Matt Peperell's Blog

No agenda, no attenda

Some thoughts on how to run effective meetings

Written: 06 Dec 2021 (Index by date)

Tags: work  (Index by tag)

Meetings are a necessary part of pretty much any office-based job. (I’ve only minimal experience in other work sectors so cannot meaningfully comment on them). People often feel both that meetings are unproductive and that they take time away from work itself getting done. There may be an element of truth in this but that doesn’t mean that meetings are forgoable. I say that well-run meetings can act like a lubricant, helping work to be more effective, that information can be shared with relevant parties etc. So how can one bridge the gap between these two viewpoints?

I’ve come up with a few ideas based on my own observations and from conversations with colleagues over the decades.

Have an agenda

How often have you gone to a meeting not knowing what it was about and then been called to comment on something and felt woefully underprepared? Publishing an agenda before the meeting (e.g. in the invitation) allows participants to prepare. The other benefit of having an agenda is that it sets a clear expectation of when the meeting is over. (Otherwise, how do you know when you’re done?)

Despite what the title of this article suggests, I’m not recommending to automatically refuse a meeting if there is no agenda published. Doing so is likely to make waves in your organisation and sully your reputation. But a followup request for an agenda prior to the meeting, can help to establish the cultural habit in your company of including an agenda.

Include suitable breaks

Human concentration wanes after an hour, perhaps 90 minutes. This could be through boredom, maybe they need a coffee/cigarette/toilet break. If your meeting is longer than this, be sure to include breaks.

Consider the list of attendees

Indicate in the invitation whether attendane is mandatory or recommended. This may differ on a per invitee basis but it’s still relevant. It might be clear from the subject and the agenda (you are including one, right‽) but you can’t always rely on this; new starters within the organisation might not have the cultural knowledge to make this determination. They could, for example, attend everything thinking it necessary or perhaps useful to help them gain organisational knowledge, or they could do the opposite and deselect themselves due to thinking them too new to be able to contribute.

Make sure, also, that you are including relevant people, and not including people who don’t need to be there. For example, imagine that a team believes the company needs to purchase some software. A person in chgarge of signing off expenses would likely need to be present. But one of the graphics design team is unlikely to be needed in a meeting to decide whether to renew the contract with the office cleaning company. These are extreme example, sure, but even within teams there can be meetings which require some but not all members.

Publish a summary

Some people might have missed the meeting - either due to being in another meeting(!), declining due to other duties, or perhaps being on holiday or absent due to illness. Publishing a summary of decisions made and agreed actions along with task owners and due dates can help to set expections.

The recipients of this summary should be the original invitees plus any additional people who took part. The benefit of including the original invitees rather than just the attendees is that it benefits those who missed the meeting, regardless of reason.

Try to avoid lunch times

"I've booked a lunch time meeting because that's the only time people were free".

"Yes, that's why I was free"

Really, try to avoid booking meetings which occur during lunch time. Though this isn’t always possible, people need to eat lunch in order to be able to concentrate. If you’re going to book a lunch time meeting then provide food.

Have suitable padding

In this context, by the word padding, I mean times between the other meetings of the attendees. If one meeting ends at 1000, this doesn’t mean that they’ll be free at 1000 and that your meeting can start at that time. What if the previous meeting overruns? Although on this note, it’s also rude to the next group who might use that meeting room if you’re not out at the time when their meeting is due to start. By finishing on time, people don’t have to leave early plus this gives time to tidy up the room, re-arrange any chairs, and let the air circulate. (It’s unpleasant to go into a meeting room still with the aroma of the previous users)

How much padding to add? A suitable padding is in the order of 5-10 minutes before the half-hour mark, depending on how long the metting is. Possibilities include 1000 – 1050 and 1330-1355, instead of 1000-1100 and 1300-1400. This gives opportunity for the aforementioned room-reset.

Providing gaps between meetings also allows people to get a coffee or visit the toilet rather than having to join their next meeting late.

Finishing thoughts

I’m trying hard not to come across as misanthropic in this post. I’ve been to well-run meetings, and I’ve been to poorly run meetings. I know which I’d rather go to. It is hopefully clear that having attendees be engaged is much more useful than having ones who are not, and having a reputation of running effective meetings will serve you well.

I’d welcome input of any additional ideas you might have.

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