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How to Design Better Meetings

Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

February 6th 2020

We recently covered why we think everyone needs to think like a project manager. Today, we continue down the path of diving into essential PM skills that almost anyone can learn and benefit from, by tackling something that no one can get around and everyone has opinions on. What's the answer to this riddle? Meetings, of course! From the six different types of meetings to building a practice of creating safe and inclusive spaces, we're here to help you do meetings better this year, with loads more intentionality and a little bit less .../huh?/!?!?!

If there’s one thing most people have a strong opinion on, it’s meetings.

We’ve all had subpar meetings, sometimes for years if you’ve been on the same team at the same company and no one’s ever thought to question the status quo. We tend to inherit the habits of the people around us and most of the people we’re around are the people we work with, so our behaviors become a conglomeration of all the things we’ve picked up. From all-day meetings with no agenda to entire days filled back to back with meetings, meetings can have a bad rep. But, they’re also extremely necessary. They create a contained and time-bound space to get things done. For remote teams, they’re the only face-to-face interaction time you get with your coworkers.

It’s an interesting tension in modern work, one that most of us don’t meet head on enough to really find out how we could do it better. We’ve come up with ways to break a meetings-reliant culture with things such as no-meetings days, missives on “how managers are killing productivity with useless meetings” and “why 99% of meetings are a complete waste of money”. Yikes. We heed or savour the insights and value of deep work where meetings feel like constant interruptions to our “real work”, even if in practice, that doesn’t happen.

But, I am guilty of saying the words “Want to chat about it?”, and in one fell swoop, cumulatively and with everyone else saying these same words, thinking the same things for all the different projects we’re working on: that the space of a meeting is just a more convenient way to tick something off and even more insidiously, a way to feel like you’re progressing in project because the time has been spent and the meeting has been met, when really, nothing has been done.

But what’s it like to read 1000+ word emails, multiple times a week? How does it feel to not know what’s going on? What does it feel like to not have a space to just talk and connect with your team?

I asked a cross-section of people from SuperHi, working all kinds of roles on what makes a meeting good, bad and ugly and there were definitely some patterns, many of which you’re probably familiar with. I highlighted some of their responses throughout this article, but here’s the gist of what they said:

  • A good meeting: has clear goals, leaves everyone with a plan, and only involves the people it needs to, in a psychologically safe space.
  • Whereas, a bad meeting: is off topic, meanders with no clear sense of agenda or purpose, goes too long or leaves you feeling like there’s no follow-up plan or you don’t have what you need to move forward.

With all these things to think about, how do you get really good at meetings? Luckily, I had some experts to turn to. Here are some key concepts from our Digital Project Management course on having efficient and productive meetings, a cornerstone of effective teams and successful project management. Take this as your start of the decade reset to get meetings right. Given how work behaviors get inherited and passed on, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Planning and Purpose

“The whole “this could be an email” thing is misleading, because yes, sometimes it could be an email, but most meetings are actually more like 15 emails that would take a week to get sent.”

Should this be a meeting?

Because of how poorly run a lot of meetings are, there’s been a bit of a no-meetings agenda (pun intended) going around. This morning, I saw on Twitter that there was even a divided opinion on food in meetings. The consensus? There was none, of course.

Kevin Hoffman, author of the book Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers and Everyone recognizes that most of us take meetings modelled after the way we’ve experienced them but even just asking this question: What decisions do we need to make? can act as a helpful framework for deciding the validity of using meetings to accomplish that goal.

One of the best reasons to have a meeting is a contained, time-bound space to make those decisions, rather than play a game of keeping up with your coworkers, wondering if in fact, they even got your memo and saw your bolded deadline. Things can move a lot faster in meetings. If something is important enough and considering who my audience is, a 1 hour meeting can accomplish what might take an entire month or more (mostly waiting) otherwise. That’s almost one-tenth of an entire year.

Yes, they’re a paradox: both a time-waster and a time-saver. Contrast that with the data on how much time and money is spent on meetings in the aforementioned “Meetings are the devil” articles, and I think it comes down to being intentional.

Meetings shouldn’t be the default replacement for things that can be easily communicated and documented elsewhere - in terms of how you draw the line of what’s “easier”, it’s up to you and who you’re working with. But as long as they have a clear purpose and plan and can answer why, they bring people together to make a specific kind of progress, which brings us to the next point.

Define the type of meeting

There are six types of meetings, each one with a unique approach and goal. Understanding each and how they can be applied most effectively to a particular situation seems simple but is in fact kind of mind-blowing when you realize that just like with most things, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. We have:

  • Status or progress updates
  • Problem solving
  • Team building
  • Information sharing
  • Decision making
  • Creative/inventive sessions

Your role may ask that you conduct more of a certain type of meeting than others. One of the best things you can do to be more effective at work this year is to choose one or two meeting types that most closely align with your job, and work on creating a system and structure for how you can accomplish the goal for that type of meeting. The more intentional you get and the longer you apply this intentionality, the more intuitive it’ll become to align the goals of your meeting to its format and plan.

