Even after 20 years, I still vividly remember THAT DAY as if it was yesterday.
It was a rainy, Monday morning and I was about to start one of my meetings. It was for a project that I was running that I desperately wanted to be successful – I wanted to ‘put a dent in the universe’.
But this is how the meeting played out:
- People arrived late…
- People spoke over each other…
- The conversation covered lots of different areas that I wasn’t expecting….
- The meeting over-ran by 20 minutes…
And then, THIS happened…
At the end of the meeting (well, when I say ‘end of the meeting’ it was when people started to drift off and say they had other things to do), somebody (who I looked up and really admired) came up to me and discretely said this:
“Guy, that is quite possibly the worst meeting I’ve ever been to. I’m not sure what I’ve done to you in a previous life to deserve this, but, please – I’m begging you, never invite me to one of your meetings again – just email me whatever you need from me”.
I had just been ‘Meeting Fired’.
I blushed. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. I felt a mix of emotions – I was angry, ashamed and confused. I knew I had to change something. But what? And how?
I went for a walk to clear my head to think what I could do. Then it came to me. The best thing would be to get on a course. Yes a course always solves everything! It was all going to work out. Once I had a course folder and a nice shiny certificate I’d be able to hold any meeting with anyone – I’d be the Donald Trump of my meetings!
But waiting to get on the course was going to be too late.
The following week (minus the colleague who asked me to email them), THIS happened at my next project meeting…
I arrived in the room and there were agendas neatly laid out on the tables.
I immediately thought I was in the wrong room. I went back to my desk, double checked Lotus Notes (sweet memories) and it was indeed my room. Somebody must have doubled booked the room, so I headed back to the room.
When I got there I checked the agenda on one of the desks and it WAS my meeting. What was going on? Somebody had taken the time to create and print an agenda – FOR MY MEETING! I was about to start the meeting and was just about to open my mouth when a colleague opened the meeting – FOR MY MEETING!
I had been ‘Meeting-Jacked!’
A colleague of mine sitting next to me ran through the agenda and went into the first agenda point. The meeting attendees, at first looked at bit puzzled and then just got on with the meeting.
I was like a rabbit in the headlights.
The meeting started on time and we actually finished early. Discussion was kept to the topic. Minutes were taken, owners agreed and deadlines agreed. People actually came up at the end of the meeting to my colleague and shook their hand like they’d just won X Factor. It was like none of my meetings. I was awestruck.
At the end of the meeting, I was prepared for a stand up row with my colleague. How dare you do that! While I waited for everyone to leave the room, I had my best ‘grumpy cat’ face ready and primed and a list of my objections to go through in my best stern ‘Telegraph letters page’ voice about what had just happened.
My colleague saw, and anticipated my struggle. They quietly closed the door, and then said this:
“That was difficult for you I know Guy. There was no malice intended. But I wanted you to see what a good meeting looked like. I’m sorry to have done that but I want to help you, if you will let me?”
At which point they stuck out their hand.
What else could I do? I swallowed my pride. I shook their hand and said “thank you, yes please”. And with the help of my colleague slowly but surely I started to improve my meetings. (And in the end didn’t need the course).
Those two moments – being ‘meeting fired’ by one colleague and being ‘meeting jacked’ by another, shaped how I approached ALL of my future meetings. I cringe when I think back to my younger self running car crash meetings.
But here’s the funny thing:
I’m actually really glad they happened. They took me on a path to ensure every single meeting I ever run stays focused on achieving clear outcomes and keeping the meeting on track.
I’m pretty passionate about running meetings now. They are one of those things that we all do, sometimes we run them and sometimes we attend them and every single one is different.
It’s rare to receive formal meeting management development and this has massive consequences. Nobody likes to waste time, yet in our careers we are destined to spend thousands of precious hours wasting time in frustrating, unproductive and unstructured meetings just like the ones I USED to run.
A recent survey about time suggests the average UK office employee spends 16 hours in meetings each week. It is estimated a quarter – 4 hours of that time – is wasted. In a year, that equates to 9 X 24 hour days. IF this is true, then this all adds up, over the course of a career, to 9,000 hours or a full year, spent in useless meetings.
The survey findings indicated that many people were frustrated with going around in circles in meetings, poor agenda management and unfocused discussions with no resolution.
How completely depressing.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from some really inspiring meeting masters and facilitators. Whenever I have experienced an expert running a meeting, it’s always struck me how easy they make it look. They just make things look effortless. But there’s no meeting magic trick at play here. The ‘secret’ is to adequately prepare for the meeting and all the pieces should fit into the place and the meeting will just flow.
By running a great meeting, the big payoff seems to me to be threefold:
- You can accelerate change faster, you’ll get more done in your day and your projects will stay on track.
- You’ll save your colleagues time and frustration – and help them deliver their goals and objectives.
