9 questions that will get your meetings working harder for you

The currency of business isn’t money – it’s meetings. Meetings are where we collaborate and communicate; where the discussions and disagreements that are necessary for progress happen; where (in theory at least) decisions get made. Meetings are the primary conduit for conversation in a business. And in a fundamental sense all organisations are nothing more than one ongoing, complex conversation between multiple people.

Yet most of us feel that the meetings we attend are the polar opposite of useful. According to Atlassian:

  • 47% of employees think that meetings are the number one timewaster in business
  • 45% feel overwhelmed by the number of meetings they attend
  • 91% admit to daydreaming during meetings
  • 73% said they do other work during meetings
  • And an incredible 39% of people say they sleep (!) during meetings.

Consider all the businesses around the world – and the aggregate human and capital costs of these statistics. Then consider the potential cost to your own business, in terms of lost productivity, wasted salaries and compromised morale.

So, how do you diagnose meeting malaise – and cure it? Here are nine questions that will determine if you have problems in this area, with some simple suggestions to make your get-togethers more happy, human, and high-performing.


1. Are we good at agenda design?

The well-designed agenda is a rare and beautiful thing. It brings clarity and focus. But far too many meetings happen without one – which can create the meta-horror of people debating the purpose of a meeting during the actual meeting itself.

Poor agenda design is also rife in business. A bullet-point list of topics is often a conduit to nowhere, for the reason that they lack context. Decision points and criteria are rarely clear in advance. And what good actually looks like is often notable by its absence.

Solution: ensure your agenda sets out all of the following – with nothing left out:

  • Meeting objectives
  • Success factors
  • Meeting mode(s) (see point 3, below)
  • Discussion flow (including time to be allowed for each element)
  • Decision points and criteria
  • Decision-making processes/protocol(s)

2. Before we push over the tree, have we chopped down the roots?

The old saying that there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going is as true of organisational process as it is of anything else in life. Any meeting worth having will likely contain unanticipated twists and turns. This points to another inconvenient truth: you can be efficient with everything but people, who are prone to be full of surprising challenges and objections. A failure to anticipate this – and a desire to keep the conversational wheels turning at all costs when challenges arise – is a major source of inefficiency in meetings all over the world.

Solution: The Japanese management concept of nemawashi refers to “an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” The concept has its roots in the idea that the last thing you want, when trying to push over a tree, is to have it embarrass you by not falling over. Chopping down the metaphorical roots in advance is the way to do this.

On a related note, a pre-mortem is never wasted. Taking ten minutes in advance to think about how the meeting might play out is also a valuable investment, and helps to sharpen agenda planning.

Finally, if all else fails, call time on the meeting. A period of reflection on objections can create significant efficiencies later on.

3. Do we understand which meeting mode we should be in?

Jay-Z once said that there are only 10 rap songs – and a similar principle might be said to apply to meetings. There are many different modes, depending on the overall intention of the meeting in question. A budgeting discussion needs a different approach to a go/no-go decision-making forum. What makes for a good buying meeting doesn’t apply in a sales presentation. A creative review requires different behaviors to a creative brainstorm.

The problem most organisations face is that in effect they plan for only one mode: The Meeting, an ill-defined blob of conversational ennui where no-one is clear about how they are required to behave. This is a huge productivity killer.

Solution: Consider how you might segment your meetings. What are the most common types? What happens in them? What are their success criteria? What kind of involvement does each type demand from its participants? Communicate this across your organisation, and feed it into agenda planning.

4. How is our energy flowing?

Meetings have energetic characteristics. They can be positive or negative; creative or destructive; fluid or static; vital or deadening; collaborative or antagonistic; caring or devil-may-care; didactic or democratic. The important point is that this energy is not just pegged to meeting mode (see above) but to the dynamics of the team in question. As Scientific American asserts, all human beings read and respond to the energetic frequencies emitted by others.

Yet most businesses prefer to ignore energetic considerations on the basis that they are not ‘business-like’. In so doing they work against their people, and the natural ways in which their individual and collective energy ebbs and flows.

Solution: evaluate your energy as a group, during your meetings, in real-time. Discuss it. Debate how you can change it where necessary. And watch how your people are liberated by the honesty of this process.

5. Are we tolerating passengers?

If your meeting is intentionally discursive, but someone hasn’t made a meaningful contribution within the first fifteen minutes, it is reasonable to suggest that they might they be more productive somewhere else.

A related thought experiment: do you find that, in general, the productivity of a meeting is inversely proportionate to the number of attendees?

Solution: interrogate the domains in which different individuals add the greatest value, and structure your meetings and attendee lists accordingly. Or – if a one-size-fits-all-approach appeals – apply the fifteen-minute rule, and ditch the dead weight.

6. Are we working with our people’s natural rhythms?

People are not neurologically programmed for marathon discussions – they lose attention and productivity. In reality, around 10-20 minutes is the limit of the human concentration span.

Yet most meeting planning ignores this, preferring instead to pit people against the clock in a counterproductive and soul-sapping endurance test. (This is another example of working against rather than with human energy, but it is so common that it merits a special mention.)

The irony of this behaviour is that the pressure to remain productive over a long period is actually proven to undermine productivity.

Solution: Rather than holding, say, a 2-hour meeting to discuss 8 items, consider treating the meeting as 8 micro-meetings that last 12 minutes each, with short breaks in between.

7. Is this argument a performance?

Arguments can be constructive. But when they’re more style than substance, little of value is getting done. It is usually obvious when trenchant arguments about specific issues are, in reality, proxies for larger ones, such as “who is really running the show around here?” and “who is the cleverest amongst us?” (Clue: look for escalating commitment around objectively trivial issues.) Ultimately, this sort of showboating is a waste of everyone’s time – performance is for the stage, not the Boardroom.

Solution: time-limit such disagreements or banish antagonists from the meeting. Then hire a coach.

8. Are our individual contributions to the group comfortable or familiar?

Over time, people tend to default to the same roles when holding meetings with the same people. There’s the curmudgeon, the clown, the matriarch, and so on. Slipping into those roles is often counterproductive: it stifles fresh thinking and masks the discussion of difficult problems. “I’m Mr Trenchant Objection” is all well and good, but the problem with role familiarity is that it tends to blunt the points that people are making – you included.

Solution: actively invite people to make a contribution to the meeting that sits outside their typical behavioural mode. What serious points can you ask your clown to make? What would happen if your curmudgeon was asked to present the best case scenario? This might be uncomfortable but it might also act as a welcome surprise.

9. Are we reviewing our meetings to create an upwards spiral of continuous learning?

“Products don’t get launched here, they escape,” said a client of ours once. The same feels true of many meetings, which tend to shuffle to an end rather than close – in the definitive sense of an agenda having been fulfilled, and lessons having been captured for future use.

If you’re not using your meetings as a forum to explore how you should be running your meetings, you are missing one of the principal learning opportunities in your organisation.

Solution: take five minutes at the end of every meeting to review what went well, what didn’t – and why. Capture these notes on a wiki or Google Doc entitled “what we’re learning about how to run meetings”. Make this document available to everyone in the organisation, and incentivise contributions to its ongoing development.

Originally published on Forbes.com