Running better meetings

The meeting paradox
Most meetings are unnecessary, badly run, involve the wrong people, the wrong things, are dominated by loud people, or are just boring.

But the interesting thing is that some of our most creative and productive work comes when we collaborate closely with others.

Meetings absorb more time and drain morale more than almost anything else at work. Meetings are helpful for all sorts of basic human reasons, but a meeting is useful only if everyone present can see that it achieved something which they could not have arrived at individually.

Now that we share our calendars on Teams, an empty diary slot attracts unsolicited meetings like picnics attract wasps.

Why we should have fewer meetings
Many important things are achieved by a single person consulting no-one.
Many important things are dealt with by simple conversation, resolved by a memo, concluded by a phone call.
Ten minutes spent with five people separately is more effective than an hour meeting with them all together.

Imagine introducing the time-saving rule that every committee had a limited time frame of one year, and that it must discuss its own dissolution annually, and put the case of why it deserves to continue for another twelve months. 

Recognise these meetings:
“We spent an hour listening to one person reading information & showing slides that could have been emailed.”
“There was only the vaguest agenda so we had no opportunity to plan.”
“The chair did 70% of the talking.”
“We met for two hours, talked in circles, and made no decisions

If you want to put a value on effective meetings, think cost:
Direct costs are the salary costs of attendees, the prep time for meetings, plus travel expenses.
Consequent costs means what more useful work could be done instead of the lost productivity of being sat in that meeting.

So, imagine the direct and consequent costs of inviting your team to join you for an hour, then ask yourself if what you plan to do is going to be worth that time and cost

Two questions to ask before every meeting:
Why do we need this meeting? 
What would be the likely consequences of not holding it?

There are three key things to get right with organising meetings:

Purpose –  What needs discussing, what decisions need making, how will they be actioned, and by whom?
State the purpose of the meeting & intended outcome clearly on the agenda. Decide how much time you will spend on each item and stick to it. Prior to a meeting, be clear what decisions (if any) need to be made, and how decision-making works.

Preparation – Your planning prior to and actions after a meeting are as important as the meeting:
Give pre-read material, prepare carefully beforehand. Allow time for people to pre-read. Pre-reading means that in the mtg you say less than others. Take the presentation of information out of the meeting. Decide if the agenda item for information, discussion, or decision? Let colleagues be clear how your meeting will run – they then feel fully empowered in the contribution they make, and frustration evaporates.

So instead of: “the meeting lasted an hour – we spent 55 minutes listening to one person present, then five minutes coming to a rushed decision…”
We experience a much more successful: we spent five minutes reading the email, ten minutes pre-reading papers, we all did some preparatory thinking, so that the whole meeting was devoted to everybody openly discussing the one important thing, before coming to a team decision. No time was wasted.”

Length Put timings against each item on the agenda, and stick to them – respect everybody’s contribution
Finish on time. This shows respect to your colleagues, removes anxiety for everyone (especially parents collecting young children). People hate boring, unnecessary, slow meetings that do not finish when you said they would.

My key learning from running lots of meetings: It’s not about you. Talk less than others. My best meetings are when I say very little.

How many people do you need?
Study the agenda to see who really has to be present for every item.
Or maybe you actually need two separate, smaller meetings, rather than one big one.
Or maybe like a rugby international: some first half, some second half?

Know who’s in front of you (it will help you plan a better agenda)
Do they work together on the same project? (teachers in the same department)
Do they work on different but parallel tasks? (Heads of Departments or headteachers with different contexts)
Is this a mixed group? (Different roles but united by a common project – such as a group of governors, teachers, parents working together to improve reading)

What’s a good/bad agenda?
A bad agenda is too vague. For example, agenda item: “reduce workload,” is pretty meaningless, whereas “take feedback from our ECTs on report-writing, lesson planning and marking, and make a decision on which specific tasks we need to cut staff turnover” signposts the real issue and tells me what we are really discussing. It helps attendees to begin to think about the issue before they arrive – so they can make a real contribution. A good agenda is simple, but not too simple. The best ones clarify and speed the meeting along, keep it focused.

Start with the end in mind
So I might start by thinking:
“By the end of the meeting, I want the group to work collaboratively; to understand how our values relate to the issues; to make a decision on X; consider issue Y and identified what further research is needed outside the meeting; and decide on the parameters on Z for next month’s meeting.”
So, now that you have the end result clearly defined, you can plan the contents of the meeting, decide what information needs to be sent out for pre-reading, and determine who needs to be present.

Agenda order?
When there’s a juicy item, maybe hold it back and get some basics achieved first. This helps raise the tempo when the inevitable ‘this meeting is now becoming boring’ attention-lag kicks in.

Finish with consensus
Some topics will divide the meeting, but others unite. Perhaps kick off with an item which creates togetherness, and then try one which will be more contentious. They key thing is that you are ready to manage any emotions. End on a point of unity.

Plan what could go wrong
Think through each agenda and find the most likely critical points at which this meeting might go wrong. Then plan that moment really carefully, and know how you will bring it back on the rails.

