why meetings suck and how to make them useful for your team

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A reader writes:

I have been a manager for a year at my organization, and in total I’ve been at my organization for seven years in part-time, front-line jobs. I am now moving into a new position with a bigger team to lead (all full-time people). In the past, my boss has led weekly team meetings that I have not felt were the best use of my time. They sometimes drag on for two hours, they get sidetracked to other conversations, they include non-work conversation topics, and they are agenda-less. We mostly spend time going around the circle talking about what tasks we’ve accomplished since the last meeting.

How should I decide whether team meetings are a good idea for my team? What should they include? What makes them useful?

Good for you for thinking about this, because I think that at most organizations, 85% of meetings are a waste of time. And the ones you describe being forced to attend hit all the characteristics of bad meetings — particularly having no agenda and just going around the room talking about what you’re working on.

Strive to have far fewer meetings and to make them actually useful. To do that, do the following:

* Before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself these questions:  Is this something that could be just as easily conveyed in a memo or email?  Is this a discussion (meaning there will be back-and-forth, which is what a meeting should be for) or just information-sharing (which might point you back to a memo or email)? Is it really a good use of my staff’s time to have them there? Who really needs to be there? Should it be optional or mandatory?

* Always, always, always have an agenda. You might even note on the agenda roughly how much time you’re allotting to each topic.  If one of your staffers wants to schedule a meeting, insist they distribute an agenda beforehand too. This ensures that people think about what they want to achieve in the meeting ahead of time, which counteracts the rambling, purposeless meetings your boss has been holding.

* When something comes up that isn’t on the agenda, decide on the spot if it’s truly important enough to displace another topic (usually it won’t be, but sometimes it will); if it’s not, then say, “Let’s put that on the agenda for another time” and move the conversation back to what you’re there to discuss.

* Be clear about what you want the take-aways from the meeting to be. Announce that at the beginning: “”We have one hour to cover A, B, and C. At the end of this meeting, I’m hoping we’ll have ___.”

* Start and end on time. If you don’t take the start time seriously, people will start showing up later and later, wasting more and more of the punctual participants’ time. Apply the same rigor to the ending time: Set a time limit, announce it at the start, and warn people when you’re five or ten minutes away from wrapping up.

* Make sure that someone is in charge of running the meeting and that they know what that means. Whether it’s you or someone else, someone needs to be in charge of keeping the meeting moving, redirecting conversation as needed, teasing out action items, cutting off ramblers, and wrapping it up on time.

* At the end of the meeting, make sure everyone is clear on next steps — i.e., that the conversation has been translated into action items, and those action items have a clear owner.

* Never use group meetings as a substitute for individual check-in’s, which is what it sounds like your boss was doing. That’s disrespectful of and wasteful of other people’s time.

God, I want to post these rules on the wall in every conference room in the world.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. Julie

    Alison, I think I love you. I truly, truly wish I’d had this post at my last job, where meetings tended to be long, rambling, and about nothing in particular other than what my boss felt like talking about that day. And we were only a 7-person office!

  2. Under Stand

    Oh, how I wish this was the way our meetings are. Unfortunately they are more like the circle thing. Only on a daily basis.

  3. Anonymous

    I noticed in my last position that the people with wireless laptops, who presumably had a little more authority /responsibility for making sure the meetings were productive, seemed to abdicate that responsibility since they were able to get other work done while sitting in a non-productive meeting.

  4. Ask a Manager Post author

    I just thought of this too — Someone I know who runs extremely effective meetings will often do this at the end of them: He’ll have everyone quickly go around the circle and say one thing that worked well about the meeting and one thing that could have been improved. (As far as I know, he only does this at significant/longer meetings, not at quick half-hour ones.) It opens the door for people to say “we spent too long on X” or “we got sidetracked by Y and never got to talk about Z” or “we needed a longer break because my brain goes numb after two hours” or “C didn’t really apply to me so I felt my presence wasn’t helpful for that” or whatever.

  5. bob

    Oh. My. Gawwwwddd. This describes working at Microslop EXACTLY! I’ve never seen a place that hard more pointless, rambling meetings every week that wasted everyone’s time!

  6. anoninOak

    I would add that the vast majority of regular meetings (from weekly to monthly) should *never* be more than 1 hour. There are exceptions, but you should be very intentional about deciding that a meeting needs to be longer than 1 hour.

    And *no* meeting should be longer than 2 hours, unless it is the rare exception of half-day or full-day meetings for in depth planning.

    I know everyone is going to jump on me and say this is unrealistic, but you should try this time limit. You would be amazed about what happens once you decide that the weekly meeting will never be longer than 1 hour: you magically a) figure out how to get all the important decisions made in 1 hour, or b) realize that many items on the agenda were not actually important, and are able to wait till another time (and the world does not end).

