It’s impossible to replicate the experience of an in-person offsite in an online setting. But with the right preparation, a focus on good meeting practices, careful use of various tools, some rehearsal, and a willingness to experiment as a team, it’s not only feasible but relatively …
Many professionals — leaders, consultants, teachers — are having to move their meetings and classes online. Creating an engaging and personal environment in this new context is challenging and won’t feel natural for everyone. The author, a professor and consultant, shares what he’s learned from his experience teaching …
Agendas are an important first step for a successful meeting, but far too few leaders put enough thought into the ones they create. In fact, research has found that a large percentage of agendas are simply recycled meeting to meeting. So what can you do to create agendas that inspire, target the issues that need to be resolved, and leave attendees satisfied with the time spent in discussion together? Instead of listing agenda items as simple bullet points, reframe them as questions instead. This approach will make you more strategic, thinking critically about the meaning of a topic and what your ultimate outcome is. It will also make it easier to determine your invitation list (the people essential to answering the questions) and better informs when to actually end a meeting (when the questions have been answered to satisfaction). And if you can’t think of questions to ask, maybe you don’t need that meeting in the first place.
Read any book on running effective meetings and, chances are, one of the first recommendations is going to be to set an agenda. Managers are often led to believe that having a written plan is the key for an engaging and successful meeting. Sadly, it’s not that easy. Research has actually found little to no relationship between the presence of an agenda and attendees’ evaluation of meeting quality. What matters is not the agenda itself but the relevance and importance of what’s on it, and how the leader facilitates discussion of the agenda items.
Instead of designing your agenda as a laundry list of topics to be broached, consider creating your agenda as a set of questions to be addressed. In its simplest form, the meeting exists to answer a set of compelling questions in an allotted time. Here are some examples of what this could look like:
Instead of a topic titled “Budget Problems,” consider a question such as, “How will we reduce our spending by 100K by the end of the fiscal year”?
Instead of a topic titled, “Customer Process Improvement,” consider a question like, “What are the key ways of improving overall response time to customers by 25%?”
Instead of a topic titled “Leader Succession,” try changing it to “Where are we vulnerable from a leadership turnover perspective and how might we address these vulnerabilities?”
Instead of a topic titled “Continuing Our Strategic Planning,” try changing it to what exactly will be worked on in the meeting such as, “What is the key market threat we need to be aware of, how could it affect us, and what can we do about it?”
Instead of a topic titled, “Miscellaneous Updates,” try changing it to “What key pieces of information do each of you have to share or need from one another?”
By populating the agenda with questions rather than topics, you’ll begin to think and act differently as you design the meeting. You’ll become strategic, thinking critically about the meaning of a topic and what your ultimate outcome is — the true reason to bring the collective together. In addition, this method fosters intentionality. A question-and-answer approach makes it is easier to determine your invitation list, for one: it’s the people essential to answering the questions. This approach also better informs when to actually end a meeting — when the questions have been answered to satisfaction.
To reap the benefits of this questions-based approach, there are four keys to success.
Design questions that are specific and challenging.
Think about creating agenda questions for meeting attendees like you would go about creating goals for your employees. Why? Goal-setting theory demonstrates that goals energize, focus attention, and promote persistence, all of which lead to better performance. Although much of this work has focused on individual goals and individual performance, arobustliterature now exists showing that a groups’ goals also serve to promote group performance. This literature shows that specific goals (e.g., generate at least 5 new client retention strategies) are more effective than general vague goals (e.g., do your best).
The same should go for your meeting questions. Create specific questions like the examples above so that attendees are clear what the challenge or problem is thus better focusing collective meeting efforts. Research also shows that difficult, but doable goals, are the most motivating types of goals. Similarly, agenda questions should be designed to challenge, but not be so outlandish that attendees fail to take them seriously and experience frustration.
Collaborate to identify questions that truly matter.
There is no formula for the ideal number of questions to address in a meeting. What is important is to have the right questions. To identify these, a meeting’s leader should first generate potential questions from their vantage point.
Then, attendees should be asked for input as the agenda is being created. There are two reasons why this is important. First, because meetings are fundamentally collective experiences, allowing other voices is only appropriate. Second, when employees are encouraged to openly share their thoughts and ideas – and the leader actually listens to those ideas — they’re more likely to feel a greater sense of commitment to the team and the organization. This, in turn, leads to a more engaged meeting attendee.
After identifying your own potential meeting questions and gathering attendee input, you need to carefully reflect on each question’s value and strategic importance. Drop questions that do not make the cut (in other words, questions that don’t rise to the level of my first tip above). Remember, if you deem an employee-generated suggestion to not be a good agenda question, get back to them in some fashion on the issue and explain why it won’t be included in the meeting. Finally, drop questions that are only relevant to a small subset of attendees; in this case, it is best to pursue the question with a subgroup.
Privilege the most important questions first.
Meeting science shows that content at the start of an agenda receives disproportionate amounts of time and attention, regardless of its importance. The implication is clear: put your most compelling questions at the start of the meeting. This will not only assure coverage of key issues; it is also a way of quickly grabbing attendee attention and conveying the value of the meeting. And while it is fine to start a meeting with 5 minutes or so of news and notes, after that concludes, go all in addressing the most challenging, important, and vexing questions.
If the questions are all of equal importance, consider privileging questions provided by attendees themselves. By doing so, you are living into a strong set of inclusion and shared-ownership values.
