You are currently viewing Putting an End to Soul-Crushing Meetings

Putting an End to Soul-Crushing Meetings

I’m done with soul-crushing meetings. You know the type: the meetings where everyone is multitasking on their devices anyway, people are on private group chats making fun of the meeting, there are way more people there than need to be there, and there’s a lot of winging it and incessant talking about lots of unrelated things that don’t move anything forward.

American society is particularly meeting-crazy, and it’s made people lose sight of what actually makes a meeting necessary. Having so many meetings has made the meetings that actually matter become devalued.

WHEN YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO HAVE A MEETING

In-person meetings are actually necessary to move something forward when:

  • There are key decisions to be made – the most important word here being “key.” Every tiny decision point doesn’t need to be a meeting.
  • It’s the inception point or kickoff of a project – this allows everyone to get to know each other and sets the tone for how the program will go. When you start this way, you can be remote after and still have a feel for the people and project objectives.
  • There are lots of potential action items to come out of a conversation – especially when there are many different people involved, it’s best to make it a meeting.

When you do have an in-person meeting, it’s absolutely critical that people are actually present, not multitasking. I’m a huge believer that anything that’s a working session, a brown bag session, anything that involves taking a laptop to the meeting and multitasking shouldn’t be a thing in the first place.

For example, some of the most critical meetings in a transformational project are weekly or biweekly change management meetings and monthly steering committee meetings where all the key executives make key decisions to move the project forward. When executives don’t show up to these meetings or are multitasking on their computers, it’s incredibly unhelpful.

I know how busy executives are (I’m a CEO), but when it comes to decision making that’s literally what you’re here for. In these meetings, you need to be fully engaged so things can move forward. On their part, these meetings need to have a tight agenda and be clear on the necessary outcomes. That’s how to run these meetings successfully.

HOW TO DECIDE IF YOU ACTUALLY NEED A MEETING

You know the joke that “this meeting could have been an email?” For so many meetings, that’s actually true. If you’re not sure if you should send have a meeting or just send an email, ask yourself:

  • What is the outcome I want from this meeting? The point of a meeting is usually to get past a roadblock or wrap something up. What action item or two action items max do you need resolved or could be moved forward from this meeting?
  • Realistically, how much time does this meeting need to be and can I write and follow an agenda to make sure the resolution happens within that time frame? 
  • Who actually needs to be at this meeting? Try to keep guest list under ten, if not five or less.

EVERY MEETING DOESN’T NEED TO BE 30 MINUTES OR AN HOUR LONG

Just because of how Outlook is set up with 30 or 60 minute increments, people feel like they need to set meetings to that length. You really, really don’t. I shared above the joke that many meetings that happen could have been an email, and many hour-long meetings could also be ten or fifteen-minute meetings.

As much as I trash Agile as a methodology in some of my articles, I’m a huge fan of the daily fifteen-minute meeting idea.

These meetings are called stand-up meetings (because you literally stand in a circle and talk) and in them, each person on the team gives a quick blurb about what they’re working on today, what they hope to accomplish, and what things might be blocking their progress so the leader can help them get unblocked and get the job done.

As a leader, you’re there in those meetings to make sure people can get their jobs done and keep shit off of them so they can do that.

These meetings are invaluable, but you need to be a tight ship manager to keep them to 15 minutes. Over time, your people will get used to that format and learn how to get to the key points quickly.

Personally (especially with COVID), I could take or leave these meetings being in person. One project I worked on had one daily stand-up in person per week to keep team camaraderie intact and the rest of the daily stand-ups over the phone, and that worked really well.

WHAT PRODUCTIVE AND EFFECTIVE MEETINGS SHOULD LOOK LIKE

Productive and effective meetings should have:

  • A clear agenda up-front that the facilitator sticks to
  • Clear goals and action items to emerge from the meeting defined up front
  • A facilitator who adheres to the agenda’s topics for the appropriate amount of time as dictated in the agenda
  • Post-meeting notes with a clear list of action items that will be distributed as soon as possible after the meeting

THE ZOOM ISSUE

Ah, Zoom. The now-default for meetings thank to the pandemic. COVID-19 and the rise of Zoom have only added to the meeting fatigue that already existed long before 2020.

Here’s my unpopular opinion: Zoom shouldn’t be the default for virtual meetings, phone calls should be.

Zoom adds psychological overhead from needing to be meeting-ready from a visual perspective and adds too many extra variables with camera and audio settings. It’s obvious from all the stories we’ve read about Zoom during the pandemic that many people are not good at navigating all of these added layers, and navigating them adds to the fatigue of meetings.

One of my favorite Zoom mishaps I heard from a friend — there was a large training call with over thirty people on it. One of the workers on the call decided to have sex with her boyfriend without turning her camera off. Needless to say, she was fired.

I’m a firm believer that Zoom is only necessary when you need to see people’s faces — and you need to see people’s faces a lot less than you think.

For example, one of my favorite developers in my company, Molly, has no poker face. If I say something off-the-wall that she can’t wrap her head around, she’ll make a face and I want to delve into what the face means because it’s usually something thoughtful or at least funny.

Screens are great for brainstorming and ideation meetings where you need to understand from your closest people what they’re thinking and feeling about something.

Otherwise, regular old phone calls work great. They help people feel less meeting fatigue and screen fatigue because they can move around a bit and don’t have to chain themselves to their desks. I’d say Zoom is necessary about a quarter of the time at most.

MEETINGS ARE A CULTURE THING

In my experience, poorly-run organizations tend to be the ones that have the most meetings and their meetings tend to be the most meander-y. Their employees are also more fatigued than other organizations. This really boils down to a culture thing.

So, here’s what I hope you take away from this blog:

  • Most meetings can be emails.
  • Gigantic emails should probably be meetings.
  • If you’re going to have a meeting, you need a clear objective, agenda, and outcome.
  • Of the meeting you do have, only a very small amount of them should be in person or on Zoom.
  • For the meetings that are in person or on Zoom, there should be very little to no multitasking going on. These meetings need to be special and people need to understand that, otherwise there’s no point to them. 

I would be interested to hear your thoughts about meetings in your organization and how you work to make meetings more effective. Comment below or drop me a note on LinkedIn to share.