10 steps to more open, focused, and energizing meetings

Constructing your meetings with open organization principles in mind can help you avoid wasted time, effort, and talent.
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The negative impact of poorly run meetings is huge. So leaders face a challenge: how do we turn poorly run meetings—which have a negative impact on team creativity, success, and even cause stress and anxiety—to meetings with positive outcomes? But to make the situation even tougher, we now find most meetings are being held remotely, online, where attendees' cameras are off and you're likely staring at a green dot at the top of your screen. That makes holding genuinely productive and useful meetings an even greater challenge.

Thinking about your meetings differently—and constructing your meetings with open organization principles in mind—can help turn your next remote meeting into an energizing experience with positive outcomes. Here are some guidelines to get you started. I'll explain steps you can take as you prepare for, hold, and follow up from your meetings.

Preparing for your meeting:

1. Protect everyone's time

First, you'll need to reflect on the reason you've calling a meeting in the first place. As a meeting leader, you must recognize your role as the person who could kill productivity and destroy the ability for attendees to be mindfully present. By holding a meeting and asking people to be there, you are removing hours from people's days, exhausting the time they have to spend—and time is a non-replenishable resource. So imagine instead that you are a guardian of people's time. You need to treat their time with respect. Consider that the only reason why you're holding a meeting in the first place is to keep from wasting time. For example, if you see a group thrashing over a decision again and again because the wrong people were involved in an email chain, instead suggest holding a half-hour meeting to reach a consensus, thereby saving everyone's time in the end. One way to think about this: Treat employees the same way you'd treat your customers. You would never want a customer to feel they were invited to a meeting that was a waste of their time. Adopting this mindset, you'll instantly become sensitive to scheduling meetings over someone's lunch hour. If you commit to becoming a time saver, you'll become more intentional in all aspects of meeting planning, executing, and closing. And you will get better and better at this as a result.

2. Use tools to be more inclusive

Like all meetings, remote meetings can contain their moments of silence, as people think, reflect, or take notes. But don't take silence as an indication of understanding, agreement, or even presence. You want to hear input and feedback from everyone at the meeting—not just those who are most comfortable or chatty. Familiarize yourself with some of the growing list of fantastic apps (Mentimeter, Klaxoon, Sli.do, Meeting pulse, Poll Everywhere, and other open source tools) designed to help attendees collaborate during meetings, even vote and reach a consensus. Make use of video when you can. Use your chat room technology for attendees to share if they missed something or raise a hand to speak, or even as a second channel of communication. Remote meeting tools are multiplying at an exponential rate; bone up on new ones to keep meetings interesting and help increase engagement.

3. Hone your invitation list

When preparing invitations to your meeting, keep the list as small as possible. The larger the group, the more time you'll need, and the quality of a meeting tends to decrease as the size of the meeting increases. One way to make sure you have the right people: instead of sending out topics for discussion, send a preliminary note to participants you think could add value, and solicit questions. Those who answer the preliminary questions will be those who need to attend, and these are the people who you need to invite.

Treat employees the same way you'd treat your customers. You would never want a customer to feel they were invited to a meeting that was a waste of their time.

4. Time box everything, and adapt

With our shorter attention spans, stop defaulting to hour long meetings. Don't hesitate to schedule even just 15 minutes for a meeting. Reducing the meeting length creates positive pressure; research shows that groups operating under a level of time pressure (using time boxing) perform more optimally due to increased focus. Imagine that after five minutes of one person speaking, everyone else in the meeting will begin to multitask. This means that as a facilitator you have just five minutes to present a concept. Use just these five minutes, then ask for connections: Who knows what about this topic? You'll learn there are experts in the room. Time box this activity, too, to five minutes. Next, break into small groups to discuss concrete practices and steps. Time box this for just 10 minutes, then share how far folks got in that shortened time box. Iterate and adjust for the next time box, and reserve yet another one for takeaways and conclusions.