    Seriously, try it. Everyone becomes more productive in meetings once they get used to a world where meetings always end on time, never drag on, and sometimes even break up early when everything is done.

    1. KellyK

      I think this is a really good idea. Having a set time limit makes it really easy to prioritize, rather than getting off topic. Also, if regular meetings are routinely more than an hour, maybe they need to happen more frequently. Better to have an hour or less meeting every week than a monthly four-hour meeting from hell, right?

  7. JT

    I’d add to AAM’s suggestions that any appropriate materials be distributed before the meeting, and not at it. And that might be more than just an agenda. It’s often a waste of time to have people reading materials for comments or reactions, when they could have done that in advance of the meeting. Pre-meeting prep can make meetings faster and more effective.

    I also think it’s good to be willing to end a meeting early if the agenda is covered effectively, rather than just filling up time with “has anyone got anything else to talk about?”

    1. Long Time Admin

      I had a boss who always did that, and his meetings went rather quickly, and things got done! A meeting always works best when everyone knows beforehand what is being discussed, and what each person is responsible for.

      One polar opposite boss, way waaaaay back in the 80′s, had long, rambling meetings that drove everyone crazy. A couple of the workers devised a game of counting how often he said his favorite words/phrases (all empty, just buzzwords). Someone would cough every time he said one of the words. It was fun, and it kept people awake.

    2. Joey

      Exactly what I was going to say! Meeting prep is underrated!
      There’s nothing worse than sitting at a meeting, not being able to utter one word bc it’s just info dissemination or thinking to yourself ” I have a pile of work to do. Why are we listening tohow little Jimmy is doing in school?”

      1. Jamie

        YES! Prepare beforehand so the meeting is discussing the information at hand for planning/strategy…not reading aloud.

        I hate the chit chat (that being an agenda item leaves me speechless) aspect of meetings, but what’s an even bigger time suck is when you’re meeting about a topic which is relevant to everyone invited – but a couple of people will derail it with minutia of specifics of something that happened once…and you lose everyone else and drives me crazy.

        Here’s something that really works to curb that, if you have access to a dry erase board in your meetings. Write key points on the board, ostensibly to outline the real topic – and add their minutia as they go on.

        For example:

        CBA for XYZ IT Project
        Costs
        Timeline
        Why the cabling was so weird when first installed in 1995, which has been corrected for over a decade.

        Something about seeing their stuff in a bullet point makes people a little more cautious about deviating from the agenda.

        This either needs to be done with a sense of humor, or by someone bitchy enough not to care…either way it does work.

  8. Natalie

    God I wish my boss read this blog. She just started doing weekly update/coordination meetings, which sounded fine when she laid out her vision for them. Unfortunatley the 2 middle managers who have been here forever use them as another never-ending complaint session, so what was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting is now dragging to over an hour. And it’s only been a month or two!

  9. class factotum

    When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, we would have meetings that would last all day long. No agenda. Just discussion of things like “Should our mission be to serve Mapuche women or YOUNG Mapuche women?”

    I got so bored and frustrated that I started bringing my knitting. That’s when the director of my agency, who had an infant hanging on her bare breast during the majority of the meeting, told me I couldn’t knit because it was distracting.

  10. Laura

    At my last company, we instituted a policy of allowing people to not attend (or to quietly leave during) meetings that they decided were not relevant to them. Not only did this allow people to go do actual work instead of sitting in irrelevant (to them) meetings, it made those scheduling the meetings be thoughtful about who really needed to be at their meetings and how to arrange their agendas so that people who only needed to attend part of a meeting could be there for the first half and then leave when the later items on the agenda were not applicable to them. Of course, this only worked because everyone at this particular company was heavily invested in doing a great job and getting a great product out, so they actually wanted to attend the meetings they really needed to — it definitely wouldn’t work everywhere. (But I have to say, the kind of company where it does work is the best kind of company to work for, IMO. I love my current job A LOT, but I miss my old company.)

  11. Katie

    I wish there were a printable version of this post so I could print it out and plaster it all over my office. Every year or so, there is a discussion (i.e. an online survey) about our weekly team meetings and whether they are useful/effective/etc., and it seems that every year, instead of improving the meetings, they just get worse. This year, they decided that because people were reading the agendas beforehand and choosing not to come to the meeting because, based on the agenda, they knew there wasn’t any reason for them to show up, management wasn’t going to send agendas out ahead of the meeting anymore at all. And because people complained about the meetings being used mostly to make announcements, management decided to make them more interactive by having random presentations on topics like e-mail etiquette or doing ice breaker activities. You should see the number of people playing games on their phones during these meetings (work laptops are not allowed.)

