Two Paths to Better Meetings: The Subject and The People

I had a bunch of fantastic meetings today, said nobody, ever. Instead, people lament meetings for all their inefficiency, annoyingness, and, particularly in this virtual era—exhaustion.

Wouldn’t your time be better spent doing work? Probably. But also, meetings help fill a fundamental human need—to belong to a group. The identity of a team is defined by who is at the meeting. The shared understanding of the situation is established and maintained in that group. And the focus and intent of the group’s work can only be managed by getting and keeping everyone on the same page.

The problem is that the common approach to meetings lacks luster. The art of chairing a well-run meeting is nearly lost to the frenetic shuffle and confusion of the fast-paced work we tell ourselves that we cannot control. Yet, developing the skill and determination to run a meeting well is probably the single most effective way to exert control over our circumstances at work and to move things forward with confidence and determination.

Is that an over glorification of meetings? As Antoy Jay points out, referring a matter to a committee “can be a device for diluting authority, diffusing responsibility, and delaying decisions.” There can indeed be nefarious reasons for organizing groups. But, for those of us who want to actually get something done in a meeting, he goes on to provide sage advice that is still on-point today despite his having written it in a 1976 Harvard Business Review article “How to Run a Meeting.” The basic rules for success have not changed in the intervening years.

The team leader has tremendous responsibility for how the meeting goes. Accepting this responsibility means taking on serious work. Because the leader of the meeting must prepare, plan, organize, orchestrate, and operate the meeting with attention to many factors. Here Antony suggests a useful dichotomy of the role. He writes that the leader’s responsibility “can be divided into two corresponding tasks, dealing with the subject and dealing with the people.” I have written on a similar idea that where I suggest a useful approach is to analyze the situation, decide on a course to pursue, and then to advocate for that course. To do so, you very much need to work on the subject matter and then plan for how to influence others at the table. The point is similar—there are a range of things to consider and tend to in order to make any meeting work well.

More timeless advice comes to us from the mid-90s book The Wisdom of Teams, a deep dive into team dynamics and success factors, and one of my favorites that I revisit often. “Team leaders act to clarify purpose and goals, build commitment and self-confidence, strengthen the team’s collective skills and approach, remove externally imposed obstacles, and create opportunities for others.” Again we see that mix of dealing with the subject and dealing with the people. That’s a lot to cover on your little ole’ meeting agenda! Which is all the more reason that putting the agenda together is an act that requires special attention.

A vague listing of topics is not sufficient for productive discourse and sometimes just opens up the idea that the discussion will be a jamboree of random thoughts to fill up the hour. Things will flow much more smoothly if each agenda item has a clear goal, which is often one of three things: to share information, to discuss something, or to make a decision. Organizing the agenda is the first most important work of the leader. 

It takes time to consider the subject and the people and how to structure an agenda that has the best chance for success. In order to make time for this you may need to schedule some meetings with yourself and avoid meetings that waste your time in order to establish some planning capacity for yourself. Skipping bad meetings so that you can make your meeting better is usually a good trade-off. Particularly in this era of virtual meetings where it is harder to tend to important nuance than it is when everyone is in the same room. 

The biggest mistake everyone makes with meetings and remote work, according to Jason Fried who has run a 100% remote software company for many years and written extensively on the topic, is that people are trying to port the office experience over to a virtual environment. He likens it to the early days of the web when many tried to simply port a local computer or CD-ROM experience to this new platform. But the web platform really meant that an evolution in the interaction was needed in order to fully leverage what was new and different about the web. The same is true for virtual meetings. Many are following the same schedule and patterns as in the office but doing it in virtual space rather than a conference room. Calendars fill up, less happens, and we all are exhausted.

Everything bad about bad meetings is exacerbated in a virtual format. Not only is the meeting slow, unproductive, and lacking in preparation and outcomes, but you also have to stare at each other the whole time in a way that is totally unnatural to humans. It’s exhausting and, I think, demoralizing. We have a better chance of success by rethinking our approach to virtual meetings. And I think we can maybe go a long way by harkening back to Antony’s advice from 1976 and thinking about how we can apply it in new ways today.

A premise of his thinking on meetings is that meetings serve a fundamental human need. We are a social species and tribal gatherings are natural and necessary. Virtual meetings can help us in this time where physical proximity cannot. The virtual experience cannot replace actually being face to face, but leaders can recognize that there is a need to simply be together, to banter about, and to talk about what everyone did last weekend. Pay attention to the part where you need to deal with people, and people’s needs. The act of getting together has value in creating the group’s identity and helping everyone feel like they belong.

As to dealing with the subject matter, today’s tools give us new opportunities to tackle this. We can share links and files, quickly spin up a chat thread on a specific item, and access the best resources and thinking in the world on almost any topic with a simple web search. Our individual work in any area is supercharged in a way that was not imaginable when Antony developed his manifesto in the same year that the original Rocky movie was released (Rocky, of course, also offers a series of timeless lessons for work and life, but that is a topic for another day).

The resource that has not changed is time. And in work there are two kinds of time—the time we spend together and the time we spend alone. This might be a good way of thinking about Antony’s lessons in the modern world. Time we spend alone should maybe be focused more on the subject matter we need to address. If you show up to meetings thoroughly prepared, you add a lot of value to the group and you have a greater chance to influence outcomes

Time we spend together should perhaps bend toward the need to deal with people and their entire range of needs. They need to identify with the group and have a distinct identity within the group. Their work and contributions can be shaped in the meeting, and it can also be celebrated there. And the small talk and banter that can’t happen around the water cooler should perhaps be given a bit more space. 

Meetings aren’t going away. The challenges and opportunities are timeless. But you can always reshape your approach to being a better meeting leader and a better meeting participant. And if you ramp this skill up, you just might find a configuration where your work is more productive and more satisfying. Which probably looks a lot like going to less meetings but having each one be better and more impactful.