Have you ever been in a BAD meeting? The one where the conversation just draaaags on, yet NOTHING gets decided on...ever? People talk over each other, and the only outcome is to schedule a follow-up meeting?
If you’ve been nodding along to all these questions, you’re not alone; executives view a staggering 67% of meetings to be failures! On top of that, an average of 31 hours per month are spent in unproductive meetings. That’s almost an ENTIRE workweek. Talk about inefficiency and soul-wrenching work.
But don’t despair! You don’t have to settle for time-wasting meetings that make you low-key hate your job. There is a better–and more enjoyable–way to run your meetings.
We actually recorded a full video on this topic precisely, give it a watch here:
But if reading is more of your thing, read on for our 12 best tips on how to make your meetings more effective.
First things first: Why are meetings so ineffective in the first place?
Chances are, if you’ve experienced unproductive meetings first-hand, you’ve already done your fair bit of research and have found some advice on improving your meetings. Things like creating a better agenda, starting and ending on time, or checking whether the meeting content could be summarized in an email…
And while all of these tips are valid, if you’ve tried them, you likely realized that they’re not hugely effective. Sure, taking a critical look at your meetings and suspending some of them freed up your time, but the remaining meetings still suck, no matter how elaborate or cool your agenda is. That’s because these tips are a band-aid fix for the symptoms of a much bigger underlying problem.
The main reason meetings are such a drag is because their whole essence goes against the grain of how humans function and process information. Without a set of tools and processes in place, every meeting follows more or less the same pattern.
The introverts and juniors in the room don’t feel comfortable speaking up, even if they think they might have the right solution. The loudest, most extroverted, or the most senior team members dominate the conversation. Groupthink takes over, and team members don’t feel free to share their ideas. The conversation goes off-topic, and the team loses the focus of the initial challenge. Everyone understands the job to be done differently. No tangible outcomes are produced, and yet another meeting is scheduled.
Just imagining this scenario makes our heads hurt!
Meetings like this are deadly to productive, meaningful work, not only because they are boring to be in, but because they don’t fulfil their primary purpose: providing alignment for the team and clear next steps for a project.
So what is the solution to ineffective meetings?
By now, it’s pretty clear that cooking up a better agenda or a new note-taking system will not drastically improve your meeting because the underlying problems– information overload, groupthink, and navigating team politics–are not being solved.
So what will?
Well, changing the meeting from an unstructured open-discussion with its faulty dynamics to a workshop, aka a structured meeting that ensures solid outcomes.
Workshops fundamentally change the way collaborative work is done. They take out the unstructured discussion and replace it with streamlined processes that help teams fully concentrate on the challenge at hand. Groupthink and talking over each other in circles are replaced by structured discussion and uninterrupted ideation.
If you’re feeling especially motivated, give it a go and try to run a Lightning Decision Jam in place of your next meeting; a Problem Framer workshop for your next project kick-off; a 10 for 10 workshop instead of the conventional brainstorming session; or an Action Board workshop in place of the normal decision-making discussion.
Cautious about getting buy-in from your team or just want to take it slow in ease yourself into the workshop ways of working? Then start by incorporating some of the techniques that make workshops so effective into your next meeting. Trust us, that alone will make it 10 times more effective.
Tip #1: Appoint a facilitator
A facilitator (or a Workshopper, as we like to call them) is the person who guides the meeting, helps keep the participants on track, nips circular discussions in the bud, and makes sure the meeting ends with clear outcomes and next steps.
Having a facilitator in the room frees up everyone's mental capacity and really allows them to focus on the issue at hand instead of going through the loop of the usual meeting thoughts:
Should I talk now?
Am I supposed to answer this?
Should I volunteer to do this?
You can volunteer to facilitate your team’s next meeting, a kick-off of a new project, a decision-making process for that new feature that everyone’s been putting off, or a particularly big clunky challenge.
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, loud or soft-spoken – you can become a good workshop facilitator. Just be mindful of adopting the facilitator’s mindset and you’ll be all set!
That is, shifting the focus from trying to show how good, confident, and smart you are to helping your participants do their best work, or in other words, embracing the role of the guide rather than the hero.
Side note: learning how to facilitate is a GREAT career move regardless of your current role. Once you’re seen as the person who can come in and help others do their work better and with less annoyance, you are wanted all the time for every project. You become the catalyst for getting work done better.
Tip #2: Appoint a Decider
It might be tempting to venture out in the terrain of flat hierarchy and pretend everyone is on the same level, but we’re strong believers it’s not a good idea, for a variety of reasons. Perpetuating lack of accountability, team politics, and conformity are just some of them.
Appoint a Decider for your meeting, the person who will call all the shots and define what the next steps are. Ideally, the Decider should be the person with the highest stake in the outcome – often a product owner or manager.
This will help ensure the process moves along swiftly and the outcomes of the meeting actually get executed later on.
