5 Solutions for Better Meetings
By Julie Springer
July 24, 2022
There’s a trending call for an “end to meetings” and it’s no wonder. Many meetings are ineffective and low-value and spending your day running from meeting to meeting is stressful and makes it difficult to get anything done. With the increased use of communication and document-sharing tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack, it is tempting to think that you could take back control of your time by stopping meetings altogether.
The frustration with meetings is understandable but getting rid of meetings is not a viable or sustainable solution. At its core, a meeting is a container for communication. Software tools can help to support the communication but cannot completely replace the need for the interactions that happen in meetings.
Although much of the communication within an Agile team happens spontaneously and as a natural extension of the work, there are times when the team needs to meet for planning, to work through solution and design options and to develop process improvements. Team members also need to lead and participate in meetings with other teams, stakeholders, customers, and partners.
What is Needed to Have More Effective Meetings
What is needed is a better understanding of meetings, improved skills around designing and facilitating meetings and to apply continuous improvement to ensure that meetings are high quality and providing value. There is a common set of problems around meetings that need to be solved. Just “getting rid of meetings” provides short-term relief but doesn’t resolve the problems. As a leader, you can support your teams by providing a vision and guidance on how to get more value out of meetings.
Here are some of the most common problem areas, along with solutions that improve meeting value and effectiveness.
Meeting Improvement 1: Preparation and Design
Meetings are scheduled with very little thought or preparation. A blanket invitation is sent to anyone who “might need to be there” and the purpose is not known or clearly communicated. When the meeting happens, the agenda is developed on the fly, if it is created at all. Participants are along for the ride, and no one has clear responsibility for the outcome.
Invest time in preparing for and designing effective meetings. The amount of time needed for preparation varies, and increases based on the meeting length, number of participants and complexity of what is being discussed or worked on in the meeting. Consider whether it needs to be a meeting or could be handled through other communication channels, such as email, Slack or Teams.
The meeting design must include a clear purpose and deliverables or goal for the meeting, with an agenda that supports the ability to achieve the goal. Identify inputs for the meeting that need to be completed in advance and determine what is expected to be delivered or accomplished through the meeting.
Put some thought into who will attend the meeting and why. What is expected of their participation? Do they need to prepare anything in advance? Who will lead the meeting? Who will take point on documentation or visual aids? Establish the roles and participation needs and communicate them in advance of the meeting.
Meeting Improvement 2: Facilitation
Meetings are not well-run, due to a lack of facilitation skills. Participants don’t know what to expect from the meeting or from each other. There is either a lack of engagement or a few individuals dominate and don’t make space for quieter members of the group. When things get tough and there is conflict or poor communication, no one steps up to guide the group and keep things on track. People leave the meeting feeling frustrated and unclear on what the next steps are.
Develop facilitation skills and identify who is filling the role of facilitator in each meeting. Facilitators guide and support the meeting participants through listening and asking good questions, applying facilitation techniques to increase participation, and keeping the group on track to achieve the goal of the meeting. For informal or internal team meetings, facilitation can be shared by the group and will be a light touch, but it remains important to have clear agreements and expectations for how facilitation will be provided.
Meeting Improvement 3: Meeting Types
The approach being taken in the meeting, based on the type of meeting being held, doesn’t support what is needed from participants or the goal of the meeting. People feel that it is a waste of their time and either don’t want to attend or wish that something different was happening in the meeting. Their needs are not being met.
An example of this is when a Scrum team’s Daily Scrum meeting becomes a status meeting where team members simply report what they are working on. This is low-value and frustrating for team members, who already have updated this information on the task board or work management tool. The meeting provides more value when it is run as a mini-planning meeting, where team members work together to evaluate progress toward the Sprint Goal and decide what adjustments they need to make to the plan and activities.
Develop awareness and a common language about the purpose and approach for different types of meetings. When designing meetings, choose the meeting type that best fits with the purpose, deliverables, participants, and how the meeting will be run. Include the meeting type in the meeting invitation, along with the meeting purpose, so people know what to expect.
Sample List of Meeting Types:
- Decision-Making Meeting: Work together to decide and gain commitment to move forward
- Formation Meeting: Develop vision, purpose, scope and build engagement
- Inspect and Adapt Meeting: Gather data and generate insights and improvements
- Planning Meeting: Develop plans, clarify needs, identify dependencies, and make forecasts
- Status Meeting: Provide an update for visibility and transparency
- Synchronization Meeting: Maintain momentum, coordinate plans, and build accountability
Meeting Improvement 4: Time Management
Too much time is spent in meetings and team members don’t have time to focus and complete their work. Team members feel a lack of control over their time and schedules and constant stress from shifting from one thing to the next, with little time to think or prepare.
Support teams in establishing norms around their calendars and scheduling meetings. The approach can vary, based on roles and the needs of the team, but might include things like a specified day of the week or time of day when no meetings can be scheduled, limiting the number of meetings that can be scheduled per day, blocking out focused working time or setting rules for time between meetings to keep them from running back-to-back.
Meeting Improvement 5: Continuous Improvement
Ineffective or mediocre meetings are tolerated. Feedback on the quality and value of meetings is not solicited or is not provided. When it is provided, the feedback is not used to make improvements. Participants may not feel that it is safe to give honest feedback and feel pressure to continue to attend meetings even when they do not find them to be valuable. No one takes responsibility for improving meeting design or outcomes.
Work with representatives across teams to develop shared standards for meetings. Include the points covered under each of the five meeting improvements provided here. Revisit the standards at least quarterly, and revise them, based on experience. Keep them visible and communicate them regularly.
Once the group has defined and agreed to the meeting standards, audit existing meetings to determine quality and value. Drop or redesign any meetings that are clearly ineffective. For the remaining meetings, ask participants to provide feedback and incorporate the feedback to improve the meeting.
When running meetings, invite and make it safe for participants to provide feedback at any time during the meeting if they feel that the meeting is not achieving the purpose or providing value. At the end of the meeting, gather feedback from the group, and follow-up with individuals as needed to get more information. Commit to continually improving meetings and share what you are learning with others, so they can improve their meetings as well.
How to Get Started with More Effective Meetings
Putting these five solutions for better meetings in place will take some time and energy, but the benefit gained from more effective use of time, improved teamwork and decreased frustration far outweighs the cost. However, it can feel overwhelming to try to fix everything at once. A good strategy for getting started is to identify a few people who have a desire and ability to make the meetings in your area more effective. Bring this group together and develop a plan to apply the solutions to a few meetings, to start with.
Once you have a feel for how to make the changes and see what is possible, expand the effort. Include others and develop meeting standards, based on what was learned in the pilot. The momentum for making the changes will build, as people see that they don't have to live with the status quo and that it is possible to have better meetings.