home about me resume / cv email twitter

How to run a meeting that no one enjoys

25 Feb 2014

A note: this is not a tongue-in-cheek, bulleted list of what not to do. This is a guide on how to have a meeting that extracts information from a large group of people as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you want to have enjoyable meetings, go somewhere else.

Is it actually a meeting?

I'm using the word "meeting" in the pejorative sense here. I am talking about the behemoths that take up hours of time, where you can hear the sound of company money being shoveled into the fire. I'm talking about stale air in the biggest room in your office. I'm talking about this.

Two or three people talking to eachother and solving problems in a room together is a beautiful thing. Do that more often. If you are still with me after the above description of the meetings that haunt me in my sleep, you might be the kind of person who can successfully get 4 people to be work together at the same time (including yourself). If you have 5 people in a room, however, there is a good chance you are having a meeting.

If you are having a meeting, you don't want it to be enjoyable, because if a meeting were enjoyable, then it stands to reason that we'd want to attend this meeting for as long as possible, and that doesn't make any sense.

Have an agenda and a time-limit

A meeting should take no longer than an hour. If it seems like the meeting is going to take longer than an hour, then either the scope is too large, or you're really trying to schedule a "work session". In the former case, table the least important topics or, in the worst case, have two meetings. In the latter case, have a short meeting to assign tasks and then get out of everyone's way. Better yet, assign tasks by meeting with people individually; there's a good chance you're wasting Jane's time if the rest of the meeting is just watching you assign tasks to Tom, Meg and Cthulhu.

You want to let people know that there's an end in sight. However, given that you're working with a large group of people, time is the most unpredictable variable. Keep the agenda near the front of everyone's mind, and remind them that discussion can continue after the meeting.

NOTE: If a meeting going over time, pointing out that you've gone over time is going to make everyone want to say their piece and get out of the room as soon as possible. This is a good thing!

Encourage fact-stating

This actually requires little effort because getting people to say what's on their minds without "in place" critical thinking is what meetings are best at! This is the function of "meetings" that we are trying to boost.

This is not to say that the people in your meeting have formed opinions without a base of critical thinking. What I am saying is that in an environment of heightened stress--one where everyone's listening to you--people are generally going recite what they know.

If they are the kind of person who is prone to tangents, or they refuse to relinquish the spotlight once they've captured everyone's attention, then ask leading questions with yes or no answers. If things are getting off topic, interrupt. It's your meeting.

Discussion is important, but it can happen after the meeting, asynchronously. Likewise, problem solving is more effective if done by an individual or a small group making decisions based on a large body of information provided by the group.

Do no work

A meeting is not a place for work to get done. A meeting is a place for information to be shared or commitment to be built towards a course of action. The only person working in the meeting should be you, and your responsibilities start and end at "running the meeting". You need to prompt people to state facts relevant to the current topic, and then take notes on what they say. If you have opinions about the content of the meeting, then you are not a manager. You are a stakeholder, and you should get someone else to run the meeting.

After the meeting, you'll have plenty of work to do. You'll need to digest all of the information that you've captured from everyone else's brain. You'll make connections, find out where the group has already reached consensus and identify the open problems that still need to be solved.

Follow up with the people who participated the least

The people who actively participated in your meeting were able to use it as a platform for their ideas and opinions, despite your streamlined meeting structure and constant prodding. They also spent the least time paying attention--perhaps even less than you, the person running the meeting--because they were either speaking or waiting to speak.

These are not the people you want to hear from after the meeting. You want to follow up with the silent observers.

What is your opinion of the meeting? Was it useful? Is there anything you wish had been discussed or you feel was left out? Is there anything you don't agree with?

Getting feedback from these people is important. The act of getting feedback reinforces the idea that their feedback is important (it is), making them more likely to participate in the next meeting.

Again, a meeting is a place for information to be shared or commitment to be built towards a course of action. A meeting is a tool to propagate information where that propagation isn't happening naturally. A meeting is an equalizer. It is a negative feedback loop, meant to "bring people up to speed" or "get everyone on the same page". To be useful, a meeting needs to accomplish that, for all of its participants. A meeting is not a forum, nor a lecture, nor a workshop. Keep it that way.