Execute on the agenda.
After your set of questions is finalized, distribute the meeting agenda in advance so people have time to think about and prepare for the questions to be addressed. There is no “magic time” per se; vexing strategic questions likely require around a week of lead time, but for most other questions, three days lead time should suffice. I also encourage meeting leaders to include the meeting agenda right into the meeting invite so it’s easy to locate.
Then a meeting leader needs to execute on the agenda. The most successful leaders not only consider what should be covered in a meeting, but also how to cover each item.
For instance, an agenda topic can be actively facilitated by you, or you can give that responsibility to someone else. It can be set on a timer or not, or addressed in a nonconventional manner such as having people brainstorm in silence, using voting apps, working in pairs, etc. An agenda topic can be addressed in two deliberate phases separated by a break: deliberation and decision. Or it could even involve certain attendees role-playing key stakeholders (e.g., a customer) not present at the meeting, or different process-oriented roles like devils-advocate, tangent buster, or positive Paul.
Clearly, there are numerous approaches to consider. To pick the right tool for the job, think about the attendees, the tasks, the history, and the meeting’s potential pitfalls. Let me share an example of this in practice for one meeting leader. This leader knows her team is composed of some very strong extroverted personalities and some quiet introverts. Plus, the introverts are the more junior folks on the team. Given this, the leader turned to a host of silence-based techniques. At the start of the meeting, one of the already-distributed agenda questions was presented to the attendees. Attendees provided responses to the question, in silence, using a meeting app. Next the responses were clustered together based on similarity and each cluster was named. This then led to the final silence phase, attendees voted on the top clusters to discuss. At this point, the silence phase ended. The meeting leader then facilitated an active discussion to derive the best possible answer.
Ultimately, a questions-based approach to agendas can bring focus, engagement, and better performance to your meetings. If you have never tried this approach, give it a go. It’s OK to experiment, reflect, learn, and tweak your approach. This work will not only help make meetings better, but will also build a broader team culture of learning, taking reasonable risks, and non-complacency.
And remember: if you can’t think of any questions to be answered in a meeting, that may be your sign that a meeting is simply not needed. Give back the gift of time to would-be attendees. They will thank you.
Would you rather attend a bad meeting or… Go to the dentist? Talk politics at family dinner? Watch C-SPAN in a waiting room? Call Comcast?
If teeth cleaning, table fights, nonprofit television or on-hold music sound better to you, you’re not alone: When employees were posed the “would you rather” scenario, these were the top four responses, according to a survey of 757 U.S. workers in 2019 (conducted by SurveyMonkey and commissioned by Google Calendar extension Clockwise).
Other survey highlights: Respondents said off-topic conversations are the biggest meeting challenges, while “arriving late” was considered the biggest taboo. And 78 percent of workers said their meeting schedule is always or sometimes out of control.
If you’re wondering when to schedule your next team meeting, Tuesday’s probably your best bet, as it won for favorite meeting day with one-third of votes. As for the worst days for meetings? Monday and Friday, according to 87 percent of respondents. When it comes to timing, almost 80 percent of workers would rather meet in the morning or right before lunch — and just 1 percent of people preferred evening meetings.
For more on the results, take a look at the infographic below.
Like, your boss talks for an hour about profit margins or “growth hacking” or whatever, and everybody else pretends to listen/care/not be actively DMing four coworkers a “this could have been an email” meme on Slack?
Apparently, that doesn’t happen at Amazon.
The company has meetings, obviously. Lots of them. But it also has a couple fail-safes in place to ensure they’re not the sort of dead-eyed affairs many of us are accustomed to.
For starters, whoever leads a meeting at Amazon has to write a document, usually about six pages long, to pass out at the start of it. Then everybody spends about 20 to 30 minutes silently reading and digesting what’s on that document, before going over the entire thing together, page by page.
Also: There’s no PowerPoint. Ever.
It’s weird! But company reps say it works.
“The quality of the meeting is much better,” says Jacqueline Underberg, Amazon’s Director of Robotics. “I’m an engineer by training, I’m not a professional writer. It forces you to be very succinct and clear about what you’re supporting.”
Amazon talks a lot about it’s so-called “writing culture.” CEO Jeff Bezos pens a highly-anticipated shareholder letter every year. A company website boasts that candidates are sometimes asked to submit a writing sample when they apply.
The memo-driven meetings play into the same mentality, and are driven from the top down. Whether you’re Nancy from HR or Bezos himself, “the expectation is you have a paper when you have a meeting,” Underberg says.
She’s been with Amazon for about a decade, and leads a team tasked with testing new technologies and software updates. They meet often to work through business proposals, and to review performance. But thanks to the company’s non-traditional approach to meetings, pretty much everything she does is collaborative.
“When you’re working on a paper, you’re constantly working with other people,” she says. “You’re thinking about the people in the room before they get there, people with different knowledge sets, and how to bring everyone up to the same level of understanding.”
The meetings “can be a little unsettling,” she admits. “Especially if you’re new, or if you prepared the document.”
But there’s also a sort of democratization that takes place, Underberg says, particularly among employees who don’t usually speak up at meetings, and are used to having their opinions overlooked.
“I’m naturally an introvert,” she says. “When I worked for other companies, I wasn’t great at having a flashy PowerPoint. This equalizes folks, and enables them to present on the power of their ideas.”