    Ultimately, they think having time for socialization is a good reason for wasting an hour of everyone’s time every week (“chit chat” was actually on a list of reasons FOR having the meeting), and it drives me absolutely nuts. It’s such an ineffective use of our time. I’d really rather they only held the meetings on days we had important things to discuss, and schedule social activities for after-hours.

        1. Allie

          I worked with a small team who loved to chit chat during weekly staff meetings. I used to dread the meetings and felt like my skin was burning off of my body with every new weekend debauchery or baby cutesy story. I ended up approaching our director about it and it was an item of discussion at our yearly retreat (led by a consultant). Apparently, the rest of the staff was of some learning/working style that really valued the chit chat and I was the other kind of ‘style’ that was more get ‘er done oriented. So, the comprise was that the first five minutes of staff meeting would be for chit chat and each of us would take turns making sure that the rest of the meeting was on task. Also, I was given permission to skip the first five minutes of the meeting if I wanted. I never ended up doing that because with a structure in place, I didn’t mind the chit chat as much.

          All of this is to say, maybe you could talk to your manager about it?

    1. jt

      With things that bad, there’s a deeper problem – that the managers are focused on the wrong objectives. Is the goal to have a big turnout at meetings, or to achieve something through those meetings? And even if a big turnout is a goal, approach it by making the meetings worthwhile to the staff’s needs, and thus the organization’s needs.

      “Staff togetherness” can be a legitimate goal of some meetings – but they have to be useful. A very good training or workshop can be a great opportunity to build a sense of team by having everyone learning together. But building togetherness by sitting around wasting time is a recipe for poor morale, to say nothing of wasted time/money.

      1. Katie

        Staff togetherness is the goal. The problem is, it’s a large team with a lot of disparate groups/roles. It’s hard to find a topic of discussion that really applies to everyone, especially once a week, or even a training or workshop that would be relevant to everyone. Even when they do useful presentations, they still aren’t useful or relevant to half the people in the room. We do have some similar goals across groups, but I feel like those aren’t being addressed or served at all and don’t really need to be addressed on a weekly (or even a bimonthly) basis.

        It really is just being used as social hour, which is, as you accurately diagnosed, causing morale issues.

        1. Long Time Admin

          Oh, Lord, “staff togetherness”??? I worked one year at Walm*** home office, and every meeting larger than one department required that everyone do the WALM*** cheer. You know, “give me a W” and everyone yells “W”, all the way through to “Whose Walm*** is it”, “MY WALM***”, cheers, applause, vomiting (that would be me).

          You want staff togetherness, give us decent wages, proper management, and flex time!

      2. anoninOak

        Yeah, this goes to what I think is the Number One Rule of Meetings:

        Only have a meeting when there is a specific decision that has to be made.

        If there isn’t a specific decision, you don’t need to have a meeting. There are a million other ways to create ‘staff togetherness’ or community, or let different departments know what is going on in other departments.

        But, I know that different organizations are structured in such a way that more regular meetings make sense. So,this is just my personal Number One Rule, it might not make sense to everyone.

  12. jt

    We’re trying something at my organization for togetherness that seems to be going well and is a little more productive. We’re calling it “skill shares” or “teach-ins.” Some are optional 90-minute workshops over lunch where one staffmember teaches something they know a lot about and might be of interest. HR provides pizza as an incentive. Another was during a staff retreat, where attendance was required. These were also 90-minutes, but we offered two or three choices in each time slot.

    Topics included business writing, storytelling, mind-mapping, budgeting, using specific software, etc, plus a couple that were just presentations from specific departments.

    These didn’t get the whole staff together at once, but got large, cross-office/cross-department slices together and seemed good for morale. People learned things and the “teachers” get to hone their skills in presenting.

  13. Christine

    “God, I want to post these rules on the wall in every conference room in the world.”

    Here, here! One of my biggest pet peeves is when one person dominates the weekly meetings with what seemed like 10 job-related issues that could’ve been easily been addressed one-on-one with the manager. This type of thing usually happened during the “let’s go around the table…anyone have anything?” portion.

    In fact, I think these suggestions should apply to all types of meetings, not just those that occur in the workplace. I used to belong to a couple of groups related to my interests, and there were so many times I’d be like, “Whyyyy am I here? On a Saturday morning no less??”

  14. Kelly O

    I’m considering leaving a copy of this on a couple of printers around the office.

    This morning there was a regular weekly meeting. A certain group winds up being in the conference room an hour every Tuesday. This morning they were in there until nearly 1:00. This one got called in, then this one got called in, then they felt the need to discuss something completely separate.