But even just knowing that each of these exists may help you reframe your mind around some of the meetings that seem, at first glance, useless. Some meetings are creative meetings, and in these cases, the actionable might not be as specific as a project meeting for decision making because you might want to leave space and even put considered and intentional effort into uncovering tangents and creative discussion. You might want to use a tool such as Miro to work collaboratively and visually, inviting space for thoughts and ideas beyond the default discussion mode.

It comes down to understanding what “done” is; it’s not always an action item.

Define a meeting lead or moderator

This could be the project lead or it could be someone else, but it needs to be clearly defined as the person who is setting an agenda, keeping things on track, and creating a follow-up plan. Having a central point of contact for this is important in negating assumptions about whose doing what and creating backlogs because of miscommunication or lack of communication.

Aha! Communication, let’s talk more about that.

Effective Communication

“Collective decisions can be hard to come to but giving everyone a voice and a chance to say what they would like to work on leads to a better experience and better results.”

Check for understanding

An underrated and often overlooked aspect of project management that holds an extra important space in meetings, checking for understanding is a skill that can feel extra uncomfortable for those of us unaccustomed to managing projects and teams. You may have planned well and set things up right, but like a game of telephone, things can still go wrong when they’re not clarified - and oh yes, this happens a lot.

Thankfully, there are certain scripts you can keep in your tool-belt to get in the habit of checking without feeling intrusive or uncomfortable, and the more you practice this, the more you and your colleagues, will appreciate it. It’s harnessing the power of active listening and acting as the touchpoint for all important communication. This is beneficial to everyone involved, especially if it’s a longer, group meeting where, let’s face it: not everyone may be listening to every single word being said. Sorry, it’s true. And of course, if you’ve ever been in this situation on either end, you wouldn’t know that you or someone else missed something important until it came up later, often in a way that derails projects, creates confusion and comes at the expense of effort, time and money.

This is so hard to do without fear of coming across as passive aggressive, which holds many of us back and actually creates weird loops of ongoing passive aggressiveness until things sometimes turn into full-blown aggression. But remember that we are all human, and it’s going to feel uncomfortable but you’re going to have to do it. Doing it with positive intention and as a default, so that it’s not about singling a specific person or situation out, makes a big difference.

It’s as simple as reiteration, as if you’re a human highlighter, teasing out the highlights and important points so that everyone is aligned.

On a similar note, don’t get offended if a project lead (or anyone for that matter) needs to double-check something with you. They may, in all likelihood, know what’s going on and what was said, but are intentionally building a buffer for any possible miscommunication. And that’s a smart thing to do! I do it a lot and sometimes I worry I sound dumb, but by now I’ve learned I prefer to sound dumb and get the work done in a smart way to make sure everyone is aligned and on the same page.

Document meetings

This comes in especially handy for recurring meetings where meetings need to happen regardless of who is or isn’t showing up due to vacation, etc. But it’s a good practice in general because it solidifies what actually happened, what was talked about, and what was decided upon. Getting things down on paper in general is one of the most accessible forms of magic there is.

There are varying degrees of granularity you can go with, depending on your team’s dependence and the type of meeting, but I tend to gravitate towards the essential: topics and decisions. I had managers who practically transcribed entire meetings too, and that’s what worked for them (and I can’t say it wasn’t handy, for certain situations, to be able to look back at her very detailed notes).

To tie it back to proper planning, make sure, especially in creative meetings, that the person facilitating conversation isn’t also trying to document it.

A Safe and Inclusive Space

“Getting the group together (all together) is incredibly important and unifying, it gives people a chance to make themselves known and heard in a potentially anonymizing and certainly atomizing space. They can be good.”

Start with a human focus

Why do we even have meetings? The only thing perhaps that truly separates it from all other forms of work communication is the attention we need to give others during that fixed time, regardless of the purpose of that attention. Attention is a precious commodity, which is probably why we’re all so wound up about meetings - attention given is attention taken away from something else. When we think about it like this, supported by intentional, well-planned meetings, meetings really do have to start with a human focus.

Casual chatter is great and necessary but it’s really not the same as creating a space where people feel truly heard, as if what they say and who they are matters to what your organization, team or project is trying to do. But, gee, that’s a high order for meetings at work.

You can use icebreakers such as the rose, bud and thorn game and retrospectives such as start, stop and continue (google these and try them out if you haven’t ever done them before!). They don’t take much time at all and can help build trust by systemizing communication, something that sounds a bit yucky but really is about reducing the effort it takes to have quality, human conversations in as little time as possible, surfacing feelings and details that otherwise may not come up with a more natural “How’s it going?”.

