On the principles of effective meetings

The internet is awash with tips on how to hold effective meetings. Most of them are pretty okay. Tips are useful if you want to make improvements. But applying tips to a serious problem is as if you’re trying to apply duct tape to a sinking Titanic. It’s not going to fix the problem. There are lots of books on the subject, but most of them are just very long lists of tips. They lack conceptual understanding of the problem and a structured approach to solving it.

At Yabbu, we noticed that all research on optimal meetings was focused on the same three principles, but nobody ever took the time to make these principles explicit and teach them to a wider audience. Applying these principles results in a strong reduction of bad meetings and an overal positive cultural change. It is time to get away from just applying some smart tips. We like to think big, aiming to free humanity from bad meetings, so we see it as our moral duty and a matter of social innovation to spread these principles across the world. So let’s dig in. What are the three principles of effective meetings?

1. A meeting is a process you can improve

When we talk about optimising organisational processes, we rarely talk about meetings. This is strange, since we spend around a quarter of our work time in meetings, on average. For managers, the ones responsible for optimising processes, this number can be up to 75% of their time. Organisations use lean, agile, scrum and time-boxing to increase productivity, yet meetings are largely ignored. Why is that?

We believe that most organisations have forgotten that a meeting is also an operational process. What’s more, they do not seem to understand that it is perhaps one of the most important processes of all. The meeting process determines the heartbeat of an organisation. It’s where you lay the foundation for collaboration. It’s where decisions are made that determine the pace in which an organisation develops. An organisation is as successful as it is able to make and execute good decisions. And this key process has been grossly neglected.

So, the first principle is about acknowledging that a meeting is a process you can and should improve. There are two sides to this principle. On the one hand you need to realise that a meeting is a process that starts with creating the agenda and that finishes with sending around the minutes. Many focus just on the part in the middle, when you actually meet face-to-face, but that is a fundamental mistake.

The other side of this principle is acknowledging that you can actually improve this whole process and that you need to create a structural improvement process. So take your favourite process improvement approach and apply it to the meeting process, from beginning to end. That’s the way to start. And all those fancy tips flying around the internet, please embed them wisely into this process.

2. Only discuss in meetings what truly belongs there

There are several reasons why organisations hold meetings, but the main ones are sharing information, discussion, decision making and building relationships. Now that we have created a structural improvement process with the first principle, it is time to apply the second principle, which is about asking yourself if you really need a meeting and if so, if a certain topic truly belongs there.

Take another look at the four reasons we have for meeting and then think of the times we live in. We live in the information age. Sharing information can be done in a physical meeting, but we have a whole range of tools we can also use to share information. There’s email, chat, collaboration tools and the list of communication tools is growing each day. A large part of our working time is spent in these tools. And we not only use them for sharing information, we also already use them for discussion, decision making and building relationships. The reality is that we have multiple ways to inform, discuss, decide and socialise and having a meeting is only one of them.

The fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is, what goes where? At the moment this is not a question that is often asked. It is largely a matter of habit and organisational culture. There’s stuff we do in these communication tools and stuff we do in meetings. It is time we think about this because a lot of time can be saved and a lot of frustration can be avoided by making the right choice.

We estimate that about 20% of meetings are unnecessary because hardly anything of importance is said. There's ;iterally no essential information being shared. You could have sent an email with the same effect. When looking at the remaining 80% it is worth looking very critical at each agenda item. We believe one should strictly avoid topics that don’t require a physical presence. E.g. sharing information, making basic or trivial decisions, or discussing all kinds of bureaucratic or practical topics. All these topics can be taken care of outside a meeting, by email, chat, while standing around the coffee machine, or of course via a specific decision making tool like Yabbu. One of the benefits of using a communicationtool is that it is instantanious. You don’t have to wait until next Tuesday to discuss and decide on a topic.

A nice example of an unnecessary meeting is the status meeting. It deserves the gold medal in the halls of shame for bad meetings. Status meetings are a true waste of time. They essentially are about sharing information only. What have I done, what am I going to do, whose help do I need. You could also use a structured communication tool and be done with it. In the past, before being involved with Yabbu, I’ve sat through many meetings that consisted for 50% or more of information sharing and I always thought this could have been communicated through email. Or they could have added a document to the agenda and everybody could have read it upfront. We could have used a collaboration tool to start the discussion, leaving only a small part of the discussion and decision making for the actual meeting.

You might reply with, yes, that’s all great and dandy, but people don’t prepare. They don’t read the agenda and the documents that I’m sending them. Which brings me to the third principle.

3. Create ownership in advance

Preparation is everything. We all know that. At the same time many people seem to be okay with going into meetings totally unprepared. That’s weird. But it gets worse. Not only do we step into meetings unprepared, often nobody feels responsible for what is on the agenda. If you have long discussions during the meeting about who will take care of what, you’re probably part of a bad meeting.

To change this you need to create ownership in advance. That’s the third principle and it means you need to shift as many work as possible towards the preparatory phase. It means not only having an agenda but making somebody in the team responsible for each agenda item and making sure the process of information sharing, discussion and decision making gets started as soon as possible. Use a good online tool to support this preparation. You can use email for this, but a more structured communication tool like Yabbu gets you much better and faster results.

The person responsible for an agenda item doesn’t have to be the person with final responsibility. More often than not, this is the person facilitating the process to come to a decision or result. Make sure that person shares relevant subject matter and gives participants the opportunity to give feedback and ask questions in advance. Oftentimes people sit down at the table together and have a long discussion, only to determine that the desired outcome of an agenda item can’t be achieved there and then. What happens then is that the item is postponed to the next meeting. By assigning ownership you prevent this waste of time. Either the goal is achieved, or it is determined in advance that the agenda topic is not ripe for a team discussion yet.

Ownership means you take the meeting process serious and make it an active process from beginning to end. It means actively sharing information, discussing agenda items and making simple decisions before the meeting, leaving only the most important stuff for the actual face-to-face meeting.

So there you have it, the three principles of effective meetings we hold dear at Yabbu. It’s about a process you can improve. It’s about shifting simple agenda items to an online preparation. And it is about creating active ownership in advance. Process, shift, activate! That’s the job ahead. We truly believe these make the difference. Applying these principles at our customers has resulted in a complete transformation of the way teams are working together. We even had a customer that admitted that for the first time ever they really love to have their meetings. It is the fourth reason to meet, building relationships, that has become their main reason to organise meetings. How wonderful is that?

For more practical advise on how to apply these principles, see our blog. There is even more wisdom to be found out there. If you think you need help to transform your organisation and apply these principles, give me a call (+31-6-39783526). We have a wonderful workshop to help you apply these principles.