Meetings

Let's Give Meetings a Much-Needed Makeover

Meetings should drive work forward, not just a review of the last three months.
Let's Give Meetings a Much-Needed Makeover
Image credit: Thomas Barwick | Getty Images
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It’s no secret that meetings are almost universally hated. More often than not, they’re tedious, repetitive or a flat-out waste of time.

I’m the CEO of a software company called Redbooth, where we make task and project management software. My team and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help people work more efficiently.

There’s been an incredible amount of innovation around productivity, and I’m continually inspired by what my team comes up with -- and what’s happening industry-wide. But somehow, even cutting-edge companies are still refusing to think strategically about how their employees run their meetings.

Related: 7 Tasks You Do Every Day That Waste Time and Cost Your Business Money 

This article is about why that’s happening and four simple processes and mindset shifts that you can use to transform meeting culture at your company.

1. Stop paying people to do the same work twice.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen so many ineffective meetings. The bigger and more complex a meeting gets, the harder it is to drive solid execution.

In a lot of these meetings, people are rolling their eyes. They’re bringing their devices in. They’re multitasking. They’re simply not listening. Meanwhile, the contents of the meeting aren’t getting reliably recorded either. People don’t effectively capture and track the information, so that information doesn’t live anywhere in particular. And if it doesn't live anywhere, you cannot effectively manage it. 

So when you have the next meeting, you will likely notice that people are struggling with the basics -- What did we talk about last time? When is the report due? How are we keeping track of progress? You’re spending half of the meeting playing catch-up. Take a moment, and think about that. It means that employees are being paid every week to cover the same ground twice -- and no one seems to care.

Frankly, if you’re accountable for results at your company -- whether you’re in executive management or a team lead -- this should keep you up at night.

The fix for this problem is so simple that it may seem obvious, but I can assure you that it’s not nearly as common as it should be. Every meeting should have someone assigned to capture who is committing to what and by when. Please understand that this isn’t the same as keeping meeting minutes and emailing them to everyone so they can sit unread in an already-overflowing inbox. Accountability is paramount. And capturing it in a consistent place that the team can use as a reference between meetings and at the next one is essential.

Related: 5 Tips For Better Meetings

Naturally, I’m partial to Redbooth, but there are other products such as Wunderlist, Asana and Trello that you can use. Heck, you can capture it in a Google doc or a big piece of paper taped to the wall. Just start doing it so that we can all start getting some sleep at night.

2. Use team meetings to drive work forward.

The other day, I was talking to an executive at a big public company that uses our software. Before that, they were using Excel to track everything -- all their projects and progress. It was literally one document owned by one person. Nobody else had access to it, so the owner literally had to go meet with each person and update the spreadsheet. It was a disaster, and the impact on meetings was ridiculous. When you don’t have a central place to store and share progress updates -- a place that everyone on the team can access, not just the project manager -- you know how you’re going to spend your meetings? Listening to updates. What a waste of time! Not to mention that those meetings are rudderless. They have no agenda.

Related: A Eulogy for Meetings

So if you could get rid of time-wasting, unnecessary updates in meetings, what would be the best way to use that time? It’s simple. You should be tackling hard questions, ones that actually make it possible to drive work forward:

  • What’s preventing progress?

  • What are the blockers?

  • Are there decisions that need to be made?

  • Are there things that people need to discuss for alignment or for informational purposes?

The key goal here is to get away from the idea of an informational meeting. Your team meeting shouldn’t be worried about what people have been doing. Your meetings should be more focuses on how you can move from point A to point B. Just think how powerful it would be if you could spend every meeting focusing on knocking down blockers or getting to the next level.

3. Plan more efficiently for one-on-one meetings.

We’ve established that team meetings should not be giant status updates. The same thing applies to one-on-one meetings. Sure, there’s some conversation around recent activities, but fundamentally a one-on-one should be about employee growth and development.

When you hold a one-on-one with a direct report, it should be a discussion of what’s going well and where the challenges lie. It should be about where your employee wants to be one year from now or even five years from now.

Here’s where it gets challenging. The typical manager has eight to 10 direct reports. That’s way too many to keep in your head and hope you remember everything. But don’t be tempted to start canceling one-on-one meetings because you’re overwhelmed. According to the Harvard Business Review, doing that could actually decrease your productivity.

Instead, streamline your process. Track your conversations with multiple employees. Have a shared virtual workspace, a Google doc -- whatever works for you -- and make sure each employee has access to theirs. Post updates and reminders to discuss. When you think of something that you want to discuss at your next one-on-one, you have a place to capture it. 

This way of working frees up your mind, enabling you to really focus your efforts on growing the employee, getting the best performance out of them and building a good, working relationship -- not trying to remember what you have to do this week or next week. It drives effectiveness on both sides.

4. Build more accountability into your QBRs.

Very, very few companies have effectively nailed the art of the large-scale meeting. More and more companies are gathering their people together on a quarterly basis to have what’s called a QBR, or quarterly business review. Sometimes they call it a “team strategy session” or a “strategic planning meeting.”

Generally, a lot of it is literally a review. Sales will provide key metrics, and marketing will provide their metrics. You’ll go over strategic goals first, and then it’s a lot of review, as well as checking in with key initiatives and strategic accounts. (Not familiar with a QBR? Check out this excellent description from Gainsight.)

Compared to team meetings and one-on-one meetings, these meetings are even more challenging because they’re less frequent, and there’s a huge volume of information.

At many companies, there’s such a large volume of information -- and no good way to deal with it -- that you’ll see huge PowerPoint presentations getting emailed around. It’s very hard to keep track of them and the resulting discussions. And just from quarter to quarter, people have a really tough time even remembering what the last meeting was about. This memory problem and lack of consistency can have profound ramifications.

When so much is at stake, you’ve got to have effortless visibility into what you talked about not only last quarter, but two quarters ago or even a year ago. Make a commitment to housing that information in a centralized place where you can track trends and capture and search what people talked about. You’re looking at an in-depth review of information, as well as setting key goals for the next quarter.

When everybody leaves after the meeting, they shouldn’t have to try remember  who owns which task or what they’re supposed to be focused on for the next three months. It really comes down to choosing consistency over spectacle. A lot of companies have a “Big Bang” approach where everybody gets together, there’s a lot of fury, and then it dies down over the next few months. Then it starts up again as you near the next quarterly business review.

But with a shared place for information and a management team commitment to capturing it there, you can establish a consistent cadence of team productivity and collaboration around key company goals. And that’s how you get success.

Improving meetings isn’t trivial.

What could it mean for your company to make all of your meetings more efficient and more productive? To reference the title of an excellent book on organizational transformation, it could accelerate your transformation from good to great -- really quickly.

You could spend your cycles and your gray matter on doing great things, not on trying to find that page in your notebook or an email in a pile of thousands of emails. Or you could commit to some simple but incredibly effective internal processes, and really free yourself and your entire team to focus on getting more done.

I hope this is helpful to you, your team and your company. Drop me a line, I'd love to hear how this impacts you.