Make meetings work smarter, not harder
So you can reclaim time and headspace.
Are meetings a waste of your time? They might be if you aren’t:
- Being intentional about which invitations you accept
- Questioning your role in meetings before you attend them
- Asking for an agenda when none is given
We don’t often pause to ask the right questions before we accept an invitation. It has become muscle memory to click “yes,” and that default behavior is most certainly costing us headspace and time that could be spent elsewhere.
None of this is to say that meetings aren’t important, because they are. At their best, they give us space to collaborate, align and connect face to face, and are a lot more effective than email at conveying big ideas and ambiguous concepts. At their worst, they’re used as a crutch (“This could have been an email!”), can become inefficient and aimless (“Why are there 20 participants!?”), and sometimes leave us with more questions than answers (“What are the next steps?”).
So, how can we make meetings the productive, efficient, good-natured gatherings they were intended to be? My answer: never head into a meeting without an understanding of where we intend to go together.
Before I share a few specific tactics to make this dream a reality for both meeting attendees and organizers, let’s apply a metaphor to crystalize the point.
Let’s say you’ve been invited to a dinner party. Naturally, you’ll probably ask what time you should arrive, whether you can bring anything, if there’s a dress code, and so on. So why don’t we ask for the the same level of detail when we head into meetings? Imagine inviting grandma over for a holiday gathering and not giving her any information about when to come, what to expect, or asking her to bring her famous apple pie. Think of how confused granny will feel when she arrives an hour late and empty handed, or how bummed the rest of the attendees will be when the pie you’ve been boasting about doesn’t show up with poor gran.
If we don’t accept invites to personal gatherings without understanding the reason behind our attendance, why would we do the same in the professional realm?
Let’s look at the adjustments we can make as meeting participants first.
Have you ever felt like your presence in a meeting was pointless? Like you didn’t have a role, or as though the information could have been shared with you in a recap?
That’s a common feeling, and the truth is that far too many people are invited to meetings than are conducive to getting work done. So, as the participant, here’s what you can ask the organizer after getting an invite to help discern whether you truly need to be there or not:
“What’s our intended outcome for this meeting, and how can I contribute to getting the group there?”
The language implies that you’re willing to join, and it comes from a place of curiosity (rather than resistance). It’s also effective at asking the meeting organizer to critically evaluate and then articulate why you need to be present. Often times it’s in this moment that the organizer realizes you don’t actually have much of a role and can easily be caught up afterward, to which you might say:
“Sounds like the team can plan / collaborate / problem solve without me being in the room. Looking forward to seeing the outcome!”
Challenging yourself to challenge meeting invites will help steer you toward meetings where you’ll be most useful and away from those that are a waste of headspace. Think of the work you could tackle by reclaiming this time!
Clarify the agenda
If you find that you are, in fact, able to contribute to the group’s outcome during a meeting, it’s totally fair to ask for an agenda when none has been provided. Agenda’s are excellent at saving time and keeping people on task. If you receive a blank meeting invite, ask the meeting host:
“Would you mind adding the agenda to the meeting invite? I want to make sure I’m prepared to help the group!”
Once again, this frames the request around your desire to be a contributor (and away from the organizer’s lack of clarity). It’s also a key element to making meetings work smarter because it gives the group a path to follow, is set against time constraints and, ideally, leaves time to clarify action items and next steps (more on that below).
Naturally, many of us don’t simply attend meetings — we also find ourselves in the driver’s seat planning them. The following tips will help you avoid the faux-pas that give meetings a bad rap.
Aim for 5–7 participants
This is the sweet spot for doing meaningful work. It ensures that enough diverse perspectives will be in the room to contribute, but not so many that it becomes impossible to share ideas and make decisions. It’s a model that has been proven through the Design Sprint formula, and I always follow it when I lead workshops and sessions.
Note for meeting participants: If you receive a meeting invite and you’re one of 10+ people on the list, it’s a great indicator that you should ask for clarity around your role/purpose.
Do the prep work
It might seem obvious, but when we’re in a rush it’s easy to fire off meeting invites without including any details for the invitees. I promise that taking time to insert an agenda, time breakout and overall purpose into your invitations will make meetings so much more fruitful for everyone involved.
If you’re leading an intensive workshop or Design Sprint, here are a few things that I always do to prep the team in advance.
I also make sure to prep myself in advance. What problem are we trying to solve? What are the expected outcomes? Who should be involved in decision making? To guide this planning, I follow a worksheet format that combines all the key organizational inputs into one place. You can access it here! This is yet another tool to avoid wasting people’s time once meeting day arrives.
End with next steps
Everyone deserves to walk away with clarity: both meeting organizers and participants. How frustrating is it to push your meeting right up to the hour without discussing next steps, actions items, and the people responsible for bringing them to fruition? VERY.
Always bake a portion of time into your agenda to make sure you cover next steps (and include it in the agenda you share in the meeting invite!).
When I’m leading immersive sessions, I end with an action-planning method to plot out the time horizons we want to consider, as well as share out actions that need to occur. This agenda item typically looks like:
- Have each participant write out on sticky notes what they think needs to happen next
- The meeting leader should throw the sticky notes on the wall for all to see
- Identify actions necessary to meet the nearest-term horizon, then ask participants to claim the tasks they want to own
- Note: If you’re running a shorter meeting format, modify this approach. With the last 10 minutes, grab a marker and take to the white board. Have your team shout out actions and tasks that need to be done by next week / the first check in, then write them out for all team members to see and claim their tasks.
This method give participants a sense of agency because they are volunteering for the work that needs to be done (versus getting an assignment). It also releases the meeting leader from the responsibility of setting deadlines, deciding what’s important in a silo, then doling out responsibilities. Plus, outlining this information during a meeting saves you time outside the meeting when you’d otherwise have to be recapping (and you probably don’t have time because you’re already running to your next meeting!).
When you co-create next steps live, you avoid additional follow-up meetings and communication that prevents the team from firmly moving forward.
With greater clarity for meeting organizers and participants comes better work. A few simple adjustments to how we accept meeting invites and how we plan for meetings can bring us toward powerful communication and away from wasted time and headspace.
What else would you add to this list? I’m always looking for ways to make meetings better for everyone. Drop a comment below, and give me a follow on Twitter so you don’t miss my next post.