I’ve got history with meetings.

All my professional life (20 years), I’ve been involved in running meetings. I’ve planned and run meetings for parliamentary committees, Law Lords, boards, charity trustees, executives, non-executives, a former Cabinet Secretary, even the Archbishop of Cantebury (who, I learnt, goes by the amazing acronym ‘ABC’)…

I’ve organised meetings that have decided stuff, meetings that people have enjoyed and talked about months afterwards, and meetings that sucked.

Some people love to talk about meetings (I’ve even seen a Slack channel dedicated to the topic) — what makes a good meeting, how to run meetings, and so on. I’m not one of them.

Lots of people like to complain about meetings. I’m not one of them either.

And yet, here I am writing about meetings. (I can’t really believe it.) Why?

Well, you might have noticed there’s a global pandemic, and — in amongst all the craziness — one impact has been lots of people feeling stressed and lots of people working from home and having many more (virtual) meetigs than they ever used to.

At work, I’m part of a Wellness working group that’s been looking at what we can do to reduce work-related stress for people in the bit of the company I work in, and we saw feedback about meetings and heard suggestions about introducing meeting guidance. We debated whether in tackling meetings we would be treating the symptom, rather than the cause, and it was not clear what central guidance would achieve, whether it would help, or whether we were better to let our (autonomous) teams decide what to do. So far, we haven’t issue any guidance. But I have been asked for it since, and so— as it’s a topic that people often raise, and as I’d already got my thoughts together on the subject and written them out in order to test them and get feedback— I thought I’d make them available. It’s been a quick and easy thing to write. Apart from this opening 350-word stream of consciousness introduction, it’s pretty much a copy and paste job. I’ve seen far too many things locked up or lost in powerpoints, documents, or emails, so here’s what I got. Make things open, it makes them better.

  • Ask yourself: do we need a meeting?
  • Be clear on the purpose of the meeting: eg are you trying to align on something or create something? Are you sharing information or wanting to resolve an issue/disagreement? Is it purely focused on work/business, or is there a social purpose?
  • Plan the agenda to match that purpose, including the intended outcome of the meeting overall (which is linked to your mtg purpose) or — for longer mtgs — of each agenda item
  • How long do you need to achieve that purpose?
  • Some folk struggle with back-to-back meetings. How about starting your meeting at .05 or .35, to ensure people have at least some break? (This was a tip I got from James Cattell. With the same objective in mind, I was setting meetings to finish at .25 or .55, but they often over-ran and the planned break between meetings never happened — much better to change your start time.)
  • If you’re setting up a recurring meeting, always have a date when the series ends so that you review whether the meeting is still required
  • Decide what you think will constitute good practices/behaviours for this meeting (eg cameras on? what can you do to make the meeting inclusive?)
  • Sort out meeting roles — who’s going to do what to make this meeting a success?
  • Make sure you’ve got someone to chair the meeting, to be a ‘referee’: their job “is to shape the meeting to meet the requirements of the agenda and the expectations of the participants”
  • Designate someone to take notes in the meeting
  • Get the right people involved (the people in the room are more important than any process)
  • Right size the number of people to the purpose of the meeting
  • Include only those people who have got a clear role (listening and receiving information can be an important role)
  • Start on time
  • Remind people of the practices/behaviours you’re expecting for the meeting and follow them yourself (eg be present, encourage everyone to participate, eg https://blog.usejournal.com/meeting-agreements-for-high-performing-teams-b10311a630d0)
  • Start by reviewing open items from the prior one of these meetings (if they’re still relevant)
  • Close the meeting by repeating the decisions, the issues that remain open/actions to be done, and the owners of those issues/actions
  • Finish on time. Or early.
  • Send the notes from the meeting to the broadest possible set of appropriate people, after removing confidential or sensitive topics.
  • Talk to people and find out what they think worked/didn’t work — this is partly about building relationships and valuing people over processes, and partly about ‘reflecting on how to become more effective, and then tuning and adjusting accordingly’

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list or anything. You could do all of the above and still have a rubbish meeting. And you can do none of the above and have a fantastic meeting. Because people.

Probably the best thing you can do is enjoy watching John Cleese’s video on meetings (HT Paul Richardson). Here’s a trailer:

Or enjoy listening to David Mitchell’s funny radio series on meetings (3x 28-minute episodes)

And remember: if you receive an invite for a meeting and it’s not clear what the meeting is for, or why you’ve been invited to it, you don’t have to just accept it — you can ask for the missing info. This is David Grady’s advice in his TED talk:

The guidance above is distlled from/inspired by (stolen from?):

Here are some templates for different types of meeting:

And (thanks to Ian Ames), here’s a canvas (there’s always a canvas…) that you can use as an aid to structure a meeting, especially when remote:

At one time or another, I’ve also found these articles helpful:

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.