Meetings are often terrible, but they don't have to be
Image: MR Nattanon Kanchak/Shutterstock

Meetings are often terrible, but they don’t have to be

14 Nov 2017

Do meetings in your organisation merely waste time and bore employees to tears? Matthew Haughey is here to help, with some advice from GV’s Ken Norton.

Meetings are something many of us dread, but they’re necessary and can be quite useful with a bit of planning and forethought.

At Slack’s recent Frontiers conference, Ken Norton, a product partner at GV (the venture capital arm of Alphabet), shared concrete ideas on how to improve company culture around meetings. Here are his most important lessons from years of studying the dynamics and impact of meetings.

Kill the status meeting

Regular status meetings can quickly become a chore, take up a good deal of time and be distracting to employees whose time would be better spent getting work done.

Ultimately, they’re mostly used to give managers updates, so Norton’s advice is to find another way of gaining that visibility without taking up everyone’s time in a conference room  –  for instance, through things such as Slack bots, which can summarise a team’s output quickly.

As Norton says: “The best meeting is one you don’t have to have.”

Hold one-on-one meetings sacred

As a manager, Norton feels that one-on-ones are the most important meetings of his entire week, so he takes extra care to keep them regular and avoid cancelling them.

He’s also a huge fan of walking one-on-one meetings, which he conducts on 30-minute-long paths around Google’s campus.

Norton finds it freeing to get out of a conference room and into the outdoors. “There’s a different kind of formality of conversation when I’m walking with someone,” he said.

“It feels more conversational whereas in a room, it feels more like a meeting , particularly when it’s a boss-employee relationship.”

Every meeting should have two key things

Every meeting must have a single owner, who should share the purpose of the meeting with an agenda ahead of time. These two points are intertwined in Norton’s advice.

  1. Make sure you have an obvious single point of contact who organises the meeting, takes questions about it and controls the flow.
  2. This person should also always make sure to share a clear agenda and purpose in advance. No one should wander into a conference room asking why they were invited or what the meeting is about.

Meeting leaders can also do more to make sure everyone gets a voice at the table.

Norton suggested that those calling a meeting know their participants well, reaching out to quieter or more reserved attendees ahead of time to get their opinions on proposed subject matter, and permission to bring up their points of view in the meeting if necessary.

Meetings without an agenda tend to run a bigger risk of going into the weeds.

Norton suggested using the agenda as a guide to steer things back on track by saying something like: ‘That’s a great discussion, but we should take that offline and get back to making a decision on X, Y or Z.’

Rethink your calendar

Your calendar doesn’t make you important and shouldn’t postpone decisions. This is another two-for-one.

Managers shouldn’t be proud of how clogged their schedules are with nonstop meetings, as there are a lot of unintended downsides when people can’t book time with you. Large companies often have to wait weeks or even months to get all their stakeholders into the same room for major decisions, so Norton’s advice is to not let that halt your progress.

Asked how a manager might go about fixing a clogged calendar, Norton suggested doing an audit and making changes. Figure out what percentage of your calendar is spent with other managers and higher-ups, and how much is spent with direct reports.

“If you’re a senior manager and you’re spending 70pc of it with other peers and only 30pc with your team or your direct reports, that’s a problem,” he said.

Norton knows firsthand that an overloaded calendar can delay progress. He was once in charge of 20 designers and engineers on a long-term project, but he spent most days in senior leadership meetings.

When he’d return to his desk at 5pm, he’d be swarmed by his team asking him to approve designs and make decisions that were holding the project up. When he realised they’d been waiting hours for him to arrive, he knew missed deadlines were likely due to his own overbooked schedule.

Keep meetings small

Norton likes Amazon’s ‘two pizza rule’. The idea is to never have a meeting with more people than can be fed by two pizzas. Larger than that, and you run the risk of discussions going far afield and being harder to keep on track.

This rule often requires teams to send a single representative they trust, which may be a new adjustment.

The opportunity cost of meetings

Consider the opportunity cost of every meeting, and treat other people’s calendars as a scarce resource. Time is money, and it’s important to remember that getting 50 engineers in a room to talk about something can cost your company thousands of dollars worth of their time.

Also, whenever possible, ask before taking a slot on someone else’s calendar, especially if it’s a meeting that hasn’t been discussed in advance.

If the meeting is over, end the meeting

When a meeting finishes with eight minutes to spare, don’t try and fill the time. End it, and give everyone the gift of time.

Declare calendar bankruptcy

Want to reboot your old meeting culture? Rip the Band-Aid off by picking a date in the future when absolutely every meeting on every calendar is cancelled in a company, and only ones deemed most necessary and important can return.

It’s not easy, but it’s a good way to reset expectations and introduce a new, more healthy meeting culture.

To view Norton’s full presentation from the Frontiers conference, check out this video.

By Matthew Haughey

A version of this article originally appeared on the Slack Blog.

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