Five Ways to Make Your Meetings Not Suck

We’ve all been there – sitting in our chairs around a table while various people opine about some topic that may or may not be related at all to the original reason you all got together, staring at the clock, hoping and wishing and praying that the pain will end soon so that you can get back to work and back to doing something productive with your time.

Sound like a meeting to you?  It doesn’t need to.  In fact, there are a few very small things that you can do that can help ensure that your meetings don’t wind up being a death march that nobody in the room cares about.

1. Have a Clear Purpose

The biggest problem that meetings tend to have is simply that there’s no clear goal to be achieved or problem to be solved.  All too often, meetings are called just to “talk something through” or to “get something off someone’s chest” — which is fine and has its place, but for a meeting to really be tight, engaging, and (best of all) over quickly, the best thing to do is to state the purpose of the meeting and get everyone on the same page.  First, this makes it clear why people are together, and sets a public pressure that pushes against tangents and other discussions.  Having a clear purpose is the first, and often easiest step toward ensuring that you have a meeting that doesn’t suck, and it leads naturally into the second – setting an agenda.

2. Have a Set Agenda

Agendas have a bad name in some circles, but that’s usually because people can take them too far.  You don’t have to account for every minute of the meeting, nor do you have to segment the meeting off into 5, 10, or 15-minute intervals.  A good agenda is tailored to the needs of the meeting and to the personalities of the people who are in the meeting.  Personally, I like to simply lay out an outline of what the expected discussions are that are likely to take place, and the high-level bullet points that we must cover before we call the meeting to a close.  You don’t have to assign responsibilities in the agenda, either (though this can sometimes be useful for facilitation.  And speaking of…

3. Don’t “Run” the Meeting – Facilitate it.

There’s very little that will make people disengage from a meeting faster than the feeling that their input and feedback isn’t really being taken into account.  This is the difference between “running” a meeting as a dictator might run his country, and “facilitating” a meeting — making sure that all the necessary voices are heard, all the points of the agenda are covered, and pushing people as a group to make a decision or further the goal of the meeting itself.  Facilitation is a bit of an art (see my past post on facilitation as one of the three keys to leading through influence), but it’s also just as much a science.  If you do nothing more than making sure that everyone has their say, that nobody talks too much, and that everyone stays (reasonably) on-topic, then you’ll have done a good job.

4. Make the Meeting Interactive

No, I absolutely, positively do not mean introducing ice-breakers or unnecessary team-building into your meetings.  In fact, if you do that, you deserve whatever fate awaits you in one of the Nine Hells of Product Management.  There are many tools that you can use to ensure that people are fresh during a meeting, and engaged in the discussion and the topics and goals, without requiring that they remain in their seats for the full time.  This is particularly important for meetings that take more than an hour — getting people to stretch and engage actively with the discussion helps to ensure that they’ve bought into what’s going on, and it will help you to find those stragglers or people who aren’t into what’s going on.  This could be something as complicated as a “dot-voting” exercise (something I’ll post on later), or something as simple as a “fist to five” vote for trying to reach a consensus.  Interactivity means being physically involved and committed to the goal of the meeting, and any way you can make people engage in this fashion, you’ll have better results in the end.

5. Know When to Say “When”

I firmly subscribe to the belief that meetings last as long as they have to — no longer and no shorter.  We sit in the meeting and we talk until we’ve touched on (or dismissed) every point on the agenda and reached whatever goal we’ve set for the meeting.  If that takes fifteen minutes from a one-hour block, so be it — people will be thankful for getting their valuable time back; if it takes an hour and a half of a one-hour block, and was properly facilitated, then people will realize that the issues were more complicated than they initially thought.  Be sure, though, to be diligent on time — if you’re approaching the time limit that you originally set, don’t just bluster onward, do a time check and let the team decide what to do — if they don’t want to work through, then you’ve got to wrap up what you can and set up some kind of follow-on for things that weren’t closed up.  But, if you’ve properly set the agenda and facilitated the discussions, it’s more likely that people will see this as a valuable use of their time, and work through to reach the goal that’s in sight.

While these steps in no way guarantee that your meeting will be engaging or successful, ensuring that you’ve covered the five key areas above will at least set the meeting up from a position of potential success, rather than the abject failure that far too many meetings are from the minute they start.

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Cliff Gilley

Cliff has worked as a product manager for over 10 years in a variety of markets and working on a variety of products, many of which generated over $10M in yearly revenue for the companies owning them. He is experienced in facilitation, mediation, prioritization, and a bunch of other “ations” that are important to the job of a product manager. He has worked to transition several development and product teams from waterfall approaches to Agile practices, with varying levels of resounding success. His approach to product management is one of practical, pragmatic solutions to solving customer problems and wrangling stakeholders as though they were wild cats.