    And the powers that be will wonder why things don’t get done.

  15. Anonymous

    It’s an oldie but a goodie… The book “Making Meetings Work” by John Tropman has helped me to set new standards for meetings in the workplace and become a “meeting maestro”!

  16. Anonymous

    Turn the meeting over to the Type AA IT folks to run and it won’t go any longer than 15 minutes. Action plan will be on the whiteboard, photographed and emailed out at the end. That’s how we roll, anyway.

  17. Anonymous

    I never thought I’d say this, but I really like the weekly team meetings at my new company, because they manage to get things done very quickly (usually within 15-20 minutes). This amazes me, because in my experience, team meetings take at least two hours and a gallon of coffee afterwards in order to wake up.

    There is a fixed agenda that stays the same, anyone wanting to talk about stuff besides that needs to sign the topic up beforehand. There is always one person in charge of running the meeting. So far, I’ve not seen a single person bring a laptop or fiddle with their mobile phone.

    Most importantly, the room only has chairs for half the participants, so at least half of the participants are insistant on getting this done quickly…

    1. Joe

      This sounds like the increasingly popular practice of “stand-up meetings”. It started (or maybe just gained popularity) through the Agile development methodology, but has been gaining traction in other areas as well. The idea is that you can have a valuable around-the-room daily or weekly status meeting, but it should be short and to the point. Everyone stands for the entire meeting, the meeting is timeboxed (generally to 15 minutes, sometimes less, depending on your team size), and the idea is for each person to quickly say “this is what I did yesterday”, “these are things I need to discuss with the team”, and “this is what I’m expecting to do today”. We start every day with a stand-up on my team, and it’s a great way to keep abreast of what’s going on on different parts of the team, and to catch possible dependencies or problems before they get too far.

  18. Lisa

    I forget the company, but I read about a manager who held all his meetings standing up – apparently it worked wonders on the people who just wanted to witter on…

  19. lindsay

    I took a seminar on running effective meetings and it was one of the best professional development tools for me, especially at the beginning of my career. If you get a reputation as an effective meeting manager, it lasts and people take your meetings seriously. The seminar hit a lot of these same things, so I suggest printing a copy and keeping it at your desk, especially if you frequently run meetings.

    Meetings will last for as long as you set them for – if you set an hour meeting, it will take an hour to finish. If you have the same things to discuss but set a 30 minute meeting, it’ll take 30 minutes. People fit the task to the time frame (with exceptions, of course).

    I just started a new position a month ago and have one of those terrible weekly check-in meetings. Out of 4 other people in the meeting, 3 have come up to me to say, “Yeah, this meeting exists solely for the purpose of the manager to talk at us.” One even said she tried to make it more lively, but gave up and started mentally checking out like the rest of them. It drives me crazy – starts late, rambles, rarely finishes the whole agenda, little participation… it’s basically a department check-in with rambling.

  20. Cassie

    Thankfully we’ve stopped having staff meetings. They weren’t frequent – maybe once every six months (or was it a year) but they were absolutely pointless. The dept manager would send out an agenda with 2-4 items. And frequently, when we got to the meeting, she would start off with “… well, I don’t really have anything to discuss.” Even though she sent out an agenda already!

    Here was the agenda for our most recent meeting (about a year ago): 1. new staff intro; 2. Punctuality (work hours); 3. call-in sick/vacation; 4. dept policies. The meeting was cancelled, though, because the manager realized that nobody pays attention anyway.

    Only a couple of people would actually talk (the manager, and one or two supervisors), while everyone else sat there – exchanging looks with each other, fiddling with their phones, passing notes to each other. None of the info discussed had to be done in person – all could be done in email – or discussed one-on-one with the staff member in question (when the issue was something like not following protocol or something).

    My boss holds monthly meetings and he comes up with a tight schedule, and moves from one topic to another quickly. Although sometimes I think he is so intent on ending on time that he rushes through some topics. And it seems like we just have to schedule more meetings for the other issues. Although at least those other meetings are with smaller task groups so everyone doesn’t have to sit through them.

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  22. Joe

    Alison,

    One more rule that I think is missing from your list, and which I’ve found extremely valuable: when you are through your agenda, and/or have completed the stated meeting objectives, the meeting is over. People are not allowed to say, “Oh, as long as we’re all here and have 15 minutes left, let’s talk about XYZ…” Enforcing this can be hard, but it saves a lot of people a lot of time (since XYZ is rarely relevant to everyone there, and it almost always ends up going over the remaining time, making everyone get out of the meeting late instead of early).

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