How much of your day at work do you spend in meetings? Is that time well spent?
There are a lot of articles out there now bashing meetings: How Elon Musk has eliminated meetings. How Jeff Bezos has cut back on meetings. Things like that. It’s become very chic to promote the idea that meetings waste our time and prevent us from getting real work done.
And that can be true, when meetings are ineffective.
I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes a meeting effective. I’ve probably spent close to 50,000 hours in meetings – which is far higher than the 10,000 hours that you must practice something to become good at it. And people tell me that I am good at leading meetings which is rewarding to me, because I spend a lot of time thinking about how to have effective meetings.
I’m going to share my secrets with you now. It all boils down to three things:
1. State the meeting’s objective.
A meeting objective is different than an agenda or a topic. An objective is what you want to achieve at the end of the meeting. It’s specific, motivating, and bounded.
Let’s say you’re doing a weekly project meeting. The topic might be “project update.” Well, that’s boring – you could just send an email for a project update, no meeting necessary. But if your meeting objective is to remove obstacles that are roadblocking the project and set priorities for this week’s work, that’s more engaging.
State the meeting objective in your meeting invite. When you start the meeting, say, “Ok, this meeting’s objective is to remove obstacles to the project and plan next steps.” Add it to the first slide of your PowerPoint and to your agenda. Write it on the whiteboard. That bounds the meeting.
Use the objective to keep the meeting on topic: When someone introduces a distraction, stop them with, “That’s an important thought. I want to make sure that we remember it so that we can discuss it after we [insert meeting objective], can you write it on a post-it and put it in the parking lot?” (A parking lot is a flip chart where you “park” questions and ideas for review later, keeping you focused on your objective.)
2. Invite the right people.
Meetings often veer off course because the wrong people are in the room. How do you figure out who to invite? Yep, you got it: the meeting objective.
There are three kinds of roles that people play: strategist, tactician, and executor. Strategists are big picture people – they designate the target. Tacticians plan how to hit that target: you’ll need a bow, which arrow to use, where to stand. Executors actually do the work: they hold the bow and aim it, pull back the string. All three are important: a strategist without an executor is just a dreamer; a tactician without a strategist just creates busy work; without an executor, nothing actually gets done.
I was at a late-day problem-solving meeting – very tactical and execution-oriented – but the strategists had asked to come. Luckily they were late, and we solved world peace while they were out of the room. When they arrived, we summarized for them and they approved the action (perfect role for strategists). A meeting planned for an hour was going to end in 30 minutes!
Then an executor asked a question about the work. And the strategists started strategizing: new target — intergalactic peace! The executor started thinking about all the work involved, the strategists kept pointing at the target. I let them go a little since we had finished early but when it became clear they weren’t getting anywhere, I stopped them with, “This is an important discussion and it’s the end of a long day. Would it make sense to schedule dedicated time earlier in the day so you can discuss it when you’re fresh?” And they agreed.
When you need to have a meeting that includes all three roles, clearly delineate the different parts of the meeting. For example, at a project kick-off, start with the strategic – why are we doing this project, how does it benefit the company – then move to the tactical (the project plan) – then finally talk about execution (working process). Delineating the parts allows you to defer distractions: “That’s an important question. Let’s parking lot it, so we remember to discuss it when we review the plan in a few minutes.” (And it also lets the strategists sneak out of the room before the detail work begins.)
3. Take effective notes.
I observed a meeting the other day that was a continuation of an earlier meeting that I had not attended. The discussion got sidetracked because everyone remembered the tactical decisions from that earlier meeting in a different way. So they had to have the discussion all over again. The strategist in the room got impatient and said, “Look there’s the target, just hit it.” The punchline is they had another whole meeting with these decisions – and still didn’t take notes.
Here’s a trick: bring your laptop and type the notes right into your agenda.
My notes include:
- Attendees (and invitees who didn’t show up)
- The meeting objective
- Main points about each topic discussed – new information, decisions, risks. Capture just enough that non-attendees can follow what happened.
- Parking Lot items that didn’t get addressed.
- Action Items, who owns them, when they’re due.
I usually set a timer and leave five minutes at the end to read the action items aloud.
Then I save the notes in a shared folder or a Teams wiki — and post a message with that location, reminding attendees to check their action items and to send me corrections.
If you can take notes during the meeting (and that stupid left arrow key on your laptop isn’t sticking), it will take you five minutes to send out the notes after the meeting.
In a nutshell, those are the basics of leading meetings.
Start with these and you’ll put new meaning to, “Oh great! Another meeting!”