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What are some methods of coordinating meaningful effective meetings? Effective is defined as succinct, following the scope, leaving with decisions made, etc.

Of all the meetings we conduct as a company, it seems as they are inefficient and lack direction.

Our meetings recently have been about process management and following up with our goals as a company: increasing billable hours, making web development more profitable, etc.

And of course our meetings are ironically titled, effeciency meetings.

  • The most important thing about meetings: keep them short. The productivity will follow. – Claudiu Constantin Apr 11 '12 at 7:23
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Jeff Atwood drafts a few simple guidelines, in a recent blog post:

  1. No meeting should ever be more than an hour, under penalty of death.

    The first and most important constraint on any meeting is the most precious imaginable resource at any company: time. If you can't fit your meeting in about an hour, there is something deeply wrong with it, and you should fix that first. Either it involves too many people, the scope of the meeting is too broad, or there's a general lack of focus necessary to keep the meeting on track. I challenge anyone to remember anything that happens in a multi-hour meeting. When all else fails, please keep it short!

  2. Every meeting should have a clearly defined mission statement.

    What's the mission statement of your meeting? Can you define the purpose of your meeting in a single succinct sentence? I hesitate to recommend having an "agenda" and "agenda items" because the word agenda implies a giant, tedious bulleted list of things to cover. Just make sure the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone; the rest will take care of itself.

  3. Do your homework before the meeting.

    Since your meeting has a clearly defined mission statement, everyone attending the meeting knows in advance what they need to talk about and share, and has it ready to go before they walk into the room. Right? That's how we can keep the meeting down to an hour. If you haven't done your homework, you shouldn't be in the meeting. If nobody has done their homework, the meeting should be cancelled.

  4. Make it optional.

    "Mandatory" meetings are a cop-out. Everyone in the meeting should be there because they want to be there, or they need to be there. One sure way to keep yourself accountable for a meeting is to make everyone optional. Imagine holding a meeting that people actually wanted to attend, because it was … useful. Or interesting. Or entertaining. Now make it happen!

  5. Summarize to-dos at the end of the meeting.

    If your meeting never happened, what would the consequences be? If the honest answer to that is almost nothing, then perhaps your meeting has no reason to exist. Any truly productive meeting causes stuff to happen as a direct result of the decisions made in that meeting. You, as a responsible meeting participant, are responsible for keeping track of what you need to do – and everyone in the room can prove it by summarizing their to-do list for everyone's benefit before they leave the meeting.

I started realizing the importance of succinct meetings when we started doing daily stand ups at work. Typically stand-ups are timeboxed and the simple fact that you are standing instead of comfortably sitting in your char is an extra incentive to be precise and not waste any time in idle conversations, if only to get through as soon as possible. Obviously it wouldn't be reasonable for everyone to stand up during a longer meeting, but at least the speaker should.

Personally, I find most meetings quite boring. I am a hardcore developer with little interest in the non technical aspects of the job and I find it quite challenging to follow and participate in meetings involving anything other than code. At a previous gig, the manager had this extremely counter productive idea that all of us should be involved in everything, and almost every week I had to sit and listen to crap I had little understanding of and absolutely no way of providing feedback for. It was a complete waste of everyone's time that soon lead to a mini riot. I know her intentions were good, but there is absolutely no reason to involve people in a meeting when they have nothing valuable to offer.

At my current main gig, I'm telecommuting, and thus face some unique challenges when it comes to meetings. I can only participate via Skype, and on meetings involving more than a couple of people I find myself asking everyone (but the speaker) to shut up, almost every five minutes. Idle chatter that you may not even notice when you are in the room becomes a confusing loud buzz when you are far away and lack visual indications such as body language that help your brain focus to or completely ignore a conversation. For example, at times I find it quite hard to distinguish sarcasm, which lead to awkward moments more than once.

The solution was simple enough, documentation. Having a clear agenda before the meeting, and sticking to it during, helps me concentrate on what's important and completely phase out anything that's not. A summary of to-dos (Atwood's last point) is also extremely helpful, as I can go through it at a later time and see if I've missed something important, said while the buzz was a bit louder than usual or during the few seconds that the network or Skype was acting up.

You should bring up your concerns with management, or whomever is responsible for setting up the meetings at your company. "Efficiency" meetings can either be productive or a complete waste of time, I don't think there is a middle ground as they are inherently boring and (most) people if not engaged just give up and treat them as a break from work. When (if) that happens you have to deal with it quickly, before it gets out of hand.

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  • The "Make it optional" point just blew my mind. – weronika Apr 11 '12 at 2:49
  • Yannis' answer is excellent. The only thing I would add, if your culture would let it happen, is to put a box by the door for everyone to "check" their smart-phones when they enter and pick up when they leave. – JohnFx Apr 11 '12 at 3:29
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  • Set a clear goal, and accomplish it. If the meeting goes long because you find that more discussion is needed, then schedule a follow up.
  • If you find that your meeting goals aren't being met, then find out why and fix it. If you find the reason to be because the meeting isn't about anything important, then cancel the meeting. You'd be surprised how many people would hear this approach and say, "But, we've always had this meeting. Can we do that?!"
  • Look for more effective ways to get things done than through meetings (can you have conversations with decision makers directly, without excluding important voices from the decision; can you send information through email instead of stopping work and bringing everyone together just to spread information)?
  • The more pomp and circumstance you have around meetings, the more likely it is that they've become about worshiping at The Alter of the Meeting (and the people running the meeting) than getting meaningful work done.
  • Like anything, a meeting should be chosen as the form of communication and collaboration because it's the best tool for a given job, the same way you would choose a solution to a business problem, not because meetings are "what we do".

Here's also a list of 5 practical alternatives to having meetings that can often accomplish the purpose of meetings without having to use up as much organizational time and people.

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The best thing I know to make a meeting better is to create, publish, and stick to an agenda.

A clearly written agenda, which includes the goal or goals of the meeting, makes sure the person running the meeting has invested the time needed to prepare fort he meeting. It also lets everybody know what is supposed to take place. It can even simplify the taking of notes, because you are mostly recording action items and decisions.

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