Everyone loves to hate meetings. I’ve seen so many opinion pieces on eliminating meetings, all met with cheers from people who are tired of sitting through meetings they don’t find valuable. I think it’s worth a deeper dive into meeting types so we can be deliberate about which meetings to eliminate.
There are three primary categories of meetings:
Problem solving – these are your brainstorming or whiteboarding sessions. I think most people agree that these can’t be replaced with emails and Slack messages. When the creative juices need to be flowing and it needs to be collaborative, it needs to be a meeting.
Decision making – this is a grey area. If the decision involves a complex scenario or significant consequences, I think it needs to be a meeting since it will likely require discussion. In these cases, my personal approach is to send a pre-read to the decision maker and all key stakeholders, which I develop in partnership with the key stakeholders. My template is this:
Background – this explains the broader context of the decision. The decision maker is most likely an executive with many other problems and decisions on their mind, so this helps center them on the situation.
Decision point – explain the exact decision needed. Is it strategic direction where multiple approaches have merit? Is it a vendor choice for software that will have a major impact on daily operations? The more specific, the better.
Options – Write a summary of each option. Work with the stakeholder(s) who prefers this option and include both the benefits and the drawbacks.
Recommendation – Tell the decision maker which option you recommend and why. You know the situation in greater detail than they do, so your recommendation based on detailed consideration is valuable. They may not take your recommendation, but you will have made yourself a resource and thought partner for them.
Having this pre-read ensures everyone is on the same page about what the decision point is and what the options are. This will minimize surprises in the meeting, which in turn will minimize unproductive swirl. This preparation will enable the key stakeholders to argue their point, engage in productive debate, and allow the decision maker to hear and consider options before deciding.
Status – this is the infamous “around the room” where everyone says what they’re working on and everyone else multitasks or dozes off. I believe these are the meetings people are thinking about when they write about how to eliminate meetings. The core of their reasoning is that this information can be shared just as effectively by other means, which is often true. I would break this group into two sub-categories:
Type 1: Small projects with a few primary workstreams. In these cases, I agree status information can be shared just as effectively by other means. The team can collaborate in a project management tool such as Asana or Smartsheet so anyone at any time can pop in and see where things are. Simple automations can remind team members to make their updates, and dashboards can be automatically shared. The technology exists to make asynchronous status updates possible. In an ideal world, everyone makes their updates on time, everyone checks in on status, and meetings only happen when the project requires discussion. In reality though, project teams often don’t take advantage of these options, so we find ourselves in meetings that shouldn’t need to happen.
Type 2: Major projects with many workstreams. In these cases, there are usually clusters of workstreams where people are working together and depend on each other’s work. There are likely also workstreams that seldom interact but will eventually need to interact. In these cases, I’m a believer in live status meetings. Asynchronous updates can work for more regular updates, but I think there’s value in less frequent live status syncs. This gives everyone the opportunity to learn about what’s going on with the more distant workstreams, allows an opportunity for questions and live discussions, and lets people know in advance how something is progressing that might matter to their workstream.
With these meeting categories in mind, how can we avoid unnecessary meetings? Regardless of category, there are some best practices for all meetings. If those can’t be followed for a particular meeting, then that meeting can be cancelled.
- Make sure the purpose of the meeting is clear.
- Write and share the agenda in advance.
- Make sure the right people are in attendance.
- Send any relevant information in advance.
If you can’t follow these, for example if your meeting doesn’t have a clear purpose or agenda, then it should be cancelled. To make the most of meetings that do happen, end them with a verbal recap of action items, owners, and timelines, and send a written recap of the same.
The highest potential category to eliminate is the recurring status meeting for small or simple projects. Eliminating these without negative impact to the project will require a team effort. Everyone needs to do their part to update and check in on the project tracker. The leader can set conditions for success by ensuring the project tracker is established and expectations are clear. However, if the team doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain then the leader will have no choice but to schedule recurring status syncs. I’ve found that credibility and trust can be established by following standard meeting best practices, and especially by cancelling meetings when there is no clear purpose or agenda.
With this trust, it’s a little easier to convince the team to contribute by making their updates asynchronously. Little by little, we can move toward that ideal world where we’re only in meetings that truly need to be meetings.