Tip #3: Get the team right
If you want to leverage your team’s best ideas, make sure to bring together a group with diverse perspectives and knowledge but resists the urge to invite everyone who has a remote connection to the subject of your meeting.
Too many people in the room will make the meeting much harder to facilitate (trust us, we speak from experience).
Plus, the more people are in the room, the more staff-hours are spent on tackling that one problem. Does everyone on your list REALLY need to be there? Or will a short update be enough for some members?
Getting your meeting participant’s number right is a tough balance to strike, but as a rule of thumb, try to keep the number of participants 7 or less per one facilitator.
Tip #4: Sequence your discussions
Throwing an open-ended question into the room and asking your team to freely share their opinions on how to tackle a problem is the most sure-fire way to divert your meeting to the unstructured discussion form.
Instead, sequence all the discussions in the meeting.
How this would work on a macro-level is dividing your meeting into phases: first, you talk about the challenge, and only after that phase is completed you switch into the solution mode. On the micro-level, you sequence the order in which people are talking, only letting one person speak at a time.
It’s not the natural or familiar way to run meetings, and if you think this will feel weird–you’re absolutely right! But once you come over the initial discomfort, you’ll realize how much more structured your meetings have become.
Sequencing discussions is a great tool for keeping meetings on-topic, so you don’t have new challenges thrown into a mix once you’re in the solution mode or team members contributing ideas while you’re defining the scope of the challenge.
Tip #5: Learn how to deal with troublemakers
As a facilitator, you need to be prepared to handle all kinds of situations that might arise during your meeting, and that includes difficult individuals and troublemakers. Besides, if we’re being completely frank, it’s not a question of if someone will try to sabotage your meeting, but a question of when.
Sooner or later, you will have a person in your meeting, who’s being distracting, asks sabotaging questions (e.g., “Do I REALLY have to be here?” or “Do you have proof this works?”), or simply doesn’t pay attention.
But not to worry, while there’s no way to avoid the troublemakers, there are a few simple tools that will help you get the meeting back under control.
- Set expectations at the beginning of the workshop. Mention what’s expected of the participants and state the meeting’s ground rules (e.g., a no-phone rule). By getting buy-in from the participants before the workshop, you can hold them accountable for the rules and expectations you agreed upon.
- Use a Parking Lot. Sometimes a participant will start a circular discussion that is heated and complex but just isn’t relevant to moving forward with the meeting or decision. And it’s hard for people to stop talking when they feel that the topic is important and shouldn’t be forgotten. An easy way to help your participants feel comfortable while simultaneously keeping the meeting moving is to create a Parking Lot - a physical space where questions, ideas, and topics can be “parked” for later. This could be an area on the whiteboard, a blank wall, or an area on your remote collaboration board. If you spot a circular discussion around a side-topic, simply interject with something like: That’s a big topic/question. It’s important, but outside of the scope of today’s meeting. To make sure we don’t forget it, could you write it on a post? Let’s finish this step and come back to talk about it later. Now, for this technique to work you have to set time aside at the end of your meeting to address any items in the parking lot. Otherwise, people won’t trust you the next time you’d want to use it and won’t let go of their idea.
- Give troublemakers tasks. If someone is consistently disrupting the flow of the workshop, resist the urge to simply ignore them. Instead, give them easy tasks that will keep them occupied and will make them feel involved: writing out the notes, drawing the map, dialling in a remote colleague, etc. This might seem patronizing, but what it really does is allows people to feel involved in a workshop and turns them into allies instead of opponents.
- Ask Probing Questions. It’s a guarantee that there will be times when you are faced with difficult questions to which you don’t know the answer. They can throw you off your game and break up the flow of the meeting if you don’t know how to handle them. The solution? Ask Probing Questions. Probing Questions are like a magic trick! They allow you to engage in the question without revealing that you might not know how to answer it. So if you’re confronted with a question that you don’t know the answer to or that is clearly aimed at sabotaging the meeting, try using one of these cues: "That’s a really interesting question!
Can you tell me what’s behind you asking that?", "Are you thinking of a specific situation?", "What do you mean exactly? Can you tell me more?" Probing Questions help you validate the asker, provide that extra information you might need, and buy you thinking time. Plus, the troublemaker might just answer their own question in the process.
- The Nuclear Option. Although the above techniques work well in most cases, you should still expect and prepare for troublemakers who simply won’t cooperate. If you’ve already tried all of the above methods, and nothing has worked, approach the person privately, ask them how they’re doing, and how you can make the workshop better for them. Take notes while they’re speaking to show that they’re really being heard and you take their comments seriously! Don’t get snarky or passive-aggressive, try to really understand the reasons for their behavior. Rarely is someone trying to sabotage a meeting just because they feel like it; most of the time, there are underlying reasons that you might not be aware of. If that doesn’t help, approach the troublemaker again, and tell them that they are being disruptive and are negatively impacting the workshop for others. If that doesn’t help either, revert to the final option and ask them to leave the meeting.
