75 minutes into your weekly executive team update, and it hits you — 75 minutes of your already too-busy workweek that you’ll never get back. We’ve all been through these bad meetings. For some of us, these meetings feel so ingrained into your workplace culture that they just get accepted as a necessary evil. A systemic issue that just can’t be fixed.

Why are some meetings so, bad? Typical culprits include:

  • No direction. Nobody knows why they’re there
  • No follow-up. Nobody is clear on, or aren’t held accountable for, what to do next
  • People, generally. People are allowed to talk, and talk, (and talk!), without restriction

Good meetings can happen. But they don’t happen overnight. Play with these ideas to see improvement:

  • Ask yourself, do you need a meeting? Most meetings can be avoided. If you can send an email or have a one on one call instead, do that.
  • Make an agenda. The simplest step is often overlooked. If you’re leading the meeting, prepare an agenda. It doesn’t have to be long, just a short bulleted list will do. Add suggested amounts of time for each item. Send the agenda to everyone before the meeting. When the meeting starts, remind people of the agenda items, and suggested times.
  • Discuss action items. Don’t fall into the trap of using the term “we” without assigning roles. “We need to create a strategy document” means nobody will take responsibility for it. Tell people what they’re responsible for and by when. Start future meetings with a follow-up on these action items.
  • End on time, and debrief. Expectation setting is crucial. If a meeting goes over time, you will lose your audience and credibility. Finish on time. Take the last 5 minutes to ask “Did that meeting go well? What would you change?”
  • Lead! You’re the chair. Everyone is attending, but it’s your meeting. So lead! If a conversation is going too long, you can end it tactfully: “Andy’s got a great point there, but we need to move on to discussing the marketing budget. Does anyone have any final thoughts before we switch topics?”.

Are you thinking “I don’t lead any of our meetings, and Jeff never follows up, and Susan never shuts up anyway, so there’s nothing I can do to change these awful meetings!” I feel you. But this is only partially true. You can be bold:

  • Require an agenda. Ask the person who called the meeting to provide an agenda. If they don’t, either don’t go to the meeting, or, at the beginning of it, ask the lead to set out the meeting priorities.
  • Talk less. This doesn’t mean don’t talk. Make your voice heard, but stay on point. Before you talk, ask yourself “is this something that everyone needs to hear? Or can I just send Jeff an email about this after?
  • Steer! You might not be leading the meeting, but you can give some direction. Encourage moving on from topics once they get stale: “Jim, that’s an interesting perspective. Why don’t we discuss it one on one once this meeting breaks up?”

It takes time, patience, and practice, but bad meetings can be cured. Bringing in a third-party facilitator can help jump start this process. Want to learn more?