How to Run Effective Meetings

Most meetings are wastes of time. Even in meetings that people consider to be well-run, there is much room for improvement. But internal meetings – when run effectively – can be the fastest way to reach a vital decision or to disseminate important information. 

So we’re going to explore some of the best ways to run an internal company meeting. For clarification I define “meetings” as forums to make decisions and “concerts” as forums to disseminate company information and build team spirit.  The two are used for very different purposes and should not be confused. 

Top 10 Meeting Best Practices
:

1.    Only hold meetings when they are absolutely necessary.  Most meetings are not needed in the first place. Only call a meeting if it is truly needed, such as for urgent matters. Often, an email or quick phone can be just as, if not more, effective and efficient.

2.    Keep meetings small.  The ideal size of a meeting is two people. If your meeting has more than eight people it is no longer a meeting, it is a concert.  Sometimes concerts are important (like company meetings for team building and building team spirit), but recognize that people will perceive them differently.  Concerts, just like rock concerts, need to be really fun, engaging, exciting, and interesting to everyone in attendance. 

3.    Aim for ad-hoc meetings.  Ad-hoc meetings (with 2-6 decision makers) are almost always better than standing meetings. Bringing people together to solve a problem is the best type of meeting.  Review all standing meetings and kill meetings that are no longer useful or productive. 

4.    Make meetings optional.  All meetings (especially standing meetings) should be optional.  If people are not getting a lot out of a meeting, they shouldn’t go. And they should self-select out of meetings.

Michael-corleone 5.    Only invite people that NEED to be at the meeting. Be lethal and cut people. Ever notice how some meetings have people creep?  They start at 4 people and all of a sudden have 40 people.  Don’t let this happen in your organization.  Don’t let non-essential people come to your meeting – simply tell them that they are not essential to this meeting.  As Michael Corleone would say: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

6.    Send out a meeting agenda beforehand and notes after.  Every meeting should have an agenda that people get beforehand (ideally by the day before) so that all the participants can prepare adequately for the meeting (or decide to opt-out of the meeting). 

The agenda should be action-oriented: instead of saying “discuss marketing plans” it should say “decide on one of these three marketing plans.”  A meeting agenda should have at most 4 items (a concert agenda can have more) with time limits for each item so that everyone in the meeting understands the time expectations.  If appropriate, someone at the meeting should be assigned to be the note taker who will disseminate notes to people afterwards (including those people that elect not to attend the meeting).

7.    Keep meetings as short as possible. No meeting should be more than an hour.  Nothing good happens in more than an hour.  Meetings should ideally end before the time limit allotted to them – once discussion ceases to be productive for everyone in attendance.  Great concerts, by contrast, can be longer than hour – just remember that no decisions can be made in a concert.

8.    Never discuss a topic that doesn’t engage EVERYONE at a meeting.  Meetings need to engage everyone. Every single person should be actively engaged in every topic in the meeting.  If they are not engaged, they should either not be at that meeting or that topic should be discussed at a later time.  If you are ever at a meeting where a side-discussion is happening between 2 or more participants, then it is definitely a poorly run meeting.  Meetings need to engage everyone.

9.    Keep meeting participants on topic and interesting.  Are you ever at a meeting and you start day-dreaming and you miss part of the discussion?  That’s the sign of a poorly run meeting.  Meetings need to be active and if a participant is going off course or is long winded, it is the meeting organizers job to cut them off.  Again, it aint personal. 

Meetings are about reaching a good decision, not just hearing everyone’s thoughts. Meeting participants should not talk more than two minutes at one time unless what they are saying is utterly mind-expanding.  Meetings are not lectures – if people want to talk for a long time, set up concerts for them to do so.

10.    Make meetings fun.  People should enjoy themselves at meetings and actually look forward to attending them.  Standing meetings should have fun rituals. While you might not have U2 or a laser light show at your concert, you can at least have some slides of fun team photos and people applauding when you announce your revenue numbers. 

Special thanks to meeting enhancers Bryan Duxbury, Dayo Esho, Michael Hsu, Manish Shah, and Mimi Sun  for their help and edits.

27 thoughts on “How to Run Effective Meetings

  1. renaissance costume

    Great post.. These ideas will make meeting productive. Many employers/boss today holds a meeting with a topic that is not that important that is why a person who is attending it is sometimes conditioned that meetings are not just plain boring stuff.

    Reply
  2. anon

    my case team had a 6-hour meeting. It was scheduled as a 2-hour meeting for 4-6 pm, but lasted until 10 pm that night. In attendance were 1 principal, 1 manager and 10 analysts. At their respective billing rates, the meeting cost the client around $15,000-$20,000. I doubt they generated that much value for the client…

    Reply
  3. Michael Thompson

    Great article Auren! i will be making sure all the people in my organization read this article (and, more importantly, follow it).

    Reply
  4. Mark P

    nice. the three most common meeting mistakes:
    1. meet but don’t discuss the right items
    2. discuss the right items but don’t make a decision on them
    3. decide but don’t have a resulting action plan of who is going to do what and when

    Reply
  5. Su Suh

    A mentor once told me if you need to get things done at a meeting, make sure to schedule it at 4:00 on Friday. Best advice ever. ♥ your blog Auren. Hope you are doing well.

