Swedes have a reputation for seeking consensus and that happens mostly through meetings. Every year I spend over 330 hours in meetings (that’s equal to two weeks straight, day and night). Here I share my top observations about the meetings that went really well.

This could easily be a 50 item list that no one reads but for the sake of simplicity let’s stick to 7:

  1. Give as much information as possible beforehand

The first and most important rule for a successful meeting is preparation. Make sure to include as much information about the meeting as possible. Outlook, Google Calendar, Mac OS X Calendar, and pretty much all decent scheduling software have a description field that allows adding more information, attaching documents and even adding maps.

You must absolutely motivate “WHY”.

Do people read it? Some do and some don’t but in the next tip, you’re gonna make sure they’ll get used to check it out!

2. Brief the agenda at the start of the meeting

It is extremely important to sync everyone at the start of the meeting. Not everyone is thinking about your meeting all the time. People have busy lives. Do yourself a favour and explicitly set the agenda for the meeting. This has two benefits:

  1. Ignites people’s thought process from the very beginning
  2. Draws some borders on the scope of the meeting in order to avoid irrelevant side discussions.

It is best to briefly reference the meeting description in the agenda talk:

Today we are going to talk about our application framework based on the proposal that was attached to the meeting notes.

You want the audience to be focused on the topic that is being discussed in the meeting. 60 seconds of agenda talk does it. Meetings are paid time so they deserve the same treatment you give to money.

3. Keep to the scheduled time

Never ever be late to a meeting. Never ever let the meeting run over time. Never ever repeat the meeting for those who are late. If someone has a habit of being late, he’ll think twice knowing that you’ll not be irregular. Having said that, it helps to schedule the meeting 5 minute after a full hour (for the people who have to run from another meeting or those whose bladder is equipped with a digital clock). For example 15:05 or 09:35 would be great, and it would be nice to finish 5 minutes before like 15:55 or 9:55.

Allocate only as much time as is really needed. Time is money. People are going to be paid when they are in the meetings! Decide how much time is the meeting topic worth and don’t overspend. If a topic needs 40 minutes to discuss, don’t schedule a meeting for 1 hour just because it’s lazy to do it in Outlook!

Fund your meeting: calculate how much the meeting costs the company in terms of salary. Then treat that time like it was being paid from your own salary.

Some smart devs have made a really cute web page that keeps counting the meeting cost on the projector. Give it a try, it’s fun: http://meetingcost.io/

4. Stay focused on the topic

There are always people who have an ego bigger than their chair and people who just wake up in the middle of the meeting and want to contribute to prove they were not day dreaming! In fact there’s always going to be off topic discussions in every meeting. It’s your job to guard the meeting by moderating it. I really like the idea of the parking lot. It basically means you “park” the irrelevant ideas and promise to bring them up in another meeting with the right audience.

Be aware of the Parkinson’s law of triviality and shy away from any topic that is off topic.

5. Only invite necessary people

People’s time costs money. The more people you invite to a meeting, the more it costs the company. Unless you hate your company (then why would you work there?) make sure you invite the least number of people who should be there. Are you gonna make a decision about back end? Don’t invite the marketing people! Or invite them optionally and inform them about the agenda in the meeting description.

Ever seen people playing with their phone while you present? Those are the people who shouldn’t be invited again because obviously they are not interested. Talk to them outside the meeting and frankly ask them why their phone was more attractive than your presentation. Maybe there’s a tip for improvement for your leadership skills. Don’t miss that.

Also the more people you invite, the more opinions and idea-clashes will happen. The equation is simple:

more people→more noise →longer session →more expensive meeting

Making sure to invite the right people is as important as focusing on the right topic. Never ever force people to join a meeting. This might work in The Republic of Wadiya but most people just loose interest the moment they’re forced to do something!

6. Cut the bullshit

No one wants to hear bullshit. If someone tries to steal the show and make the meeting about themselves, don’t be shy to say:

Let’s hear what other people think about the topic.

Same goes with the advanced inspector who asks too many questions trying to look smart. Others might be silent but they’ll hate you for your lack of respect for their time. Say something along the lines of:

Seems like you have a lot of interesting questions. Let’s take it after the meeting so that we can stick to the agenda and finish on schedule.

