Fourteen Tips for Running a Good Meeting.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 14 tips for running a good meeting.

Nothing can drain the happiness from you faster than a long, unproductive meeting. You’re bored; you’re not getting anything done; emails are piling up while you sit, trapped.

On the other hand, a productive meeting is exhilarating. A long time ago, when I was working in Washington, D.C., I remember a friend who worked at the Department of Justice saying, “Jamie Gorelick runs a meeting so well, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, so not all of these strategies will be useful, but here are some things I try to remember when I’m in or running a meeting:

1. Very obvious: Start on time, and end on time. Once people see that meetings are starting late, the bad habit builds, because people see there’s no point in showing up promptly. Here’s one solution for late starts: a friend worked at a law firm that started fining partners $100 if they were late to a meeting, which turned out to be very effective. If the meeting has to run long, say, “We’re not through with the seven points, so can everyone stay fifteen extra minutes to wrap up?” That way, people know that the end is in sight.

2. At the same time, remember that it’s helpful to spend a little time in chit-chat. For a long time, I didn’t believe this to be true, and I tried to be hyper-efficient, but now I realize that it’s important – and productive – for people to have a chance to relate on a personal level. People need to build friendships, they need a chance to show their personalities, they need to establish rapport. Meetings are very important for this process.

3. If some people hesitate to jump in, find a way to draw them out. Ability to grab the floor doesn’t necessarily correlate with capacity to contribute.

4. One of the most insightful things my father ever told me was, “If you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you the responsibility.” Meetings often involve blame-giving and blame-taking, and although it’s not pleasant to accept blame, it’s a necessary aspect of getting responsibility (if deserved, of course). Proving my father’s point, one of my best meeting experiences ever was a time when I took the blame – rightly – for something done by a team of people working with me. Doing this ended up dramatically increasing my organizational credibility on all sides.

5. Share the credit. Along with blame, a meeting is also a great place to give people credit for their ideas and accomplishments. Be quick to point out great work or to call for a round of applause for a colleague. For some reason, people often act as though credit is a zero-sum goody, and if they share credit, they’ll get less themselves. From what I’ve seen, sharing credit not only doesn’t diminish the number of gold stars you get, but adds to them – because people so admire the ability to give credit. (Gold star junkie that I am, I pay close attention in this area.)

6. Making people feel stupid isn’t productive, and it isn’t kind. A friend has a good suggestion: “Be cheerfully, impersonally decisive.”

7. Have an agenda and stick to it. If possible, circulate the agenda in advance, along with anything else that needs to be read to prepare for the meeting. Make sure people know if they should bring anything. Along the same lines…

8. Never go to a meeting if you don’t know why you’re supposed to be there! This seems obvious, but it’s a situation that arises surprisingly frequently.

9. Standing meetings should be kept as short as possible and very structured. Have rules for canceling the meeting when appropriate – if such-and-such doesn’t happen; if only a certain number of people can attend, etc.

10. Don’t say things that will undermine or antagonize other people. Turns out they do in fact notice this, and they don’t appreciate it. If you wonder if you’re an offender, check yourself against this list.

11. Be very specific about what the “action items” are (to use the business-school term). Who is agreeing to do what, by when? Make sure someone is keeping track of what is supposed to happen as a consequence of the meeting, and at the meeting’s end, review these items so it’s crystal clear to everyone. Follow up by email.

12. If a meeting is long, schedule breaks when people can check their email and phones. Otherwise, they get very distracted by feeling they’ve been out of touch for too long (for some people, this takes about ten minutes), and they start sneakily emailing under the table. As if no one will notice. Which they do.

13. Meetings should stay tightly focused. If people want a chance to discuss side issues, theoretical problems, or philosophical questions that aren’t relevant to the purpose of the meeting, they should set up a separate meeting.

14. Here’s a radical solution: no chairs. In Bob Sutton’s terrific book, The No A**** Rule, (printed that way not out of prudery but to avoid spamblockers), he points to a study that showed that people in meetings where everyone stood took 34% less time to make an assigned decision, with decisions that were just as good as those made by groups who were sitting down.

What am I missing? What are some other strategies for improving meetings?

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  • in@comming

    You are right ;-) Gretchen. Thank you.

  • Bill Heinl

    Very good article. Two things I find hard to accomplish is drawing people into the discussion and sometimes keeping the meeting focused and on track.

  • Susan

    Someone please stop this nonsense of no chairs. Some of us have trouble standing for long periods of time. Pain and physical disability should not disqualify one from attending meetings.

    • Kurt

      It’s not nonsense. Obviously, everyone’s physical health and conditions should be taken into consideration. And don’t be so dismissive as to fail to recognize that there are some of us with the OPPOSITE problem, and can’t SIT DOWN. So who takes priority?

      And you say that “some of us have trouble standing for long periods of time.” That’s the point. Meetings that take “a long period of time” are by definition TOO LONG. “Some of us” wish we had such a good excuse to avoid ridiculously long meetings.

  • DeniseJD

    I would suggest a sub-point, 11.1 – Before adjourning, schedule the next meeting and briefly outline what the agenda for that one will be.

  • bedney

    Here’s an alternative to ‘no chairs’ (as Susan stated, some folks can’t stand for that long). Get a rough calculation of the dollar-per-hour for each person by guesstimating (don’t forget benefits and other burden to the organization). Pick a ‘budget’ for the meeting (“this is a $5000.00 meeting”). Keep one laptop or tablet in view with a countdown clock on it. When the clock runs down, the budget is expended and the meeting is over (whether it’s over or not). If folks whine, tell them that “everything in the organization has a budget… why don’t meetings have one too?” They’ll be more efficient next time…

  • Kurt

    I absolutely honor and respect the author and her expertise in habits and happiness. I’m sure there is a LOT everyone– myself included– can learn from her in that regard.

    However, I don’t think “running a good meeting” is one of them– at least if we’re talking about work/business meetings. We all should look for more opportunities to foster our personal happiness and that of others, but meetings are generally NOT about “happiness.” They are about getting something specific done that could NOT be done without a meeting. In fact, for most of us, the length and number of meetings we attend is INVERSELY proportional to personal satisfaction and happiness.

    To clarify though, there are five kinds of meetings:

    INFORMATIONAL- where it is more effective to bring a number of people together to share information and/or answer questions than it is to meet with them individually.

    INSTRUCTIONAL- an opportunity for participants to learn something from others that they would not be able to learn as easily or effectively on their own.

    DECISION-MAKING- where the purpose is NOT to bring up new information but to get the smallest possible number of already-prepared people together to make a decision that can’t be made by a single individual. And frankly, decisions that require more than one person to be made should be looked at long and hard to determine “why.”

    BRAINSTORMING- still lead by a meeting “owner,” these meetings should be fast paced and largely free-form. No getting into the weeds with analysis, judgement or decisions. Sometimes in these meetings, the more participants the better.

    and finally,

    CELEBRATORY- THIS is the “Happy” meeting. These should NOT be tightly restricted time or agenda-wise. And THESE are the meetings where #2, #3, #5 abed #6 on this list are not only acceptable, they should be part of the PURPOSE of the meeting.

    In my experience, most of the problems we have with “meeting culture” are the result of confusion or disagreement over what TYPE of meeting is being held.