5. Make your agenda transparent

Make meeting details as transparent as possible to everyone who's invited. The meeting agenda, for example, should have a desired outcome in the subject line. The opening line of the agenda should state clearly why the meeting needs to be held. For example:

"The choice of go-forward strategy for Product A has been thrashing for two weeks with an estimate of 60 or more hours of back and forth discussion. This meeting is being called with the people involved to agree on our go-forward plan."

Agenda details should outline the time boxes you've outlined to accomplish the goal. Logistics are critical: if you wish cameras to be on, ask for cameras to be on. And even though you've thought thoroughly about your invitee list, note that you may still have invited someone who doesn't need to be there. Provide an opt-out opportunity. For example:

"If you feel you cannot contribute to this meeting and someone else should, please reach out to me with their contact information."

Conducting your meeting:

6. Be punctual

Start and end the meeting on time! Arrive early to check the technology. As the meeting leader, recognize that your mood will set the tone for your attendees. So consider beginning the meeting with appreciations, recognitions, and statements of gratitude. Beginning a meeting on a positive note establishes a positive mood and promotes creativity, active listening, and participation. You'll find your meeting will be more constructive as a result.

Like all meetings, remote meetings can contain their moments of silence, as people think, reflect, or take notes. But don't take silence as an indication of understanding, agreement, or even presence.

7. Engineer your meeting's culture

In the meeting itself, use Strategyzer's Culture map to create the culture you want for the meeting itself. You do this by agreeing the desired outcome of the meeting, asking what can enable or block attendees from achieving this outcome, and identifying the behaviors the group must exhibit to make this happen. Silently brainstorm with post-its on a jamboard, then have folks actively share what can make this meeting successful for all.

8. Invite collaboration

In openly run meetings, the best ideas should emerge. But this can only happen with your help. Recognize your role as a meeting leader who must remain neutral and encourage collaboration. Look for those who aren't participating and provide tools (or encouragement) that will help them get involved. For example, instead of verbal brainstorming, do a silent and anonymous brainstorm using stickies in a jamboard. You'll begin to see participation. Stick to the agenda and its time boxes, and watch for folks that talk over others: 

"Sara, Fred wasn't finished with his thought. Please let him finish."

Closing and and reviewing your meeting:

9. Write it down

Openly run meetings should result in openly recorded outcomes. Be sure your agenda includes time for the group to clarify takeaways, assign action items, and identify stakeholders who'll be responsible for completing work.

10. Close the loop

Finally, review the meeting with a retrospective. Ask for feedback on the meeting itself. What worked in your facilitation? What was lacking? Does anyone have ideas for ways to improve the next meeting? Were any questions unanswered? Any epiphanies reached? Taking in this feedback, actually coming up with a new experiment for the next meeting to address the improvements. Attendees at your next meeting will be more than grateful, and in the long run you'll improve your meeting facilitation skills.

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Catherine Louis is a Certified Scrum TrainerTM, independent Agile coach, founder of CLL-Group.com, PoDojo.com, and founding member of Tech Ladies®. When she's not helping companies with their business agility efforts, she's busy with Search and Rescue - focused on training dogs and their handlers how to find and rescue missing people.

1 Comment

Hey Catherine,
thank you so much for this great summary for better meetings. I just want to add a tool to the list of your point 2 "use tools to be more inclusive". Since some weeks I use seatable as a tool for the meeting preparation (agenda setting) and also for the documentation of the meeting. the main advantage is: it is free, it can combine text and files, it is browser based.. there is also an english article about how to get the most out of it. probably interesting for some of the readers: https://seatable.io/en/mit-internen-workshops-den-unternehmenswert-steigern/.
In addition companies could save so much time by taking these points serious. Especially point 6 "be punctual" is so important. I had so many meetings where so many persons waisted their time waiting for one guy (or woman) for beeing late. The excuse is often everybody wanted to be polite and therefore the meeting does not start.
Best regards

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