build and easy to let slip, especially when it feels like it’s taking time and focus away from the actual work.
Working at Range, I’ve learned how adopting simple tools and templates can help us to follow through on these practices in our own meetings. It doesn’t add much overhead and it makes it easier to maintain good habits over time.
Now that I’ve seen how smooth meetings can be, I look back at some past meetings I’ve sat through (or run myself!) with a mixture of horror and disbelief. I’m glad to have a set of tools to keep me from slipping back there.