Meetings are nearly ubiquitous - and for good reason - without them, companies would struggle to align their employees on valuable projects and create products that people want.

The trouble stems from meetings being so prevalent in corporate culture that attendees, along with meeting organizers, often don’t take a step back to make sure that meetings are running efficiently. Worse still, if meetings are running poorly and wasting people’s time, this is not viewed as a cause for reworking standards and improving practices, rather, it is dismissed as “Meetings Suck.”

This new series, “Back to the Basics”, aims to address the underlying components of meetings and explain how to execute each one well. We will discuss a broad range of topics encompassing what to do to prepare for a meeting, what to do during a meeting, and how to follow up effectively after a meeting.

This week’s article will begin with an often overlooked consideration: “Should we even be having this meeting?”

We’ve all been there: you’re sitting in a meeting on Monday morning looking up at the presenter, who has been lecturing for the last 40 minutes on a new policy implementation, or last quarter’s results, or any number of information-dump topics, and you keep thinking to yourself “this could have been an email.” After the meeting, you find that you now have an hour less to prepare for your second meeting of the day, immediately after lunch. These meetings maintain any number of objectives, but many are scheduled as recurring meetings. As a result, you cannot question their necessity, but cannot help but notice the significant chunk of your week that they eat up.

Before we look into why recurring meetings can be so detrimental for the productivity of teams, let’s first work to understand why these kinds of meetings are held in the first place. Most recurring meetings exist to provide status updates on a given project and to determine next steps.

The purpose is to keep everyone in the loop and the expected outcomes are action items for the team to fulfill before the next scheduled meeting. This seems innocuous enough - after all, the underlying goal of all meetings is communication. So how did we get from effective and productive team meetings to hour long lectures every Monday morning? The problem lies in the arbitrary recurrence of these meetings. No matter how much progress a team makes in a week, no matter how many features are implemented, clients secured, or sales made, this meeting will be held every Monday at 10 am. Some tasks take over a week to complete, some take a few minutes, but this dynamic nature is not taken into account when scheduling rigid meetings.

With this knowledge in hand, what can we do to make these meetings more effective? Schedule team meetings based on outcomes instead of repetition. At the end of each team meeting, define your expected next actions and a timeline to go along with them. Leverage this timeline to decide when the team should meet next and go from there. If all of the next actions take two days to complete, then the next meeting should be two days from then. If the next action is to complete a larger project, a full team meeting might be scheduled two weeks from then. This way you have a set list of items to cover during your next meeting and you will no longer be stuck saying “so we made some progress but still have a bunch of todo’s left before we finish this project.”

If you don’t schedule meetings around a goal other than “let’s catch up on our recent work,” the team is bound to waste valuable time that can be better spent getting closer to the next deliverable. In fact, some people spend over 100 hours a month (of 160 total work hours) in recurring meetings, before they get to divide their time further with other ad hoc meetings. So next time you are thinking about scheduling a weekly recurring meeting, think to yourself: does every team member have to hear about every detail of someone’s progress on their section of the project, or is this something that only the project manager would really benefit from?

But what about non-recurring meetings?

Now that we have discussed the dangers of hosting arbitrarily set weekly meetings, how do you determine if the ad hoc meeting you are planning really needs to happen?

All good meetings are structured. They have an agenda set before they begin, with informed decisions about how much time each item should take to cover. Strong minutes are taken during the meeting, with vital decisions recorded for future use. And perhaps most importantly, a concrete and well defined set of action items are produced. But before any of this can happen, a meeting needs a purpose and a meeting needs to have objectives. Let’s begin with understanding the difference between the two.

Purpose: The overarching reason why a meeting is being held. This is generally quite abstract and captures the ‘type’ of meeting that is being held. Some examples include: team training on a new technology; a yearly review with upper management; critical decision making with project lead; one on one. Defining the purpose of the meeting won’t necessarily help you decide if the meeting really needs to happen or not, but it will inform the size of the meeting (which people are critical to its success) and the scope (what materials need to be prepared ahead of time). Once you have the purpose defined, it’s time to move on to the key meeting objectives.

Objectives: The clear and specific goals that you wish to achieve by the end of the meeting. While the purpose is general, objectives are concrete. Some examples include: to review the results of the last round of usability testing with stakeholders and decide which features should be designed first; to instruct the team on new data security protocols and ensure everyone is proficient in the new database access software. Put another way, a meeting objective is what you would reply to someone asking “what do you plan to accomplish with this meeting?” Objectives can be tricky to pin down, especially if you do not have all of the relevant information about the meeting at your disposal, but a good framework to test the quality of your objectives is to put them against the ‘SMART’ framework. Simply put, your objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Based. If you can’t seem to nail down your objectives even after you have all of the information then congratulations! you do not need to host this meeting. At this point you should either wait until there are more outcomes to discuss or ensure that the project is heading in the right direction.

Once you have both a set purpose and well-defined objectives, you can use these to identify precisely who should attend your meetings, what should be covered, and how long the meeting should take. All of these topics and more will be covered in future Knowtworthy Blog articles. Feel free to subscribe below if you want to be notified about new releases.

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