How to Make Meetings Less Torturous

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Employee Engagement: The Strategic Priority of HR

I am not, nor have I have been, an IT professional. But if there’s one thing that’s rubbed off on me after being around IT pros all these years, it’s a disdain for meetings. There aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done as it is, and having to waste any of them sitting in an aimlessly bloated meeting can be torturous.

I knew I was going to be speaking with a kindred spirit when I recently interviewed Cameron Herold, a CEO coach and author of “Meetings Suck: Turning One of the Most Loathed Elements of Business into One of the Most Valuable.” As much as I personally loathe meetings, I went into the interview with an open mind, accepting the premise that it’s within the realm of possibility that they could have some redeeming value if they’re handled properly. So I opened the conversation by asking Herold what the single most common mistake is that organizations make with respect to meetings. He said it’s booking the meeting without an agenda:

It’s telling people why you’re having the meeting, but without giving them the entire agenda — what’s being covered, in what order, and how many minutes are being spent on each item, which would allow people to opt out of attending the meeting, or to opt in to attending specific parts of the meeting but not necessarily the whole thing. There’s a massive cost to organizations when you have people showing up for a one-hour meeting when they really only need to be there for 30 minutes. It’s kind of like being a Navy Seal who knows exactly what his core job is, and he’s not going to do anything but that.


I mentioned that my experience has been that the content of a meeting tends to expand to fill whatever time slot has been allocated for it, whether it’s warranted or not. I asked Herold if he had any tips to help prevent that from happening, and he said that’s the whole idea behind avoiding Mistake No.1:

That’s Parkinson’s Law — stuff expands to fill the space that we give it. That’s exactly why what you want to do is create the agenda, and show exactly what items you’re covering; in what order you’re covering them; how many minutes you’re going to spend on each agenda item; and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what communication style you’re going to use for each of those items.

There are really only three styles of communication that happen: info-share, which is top-down, bottom-up, or lateral, where no one is really discussing or debating; creative discussion, which is the brainstorming, blue sky, throwing ideas up against the wall; and consensus decision-making, where we’re going to discuss and debate, and then leave the room with a consensus. When you tell people the style of communication that will be used for each item on the agenda, it gets people a lot more focused and a lot less frustrated.

OK, that’s the single most common mistake. What’s the single most harmful mistake? Herold said it’s over-inviting:

It’s feeling like we have to invite those people because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. It’s kind of like giving everyone a participation ribbon. You’re actually hurting their feelings by making them show up to meetings they know they don’t need to be at. You’d be better off saying, ‘I’d rather have you working on the core projects that are on your plate this quarter than have you show up at this meeting.’

I asked Herold what impact technology is having on the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings, or the lack thereof. His response:

I’ve actually taken a lot of my ideas on how to run highly effective meetings from Agile development — that scrum style of ‘here’s what I’m working on today, and here’s my accountability, here’s when I’m going to get it done.’ That style of accountability, and bringing it into meetings, is really powerful across all organizations.

As for what technologies boost the effectiveness of meetings, things like Asana and Basecamp can give you really good visual displays of project maps and tasks that people are working on, so that everyone can see it up on the wall.

Using tools like Zoom videoconferencing or Google Hangouts, so you can have remote people over video, really helps to keep the relationships strong. I like having it done where you have each individual calling in off their laptop. Logging in to a Zoom call, you can have eight or 10 remote people — I recently did one with 15 CEOs from all over the world that I coach. I like having each individual person on their own video stream. Zoom has really taken over in terms of adoption by entrepreneurial organizations — these can be companies with thousands of employees, but they really are adopting a more entrepreneurial style, vs. a corporate, bureaucratic style. It’s very simple to use, and much clearer than Skype. Skype is kind of going the way of Microsoft, in a lot of ways — it’s a little kludgy and sluggish, and it doesn’t really have the strong bandwidth that Zoom seems to.

I wondered if any gender-specific elements come into play with respect to running meetings. Do men and women tend to run meetings differently, or does one gender tend to run them more efficiently than the other? Herold said he has a gender bias toward women in the workplace:

Women seem to get more done by working collaboratively. There seems to be a little bit less of the chest-thumping, ‘I’m right’ attitude. However, behind the scenes, they don’t tend to work together as well as men do — they tend to be a little bit more catty behind the scenes. But in meetings themselves, women tend to be a little bit more collaborative. They may not bring up their issues as much; they may not come out and speak the truth as much as men will.

I’ve always loved a good baseball metaphor, and Herold wrapped up the conversation with a good one:

We would never send our kids out to Little League baseball without teaching them how to hold the bat, or how to throw and catch the ball — just giving them the basics. We would never want to embarrass them like that. And yet we allow our employees to participate in or run meetings without having any skills or basic training in how to run meetings. That was the whole purpose in writing the book, ‘Meetings Suck.’ Meetings don’t suck at all. We just suck at running meetings.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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