How to Make Meetings Productive, Or, at Least “Less Terrible”

By Tania Cervoni

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It’s Monday morning. You sit down to your desk and open your outlook calendar only to be reminded that you’re scheduled in back to back meetings for most of the day.

On a scale of one to ten, where one is very unproductive and ten is highly productive, how you will feel at the end of this day?  What if your calendar was mainly open except for a 20-minute check-in meeting at 930. Which one would feel more productive? 

Based on what we know about perception of meeting effectiveness, there is an excellent chance that the day full of meetings will not be your more productive day. In fact, according to research cited in the Freakonomics’ podcast episode How to Make Meetings Less Terrible, “too many meetings” is the number one-time waster identified by employees. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from scheduling them. Many of us have resigned ourselves to thinking that poor meetings are the “cost of doing business.” The podcast goes on to share some fascinating insights about meetings and we've summarized the 5 key learnings to help you make meetings “less terrible”. 

Now, the podcast authors do not assert that all meetings are terrible. As social beings, meetings can serve an important social-psychological purpose even when they may not always be the best vehicle for producing results. That said, there are a number of things we could be doing differently to take full advantage of the amount of time we spend in meetings – be it face-to-face, or in the current environment, virtually.

  1. Be strategic with meeting length. You’ve likely heard of Parkinson’s law. It asserts that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Anyone who has booked a meeting – especially a 1-hour meeting (or longer) has experienced this principle in action. One hour has become the default length of time for a meeting, regardless of whether that much time is required. Instead of falling into this habitual trap, be bold and break the 1-hour habit – book just enough time to accomplish your objective while creating some time pressure in the process to enhance focus. Dare to start your meeting at 1:12, for example, and end at 1:50. You set the time and structure the agenda accordingly.
  2. Know and articulate the purpose of the meeting. I know, it sounds too basic right? Well, the experts assert that even though most of us know that meetings should have a purpose, few of us practice this. For example, how many of us lead or participate in weekly team meetings? ‘Team meeting’ is not a purpose – it’s a category of meeting. So is ‘sales meeting’ and ‘staff meeting’ – you get the gist. To drill down on your purpose, ask yourself precisely what you want to achieve in that meeting. What will be different as a result of holding the meeting? And, take it one step further: what would happen if you didn’t have that meeting? Consider: are there other mechanisms to get to the same end result? There are a lot of issues that can be dealt with via email, for example, that don’t require you to assemble people in a room.
  3. Reframe your agenda. Often, we list agenda items as topics to discuss. Instead, reframe those topic statements as questions to be answered or problems to be solved. By reframing agenda items as questions, you can better identify the individuals that need to be part of the meeting because their roles are directly related to what you’re attempting to solve.
  4. Don’t mistake dysfunction for inclusion. In an attempt to be inclusive, our meeting sizes are getting larger and larger – to the point of dysfunction. The intention of wanting to be inclusive – to give people a voice – is a good one, but it can backfire as the increased size simply exacerbates the challenges already inherent in getting things done in meetings. The solution? Distinguish your core meeting audience from your secondary audience. The core folks are the ones that really need to be there for you to achieve your meeting objectives. The secondary folks are people who you want to inform or whose opinions should be heard but that can be included in ways other than meeting participation. For example, let your secondary people know about the meeting, provide details about the agenda and commit to sharing meeting minutes. Then give them the option to weigh into the conversation and/or attend future meetings if they want to contribute. Most people will be very grateful that you gave them the gift of time while still providing a mechanism for them to share their thoughts.
  5. Find ways to elicit authentic conversations. Podcast guest and group-conflict-facilitator, Priya Parker, uses a ‘rose and thorn’ exercise to kick off meetings. People can share the best part of their week (the rose) or the worst (the thorn). She noticed that over time, this exercise transformed her meetings because people started to share deep, authentic comments that broke what she describes as the ‘cult of positivity’. By allowing people to talk about what’s not working in their own lives, they are more inclined to be honest about what’s not working in their work projects as well. Exercises like this one teach people that you, as the leader, want to hear both sides and that you can handle the bad news. 

Finally, one bonus tip - consider rating the quality of your meetings. Having people rate meetings automatically improves the quality of those meetings. It may take a bit of courage to request that kind of feedback but the pay-off promises to be significant when you stop to consider the amount of time and energy most of us invest in meetings. 

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