Same goes for you. Don’t argue with anyone during the meeting. Take it privately afterwards if it is not critically related to the topic and everyone really really really needs to hear the whole discussion.

7. Take action

Meetings cost money right? But have you asked why the company should pay for them? What is in it for the company?

It’s your job to actively take notes (or assign someone to do it), and make a list of action points. It is very important to know who’s going to do what after the meeting. And don’t stop there. Send an email afterwards and make sure everyone understands it.

It’s such a loss if you miss that email. It’s like going to mt. Everest and returning just before reaching the tip!

And no, signing a list of the names of the participants is not an action! ☺

More

If you want more, here are 3 bonus tips to make it 10 in total:

8. Keep it to 15 minutes and in rare cases 90!

Ever wondered why a football match is 90 minutes? Most university sessions are also around that time. Even the driving school sessions. Hmm… there must be a pattern right?

Research has shown over and over again that anything beyond 1.5 hours is just a waste of time. In fact the optimal time is 15–20 minutes.

Under no circumstances (even if your child is kidnapped and you’re asked to waste your company’s money in order to release them) don’t set a meeting for over 1.5 hours. If you find yourself re-scheduling another meeting to finish what you couldn’t finish in the first meeting, only one of these two cases has happened:

  1. You are negotiating Iran’s nuclear program.
  2. You have no sense of time management and people nervously laugh at you behind your back!

Humans are a bit different from the robots. They have a hard time staying focused on a topic for too long (and that attention span is decaying so rapidly that 90% of the readers don’t even make it to this line!). They also get hungry and want to go to bathroom or call the head hunters to get them out of the meeting-company. Cut them some slack. Let them be. Just because you are slightly higher in the corporate hierarchy doesn’t mean you have to force people to be in your meetings. They’ll hate you for that. They’ll hate the company for putting them in that situation. Be nice. Be human.

9. Try stand ups/close to lunch and other mean techniques

There’s a bunch of blogs that advice creative ways to cut the meeting time:

  • Schedule close to lunch time. Hungry people don’t waste time.
  • Meet with no sits. Tired people don’t waste time.
  • Have a clock. Stressed people don’t waste time.
  • Use uncomfortable chairs: People in pain don’t waste time.
  • Meet under water: Suffocating people don’t waste time.
  • Bring a bear: Scared people don’t waste time.

You get the idea. Just do something mean so that people wanna get out of the meeting as soon as possible.

OR use the ultimate technique: have a super boring topic!

10. Don’t have meetings!

Yes the last rule is kinda counter-intuitive, but there are a bunch of ways to solve a problem without having a meeting. Meetings are synchronous physical gatherings. There are asynchronous and virtual ways that do just fine.

For example sending back and forth an email where people can “Reply all” is a great idea because people can read the email and reply when they have time. Emails are less costly than meetings because people can skip the parts they are not interested to read. They can also be written in what is otherwise considered “dead time” like when someone is too tired to have any actual work done.

BEWARE: If the email treat becomes longer and longer while some people are totally silent, it’s time for a meeting.

Sometime meeting is actually the wrong format. If you want to talk to your colleague about something but don’t have the balls to do that directly, there’s no need to invite the whole department to the show. Work on your social skills. If you want to gather money for charity or announce a garage sale, you guessed it right! Meeting is a no go!

If you are going to hold a meeting and just read through your slides, please send the slides as an email attachment. Don’t try to desperately impress people by your reading skills. It’s 21st century, most people can read.

If you really have to have the meeting, still consider doing part of the job offline. Some very typical example are the scrum retrospectives or risk assessment meetings. People can write their thoughts before coming to meeting and then meet for the sake of sharing and discussing them.

What do you think? What is your experience? If you have a Twitter account, you can join medium and share your thoughts on the exact paragraphs you find interesting.

PS. Here is an interesting podcast episode about efficient meetings http://alphaux.libsyn.com/041-doing-meetings-right-is-product-management

Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer

Knowledge Worker, MSc Systems Engineering, Tech Lead, Web Developer