- And you’ll actually start to subtly ‘condition’ people to your way of running meetings. Once they get into the swing of the way you run them, people become accustomed to things like providing updates and anticipating what happens next in a meeting. Over time people may even start to adopt your approach – the ripple effect.
I see meetings now like plane travel. Most meetings are “Economy Class“. This implies no criticism at all of those running these meetings, they are functional and most of the time get you to your destination. But over the years whenever I’ve worked with a meeting master and I experience a ‘Meeting Upgrade’ to “Business Class“, I intuitively knew I had made a ‘left turn’ into the meeting. There was something different that happened and so I made a note of it.
We now request that everyone please take a few minutes to read the following 10 tips to upgrade your meetings, to ensure your meeting passengers experience a business class service and the meeting achieves supersonic speed to reach its destination. Please note hot face towels, champagne and a series of delicious snacks will be served shortly after meeting takeoff.
#1. Agenda is King. Create a clear agenda and ideally send it out to the participants at least 24 hours before the meeting. Don’t surprise people – if people have specific areas they want to cover, factor that into the plan. Bring hard copies of the agenda to the meeting room. Make the agenda a reflection of you and invest time in it. Put your company logo on the page, put a border around the page. It needs to subtly say: “this meeting means business”.
Here is the meeting template I use:
#2. Think Outcome. Spend time on analysing what the meeting needs to achieve and list out the key outcomes you want from the meeting and specific discussion points. Avoid agenda items like “Finance Update” and instead say “Month End improvement project status”. I knew someone once who actually wrote the actions from a meeting BEFORE the meeting (with owners and deadlines) and ticked them off during the meeting. This may at first sound crazy, but it’s actually a pretty neat way to ensure you keep your team focused on outcomes.
#3. Help People Connect The Dots. If there is any pre-read, send this out as soon as you can. Try to avoid just sending a deck with no additional commentary – if you can, highlight to people salient points in the pre-read that will be for discussion in the meeting.
#4. Think Task. Accurate task management is critical in meetings. I use a simple task tracker (using a Word table with 5 columns and capture the following:
- What is the number or reference of the action?
- What is the action?
- Who is the owner?
- What is the target deadline?
- What is the update on this since the last meeting?
#5. Banish TBAs. Avoid listing out TBAs – encourage your participants to commit to ownership. If people don’t know who or when, ensure somebody takes the action to identify when these will be discovered.
#6. Follow Up FAST. Always follow up quickly with minutes and actions after the meeting. Ideally the same day, certainly no later than 24 hours. You need to keep pace.
#7. Run It Like Clockwork. Meeting timing is critical. I typically schedule mine for 52 minutes. Why? Well, people need time to get from previous meetings and then prepare for their next meeting. So try these steps:
- Let’s say your meeting is between 11 – 12.
- Schedule the start of the meeting for 11.05
- Schedule the end of the meeting for 11.57
- Start on time and don’t wait for people. They will soon learn your new way of meetings. If people say ‘what did I miss?’ say you can pick up with them after the meeting.
- Leave 3-4 minutes at the end to run through your task tracker and re-cap on everything you have captured. This will ensure you have captured all of the points accurately and not missed anything.
#8. Tailor Your Approach. Whether you are running a face to face meeting or if you are running a virtual meeting (like an online ‘gotomeeting’ or ‘webex’ type or dial in), or whether you’re running a senior stakeholder review, holding a project update call, running a process improvement workshop etc. you want to make sure every single meeting runs like clockwork. It’s how you prepare and structure the meeting which will make the difference. So tailor it. Visualise what you need to achieve and the best way to involve the meeting attendees. Then craft the meeting with that end picture in mind. A great book to help outline the main types of meetings, and many more hints and tips is ‘Will There be Doughnuts?’. Well worth the investment.
#9. Be In The Moment And Focus. Avoid chit chat at the start – just get on with it. If you’ve sent the agenda and left copies out then people will have seen it so you don’t need to run through it and you can save yourself some time. Keep a laser focus on the outcomes of the meeting and why you are there. If you feel like you are at risk of slipping in a task, work to come up with a solution (e.g. to have a separate discussion for example) that will not derail the other agenda points.
#10. Manage the Room. Finally, you need to manage people in the room. This is an art and comes with practice. If people try to interrupt off agenda or hijack, politely and quickly address their concern and close them down. This is YOUR meeting. Don’t allow others to take the reins. Thankfully, most people take a collaborative approach and get stuck in. How you deal with people needs careful planning and thought. Smile, be enthusiastic and show energy and you’re 75% there.
My meetings aren’t perfect but they are so much better than they were all those years ago, I feel I can always tweak to make a meeting better. Please don’t copy what happened to me and hijack someone’s meeting. There are of course many ways and means to providing feedback and sometimes a brief, well intentioned and worded offer of help after the meeting can work wonders.
I’m always interested in learning new insights so if you have any meeting tips or nuggets that work for you that you wish to share, please feel free!
So, next time you hold a meeting, ask yourself this: “Are you going to turn left or right?”