And similar to how weird it feels to be in a real life conversation with someone, only to have them or you talk the entire time, be on the lookout for one-sided meetings. Meetings are great for conversations and discussions but if they’re consistently monologues (remember to consider and define the type of meeting - status updates, for example, may lean towards monologues), then ask yourself if there’s an underlying reason on a human level and then ask others, what you can do to fix it.

Exercise empathy

Speaking of monologues, a common mistake is that meetings are tailored only to suit the needs and preferences of the person leading the meeting. But to get the most out of a meeting and to truly embrace the power of attention you have in this space, great meetings should be considerate of all attendees, a practice that’s shared by design thinking practitioners who are applying their lens to solve the problem of bad meetings.

Fostering a sense of belonging helps people feel engaged, happy and may even lead to better collaboration and problem solving, so get to know the personalities and preferences of the people you’re working with to make sure that the environment is inclusive, in any way possible (enter the team-building meeting).

For example, there were people on a team that I was on (including myself) who seemed to prefer to think through things privately and weren’t engaging in team conversations - these tended to be brainstorms or major changes that haven’t previously presented themselves prior to the meeting. Sometimes, they weren’t sure that their thoughts were valuable enough for them to take up space in a meeting involving so many other people. I learned over time that I got a lot better engagement, and therefore opinions and feedback, during meetings if I put an agenda out beforehand, referenced any existing material or notes, and in private 1:1s, consistently called out specific things I valued about these people, that were interesting, unique and probably important. The value of this cannot be overlooked, because it led to better engagement, which led to better meetings, which led to better projects. It’s not about forcing conformity; I watched people, including myself, step into a space where they felt more comfortable speaking up, but I also maintained space prior to and after meetings to surface things that wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

You can use, as Rachel suggests in the course, post-meeting notes to further solidify this as part of the meeting ecosystem, providing space for people to share further notes, questions and thoughts. It’s not about doing what works best for you (ever just want to wrap things up nice and quick?); in the context of work, it’s about doing what’s best for the project and the people involved in it.

This same thought process can be applied in many different ways but it comes back to bridging the gap between business goals and human empathy and behaviour. Remember: at the core of successful project management is human relationships.

Create a meetings rule book

A great way to build an inclusive and intentional meeting environment is by taking the time to be intentional about the rules and guidelines your team needs to have successful meetings. This sets expectations for behaviour and acts as a reset for anyone who has come in and inherited a mess of bad meeting behaviours unintentionally.

A meetings rule book can include things like:

  • scripts and phrases for people to use to check for understanding
  • guidelines for providing feedback
  • rules of engagement

When everyone has a common set of rules to operate under, it creates an aligned understanding of how to behave to create a positive and inclusive culture in a way that facilitates effective feedback, discussion and conversation, much more efficiently than having everyone try to pick all these little things up over time. Writing it all down is also a great opportunity to scrutinize your team’s practices. Introduce this during on-boarding and revisit occasionally to make sure that new team members have the opportunity to surface any gaps.

The Art of the Follow-Up

Wrap up with clear actionables

If you’ve ever left a meeting with a “…” feeling, you’re not alone. Turns out, not having a clear action plan at the end of meetings is one of the most common “bad meeting” grievances. Sometimes they may not even feel like bad meetings: you had fun, maybe chatted with someone you haven’t talked to in a while. But if they didn’t achieve the goal intended, that’s a bad meeting because it creates a ripple effect of more work, more follow-up, more confusion later on. So make sure to identify:

  • Who will take next steps?
  • What will they do?
  • When will this be done?
  • Will there be a follow-up meeting?

These are important questions to ask and try to answer at the end of a meeting. It can be tempting to want to wrap things up and get on with your day-to-day to come back to next steps at a later date, but doing so can create friction and even overwhelm. There’s cognitive capacity involved in trying to plan and accommodate for things you don’t have clarity on. Keeping empathy in mind: even if you are okay with taking a laissez-faire approach, it may not be the same for others. Creating a clear plan is empathy and organization in practice.

If you take nothing else from this article, let me just reiterate (😉): What’s the goal of your meeting? How can you intentionally create a space to meet that goal? And are you considering the people who will help make that goal happen?

And so, here is where we practice what we preach: it’s time for the follow-up. If you’re interested in learning more about meetings and project management for everyone, you can take our Digital Project Management course led by Louder Than Ten, which covers more granular topics such as meeting setup, preparing agendas and designing for each meeting type. Up next, we move outside the space of work to help you develop a broader understanding of how project management applies to learning new skills. Then we’re having a PM panel to talk about project management careers, challenges and toolkits. We finish with a brand new season of our advice column for creatives: this time we’re calling Rachel from Louder Than Ten in. Submit your questions here.