Complaints about meetings are one of the hardy perennials of management. Alongside email, dealing with millennials and the stupidity of the C suite, you will hear this in along any corridor and around every water cooler.
Begin at the beginning
If you have a startup mindset, you may be tempted to think this is a real world problem and therefore a big opportunity. Spend any time on the subject and you will quickly learn that there is a solution out there already. Effective meetings are based on a well understood formula.
I could make this longer but you get the picture. And this is not new. Everyone in every business knows this.
Occasionally a new wrinkle appears. For example, Scrum or lean software development often relies on short, sharp meetings where everyone stands up.
This sounds new and smart. Yet the UK Privy Council has been meeting standing since time immemorial. (Note: This is literally true. Time immemorial is defined in English Law as being any time before 6 July 1189 and the Privy Council definitely predates this. Gotta love those lawyers!)
And I have never heard anyone hold this body out as an exemplar of efficient and decisive business meetings.
The hidden value of meetings
The truth is no-one can stick to these rigid rules. Meetings have a social value over and above their business purpose. Colleagues work in different departments or may be scattered across buildings and locations. In field work like sales, meetings may be the only time some team members return to base.
Even in small close knit teams live software developers, the daily or weekly meeting serves a purpose. Some things are just better shared with a group than in a one to one discussion. And Shakespeare’s Antony could never “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” over a coffee in the forum. It needs an audience, a meeting.
People like getting together and chewing the fat. No amount of logic and discipline over minutes and actions and agendas will ever change this. Human behaviour will eat any rationalist meeting approach for breakfast. Along with the biscuits and the bacon rolls if they are provided.
The other end of the telescope
I should apologise at this point. I will get to the other end of the telescope but my real point about meetings is that we should start in the middle. The “other end” would be working backwards from the actions to determine how meetings should be run. Tempting but no more likely to overcome human psychology than the traditional approach.
Instead my starting point is another common attitude. How often have you heard something like “I’m not sure if [insert name of meeting] is a waste of time but I always try to go along because its fun.”
Malcolm in the middle
That quote is the definition of a successful meeting. The attendees are motivated to attend. They enjoy being there. And they want to participate. Given these preconditions you can achieve anything.
So instead of starting with the purpose and agenda, go to the middle and build out.
How can you make this a meeting that people will want to join?
Bring together a group of people that like each other or feel they can learn from each other or have some other clear motivation to be in the same room together. Choose a time slot and venue that suits people’s diaries. If possible give them some additional motivation like free doughnuts or a couple of beers.
Once people want to be there you can think about what you want to achieve. This could be big decisions. But it might also be smaller things. For example, the core of the meeting might be to brief the team on a new strategy. The outcome you want is for each attendee to take away a couple of personal actions to make it work.
There is no need to have a hard line on actions and accountability. In this situation, that will feel like bullying not management.
And you want to people to enjoy the meeting. Otherwise, all that effort is a one off. They will come to your first meeting but not the next one.
Agendas are not required by Law
The final element is to think about what is needed in advance.
Most people like to know why the meeting is taking place. So a clear purpose is a minimum requirement. A simple statement like “Monthly Team Meeting” can be enough. No need to get evangelical.
For many meetings that is all the pre-work you need. Regular meeting have a rhythm of their own and an agenda is rarely necessary. An agenda and material to read in advance may be required. But there is no rule that says there must be an agenda.
A lot depends on timing. In a startup or a deal situation things can move fast. Advance notice can be tough to organise. I can remember, during a takeover bid, holding a Board meeting at midnight and scheduling the next one for 4 am.
Set agendas can be a straitjacket rather than a control. Especially in a startup. This week’s big issue can be superseded by the time you sit down to have the meeting. Any preparation should be set in the context of what is required for a good meeting. Not just a wish list of what you would like to talk about.
The Chairman's View
So there you have it. An alternative formula for good meetings. Plan how you can make the meeting good fun and add social value. Then set out what you can achieve - be realistic. And finally do the minimum needed in advance. No agenda without a reason.
One other thing. Most of this article is written in the context of the person drive ing the meeting. I have sort of assumed the reader is in a leadership position. CEO or founder for example.
And there is no doubt good meetings require good leadership.
Everyone has a role to play in this. Even if you are just a small cog in the business wheel. Come along to the meeting with the right attitude. Enjoy the discussion and work to make it fun for others. Make a note of your own actions and get on with it. Don’t wait for the minutes.
Leadership is about you, not about job titles.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.