Tip #6: Visualize your discussions
Because the human capacity to take in new information is limited, you shouldn’t expect your participants to keep all important data in their minds. This is why you need to visualize all conversations in a meeting (meaning data, topics, and ideas) in a standardized way.
An easy way to do that is to record all the information on sticky notes, a whiteboard, or a remote collaboration tool. This removes the possibility of misalignment and interpretations, lets the participants offload all the data, and stop spending mental energy trying to keep all the moving pieces in their heads.
Tip #7: Time-box your activities
To avoid discussions spiralling out of control, allocate a certain time for each activity on your agenda, and stick to this schedule. For example, if you’re defining a challenge, set 20-30 minutes for it, and after the time’s up, move on to the next steps.
This approach forces you and the team to think more efficiently, and cut out circular discussions.
Pro tip: the time-slots for each activity should always feel a little bit too tight so that your brain goes straight into solution-mode, instead of idling around. It might feel like you’re leaving stuff out; like the team isn’t finished yet, and needs more time, but remember, circular discussions don’t get you results; they just waste your team’s energy.
Tip #8: Work alone, together
If you’ve heard of the Design Sprint, you’re familiar with this concept. What working ‘alone, together’ means is that you’re collaborating on the same problem in real-time, but instead of discussing ideas openly or brainstorming, you’re silently noting them down on a sticky note.
So instead of kicking off solution search with an open discussion, give the team some sticky notes, set a timer, and ask them to note their ideas down without discussing them with each other. After they’re done, stick the anonymised ideas on a whiteboard or a wall.
This collaboration technique is great for reducing idea contamination, groupthink, and group biases. It also gives introverts and more junior members of the team the possibility to share their ideas freely.
Pro tip: Working in silence might feel awkward the first few times you try it out. After all, it’s not how people are used to working in meetings! To soften the awkwardness a bit, turn on some non-distracting background music. Our Spotify Workshop playlist is perfect for this!
Tip #9: ALWAYS end with a decision
Leave the last few minutes of every meeting to discuss the next steps. Even if you can’t come to the final conclusion, there should be clear next steps defined after the meeting is done. Hint: scheduling a follow-up meeting is not a valid next step.
Some effective meeting strategies to help ensure that people leave your meeting with clarity and purpose include:
- Assigning action or follow-up items to specific team members
- Scheduling a deadline and defining a clear timeline for all the action items
- If there were side discussions that were parked, make sure they’re resurfaced so your team can choose how, when, and if to keep them rolling.
Tip #10: Use multi-layered voting to help you make those decisions
Instead of doing endless rounds of open discussion trying to decide on those action items, use the multi-layered voting to help you make headway on projects. This will help you ensure all of the perspectives in the room get heard, and groupthink doesn’t take over.
Here’s how to do an easy voting session:
- Bring voting dots with you and ask the team to write their action items ideas on sticky notes (remember the ‘alone, together’ technique!)
- After the time is up, distribute the voting dots, and give the team some time to vote on the items they think are the most important.
- Reorganize the voted-on ideas on your surface so that the ideas with the most votes are at the top and the ideas with no votes are removed from the board.
- Now we're into the real stuff... take your ideas and solutions and add them to the Effort/Impact Scale. This step could be a nightmare if we allowed everyone on the team to talk, but we're going to control the discussion by reducing the options for the team. Take the top voted sticky note from your ideation session, hold it in front of the center of the Effort/Impact scale, and ask the team: "For the challenge we're trying to solve, do we think this solution is Higher or Lower impact?" Only allow the participants to say "Higher or Lower" than the center point. Once the participants agree on an "Impact position", you now do the same with "Effort". Once you have one sticky note on the scale, the next ones will be easier.
Tip #11: Show, don’t tell
It’s hard for people to imagine concepts that are not visualized. The next time you explain an exercise or workflow to your team, instead of simply describing, show tangible examples. We can guarantee you’ll see levels of alignment and clarity spiking!
That’s because examples help us understand concepts better since they take ideas from an abstract description and make them concrete by giving them context.
So instead of describing your idea with words, try doing one of these:
- Show a sketch of your idea
- Show a physical example of what you mean: a screenshot, webpage, video, etc.
- Role-play the situation
Make it a rule to point to something that exists, rather than discuss something that isn't there. This will take interpretation out of the equation and ensure maximum alignment.
Tip #12: Experiment with your meetings
The fact that you’re still reading means you’re committed to running a great meeting. Kudos to you!
Here’s the thing though, meetings are not a one-man show. If you really want to improve your meetings and take them to the next level, ask your participants for feedback. Be careful in how you craft your questions to avoid bias. We recommend going with questions along these lines:
Was it easy for you to contribute to the discussion?
How did you understand the Job to Be Done?
Do you feel like you contributed something of value in today’s meeting?
And there you have it, our top 12 tips on making your meetings more effective, and enjoyable. Running effective meetings can feel like a tall order, but we can guarantee: once you have tried out these tips, you’ll never want to go back to the old way of running your meetings!