    Reply
  6. Josh Mc

    Auren – this is excellent. My next move, and I’m guessing the next move of most folks who get this, is to forward it to my executive team.

    Reply
  7. Gary Parthinon

    Thanks. I’m forwarding this to some of my friends who are in the telecom biz. During my four years at my last company, I think I spent “seven years” in meeting, most of which lasted more than an hour and had at least a dozen people attending… I got in some good naps and lots of side-discussions…

    Reply
  8. Bill Reilly

    Nothing in this piece strikes me as wrong, and all of it is consistent with my experience. I have always put a high value on the entertainment part of ngo board meetings I have run–with 30 people often in attendance–and provoked jokes among staff about my non serious mien. But those meetings are concerts, show and tell, and nobody has to be there, nobody is paid to be there. This is a wise and helpful article.

    Reply
  9. Colonel Michael Fenzel

    Auren – this is spot on. I’ll be printing this out and keeping it as a reminder. Have always believed that if there was information to share for a specific person you simply let that/those persons know that you’d like to see them afterward. it shows respect for your team and their time. and, in the process, builds morale.

    Reply
  10. Melissa Ta

    Thanks! Very useful. This sounds like a session I took a few years back in Facilitative Leadership. I would add to the list to have a purpose, goal and get agreement on topics at beginning of session. Also, learn to “bucket” topics that are outside of scope or need deeper dive if there’s not enough time in the session.
    let those who need to participate or facilitate focus on what they do best. Make sure the meeting note taker is not the person facilitating or participating in the meeting.

    Reply
  11. Max McFadden

    Couldn’t agree more. Towards the end of my career with the Forest Service my first question was “is this a decision meeting or information sharing”? If it was the latter I wouldn’t go.

    Reply
  12. Paul Sack

    Early in my career, I worked as a staff aid for a wonderfully experienced executive. I always knew what decision he hoped would come out of the meetings of his senior staff and once asked him how it was that the decision was always what he wanted, although the discussions were free and open and no one except me knew what he wanted. He told me that he let the discussion go on until someone suggested the outcome he sought. He then intervened and said something like, “Well, I guess that is what we have decided.”

    Reply
  13. David Belden

    Great post Auren. I’m also a believer in sending out meeting notes after (which you mentioned) or summarizing at the end of the meeting so it’s very clear what action items need to be done or what changes made as a result of the meeting. If we’re going to get the team together, we want to make sure we execute on our discoveries & decisions!

    Reply
  14. Peter Dupontq

    Excellent memo on meetings. One additional point…perhaps included with your comments on Agendas…meetings should be ruthlessly separated b/t “action” meetings, e.g. those where you expect to make specific decisions and those that are designed for exploration and brainstorming (and there is not an expectation to come to a conclusion or decision). Too often the first type evolves unintentionally into the second. The meeting leader needs to firmly manage this. Thanks again for sharing.

    Reply
  15. Gary Cook

    Great post. I would add one other point: Make SURE you are clear on what your expectations are for a meeting BEFORE you have it. Tends to limit the number, scope, and ineffectiveness of meetings!

    Reply
  16. Pamela Hawley

    Thank you for a much needed discussion. We actually don’t have weekly team meetings at UniversalGiving. We meet bimonthly for one hour. We commit to that hour, honoring everyone’s time. In it, we cover a CEO Update, review the industry and trends; make joint decisions on key initiatives; and hear 3-5 minute succinct updates from employees, interns and volunteers. By the time 2 weeks rolls around, people are usually ready to hear the update.
    My addition is that the most effective meetings are often 20 minutes. Each party knows the goals and mission of the other partner. They come prepared to find a win-win solution, and the discussion revolves around that mutual goal. The rest of the meeting is about next steps. These meetings can only happen if there is a strong synergy in values. This is a subject I’ve also addressed on my blog: http://tinyurl.com/yj9p3xe
    A side, related component in honoring people’s time is also about Work and Life balance…I spoke about this a bit at Harvard’s Conference on Dynamic Women in Business recently. It’s such an important subject, to balance the many priorities in life. I’ve also discussed this recently on my blog: http://tinyurl.com/yhmhumq
    Thank you for a fruitful discussion, honoring everyone’s time and contribution!
    Sincerely,
    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO
    UniversalGiving™
    phawley@universalgiving.org
    http://www.universalgiving.org
    Living and Giving blog
    http://www.pamelahawley.wordpress.com

    Reply
  17. Anders

    The frequently quoted and tweeted phrase “Meetings are Toxic”, made popular by 37signals, pretty much sums this up too, because as you say in your very first sentence: “Most meetings are wastes of time.”
    I use a tool to keep track of wasteful meeting time. I never dare show it to my superiors, but it’s still fun. http://trakti.me/ =)

    Reply
  18. Robert

    Hi Auren
    great post, it requires a lot of discipline to pull through.
    Being German – i relish these practices, but i found that i am alienating others, especially in the latin language area.
    Maybe if you are latin and you surprise the world with it, it’s ok – if you are German, you’re being perceived as square and imposing.
    Best
    Robert

    Reply
  19. Umesh Batra

    Great post, I fully agree and believe a meeting should end and results into a list of action items that can formally be sent out to people regardless of if someone attending it or not.

    Reply

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