Making decisions
Do you want to make a clear decision or just a firm recommendation to another group/body? Or is this meeting an opportunity to discuss an issue in depth and then go away with and think more? Is the idea to agree on a plan of action? If not, or if you cannot create a resolution, one option is to refer this to a smaller working party beyond the meeting who will provide more detail, additional research and then report back with recommendations.

So be clear about the decision process? Is it:
General consensus? (the ‘feeling’ of the meeting)
Majority vote? (we all literally put up our hands)
Decision left to the chair? (when everyone has been heard)

Likely action for the agenda
So it helps to put one of three headings to each line on the agenda. Either:
for information
for discussion
for decision

These tell everyone what will happen before you begin the discussion. It’s as simple as that.

The two-step discussion/decision model
Step 1: Identify and discuss different options – don’t reject any suggestions but praise any interesting or promising elements from them. Build up a list of decent possibilities.
Step 2: Once you have a list of options, select the most workable one/s.

Know what kind of chair you are? Do you:
Try to impose your will too much? (overtly or in more subtle ways)
Strive for a good collegiate feel? (you enjoy to see collective activity of the group)
Struggle to be decisive? (maybe allowing the people dynamics to get in your way from making a clear decision)

The chair’s job can be split into dealing with the subject, and dealing with the people:

Dealing with the subject (skills of chairs to get more and better ideas):
Generate lots of ideas
Encourage rich debate
Encourage the collision of ideas (not the clash of personalities)
Guide thought-provoking discussion
Challenge faulty assumptions
Probe new concepts
Paraphrase a badly-worded contribution (to help make the idea sound better)
Summarise the overall the overall drift of an argument

Dealing with the people (skills of chairs which bring the best out in people)
Establish your meeting etiquette (where we sit, timekeeping, use of laptops, mobile phones, whether you can ask questions/interrupt while someone is presenting ideas)
Rein in the talkative (and kill ‘suggestion-squashing’)
Draw out the silent & the inexperienced
Start with the most junior members (you’ll get a broader range of views)
Come to the most senior people last (once someone with authority has spoken, others feel inhibited).
Clarify a badly-worded contribution (to help make the person feel better – they’ll know if they messed it up and will be grateful for your generosity)
Close on a note of achievement
Smile (even if you’re nervous)

Helpful body language of the chair
While the best chairs appear to serve the group like a good referee – apparently in the background and often silent – they are in fact fully in control. Here are some non-verbal ways to communicate how you want the meeting to run:

I want to hear more contributions of this complex issue – you lean back, use relaxed, expansive gestures, smile, holding your hands out encourages more depth of discussion, and suggests that there is plenty of time for the speaker to develop their point.
It’s time to move on – lean forward, close your body posture, fix your eyes on the speaker & nod to show your have heard their point, and cut that short with a clear ‘thank you.’

Set a ‘social’ leader and a ‘task’ leader
Research suggest that the meetings where the most effective discussions take place actually have two leaders. One is the “team,” or “social,” leader; the other is the  “task,” or “project,” leader. Usually the chair is the social leader, whereas the task leader is leading the main item. 

The task leader leads the argument and then the chair invites other comments on this argument, encouraging dissent and disagreement. The chair may involve themselves in the discussion and may change their view through listening to colleagues. Then, the chair summarises the arguments, and comes back to how the decision will be made, before the meeting makes a decision.

Avoid the two classic chair faults
Trying to close down a healthy discussion too early. If the chair fails to allow all sides of the argument to be aired, this can lead to a sense that only the views the chair wanted heard were actually heard, and the final decision will not be owned by the whole group, and perhaps not trusted.

Allowing the discussion to run on too long. Sometimes the meeting reaches an understanding or agreement quite quickly and naturally, and weak chairing can miss their chance to capture this moment, allowing the debate to run on endlessly getting into knots.

DO close down the discussion, when
More information is necessary to make a good decision
The views of people not present are necessary for a good decision
People need more time to think
There is not enough time to do justice to an important issue

DO NOT postpone a decision just because
The decision is difficult to arrive at
The decision will be unpopular

After each agenda item, summarising what has been agreed is helpful because:
It communicates to everyone what we agreed
It galvanises, shows we mean business and are moving the team forwards
It reminds everyone that something useful and worthwhile has been achieved (to counteract the frequent criticism of meetings, “we talked and talked and made no decisions”)

Don’t forget to communicate the calendar of meetings
Plan the meeting schedule on the calendar so that you are showing professional respect. The themes and broad agendas of meetings should match your development plan.

Finally, then, should we still be running meetings?
Probably not so many, no. But we are a social animal and gatherings fulfil a deeply human need. Beyond work we collect in choirs, sports teams, book-clubs and all sorts of weird societies. Covid raised the question that if there are no meetings in the building where work is located, will we inevitably lose a sense of belonging and attachment to our organisation? This may be true, but only if we improve some of the above for the people we care about.

2 thoughts on “Running better meetings

  1. Excellent food for thought Ian, I really like your point about preparing (maybe even with a pre-meeting) for difficult issues.
    Also consider the use of short, regular, set agenda “stand up” meetings with a white board or similar.


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