Bad meetings. We’ve all been there. One person is dominating the conversation and interrupting everyone else. The discussion isn’t following the agenda. The meeting was supposed to end at 3:00, but it’s 3:40 and you won’t be able to wrap up anytime soon. Oh, and you’re out of coffee. What should be an opportunity to touch base with coworkers and discuss project details turns into a colossal waste of everyone’s time and the company’s money.
You never intend your meetings to go this way, but it happens to even the best of us. Bad meetings are not just unpleasant, though; they’re bad for morale. People may think their time is not being respected and that the meeting is getting in the way of their real work.
Ultimately, bad meetings cost businesses a lot of money. For example, it is estimated that, in 2019, poorly organized meetings cost US companies about $399 billion. Every meeting you conduct should be adding value to your business in some way and be worth your attendees’ time.
In this article, you will learn how to plan meetings that are succinct, on-topic, engaging, and productive. You will also learn how to course-correct in case your meeting is besieged by one of several common mistakes.
The Cost of Bad Meetings
Besides the obvious—they’re an unpleasant experience—there are specific reasons for avoiding bad meetings:
- They’re a waste of time and money. If your meeting has no clear purpose or your agenda is lacking focus, your meeting is likely to be a waste of company time. Think about how much each meeting attendee is being paid to be there. The meeting should be worth enough to justify that expense.
- They damage team morale. If people are being interrupted when they speak or forced to sit through someone else’s going off on long tangents, they may feel discouraged about their role on the team. They certainly won’t leave the meeting feeling invigorated about the next project.
- Attendees may become bored or distracted. Almost everyone checks their phone during meetings, but if multiple team members are texting, checking their email, or doing other work, they are obviously not giving you their full attention, and the meeting will not be as effective.
- They interrupt “deep work.” The loss in productivity goes beyond the time spent in the meeting. If team members are pulled away from cognitively demanding work, they may have trouble refocusing long after the meeting has ended.
How to Avoid Bad Meetings
Bad meetings may be common, but they’re not inevitable. Some simple actions can make your meetings more productive and engaging.
Decide Whether You Need a Meeting
The easiest way to avoid a bad meeting is not to have a meeting at all. Of course, this isn’t always possible; meetings are a necessary part of a company’s operations. But before you start planning that next meeting, ask yourself this: does the meeting have a clear purpose, or are you scheduling one because you feel that you should?
If you determine that there is a good reason for your meeting, decide whether it needs to be held in person. You’re probably familiar with the meme “this meeting should have been an email.” Could an email discussion suffice? If so, skip the meeting and send an email. Your team members will thank you.
Prepare an Agenda
A meeting without a clear agenda is a recipe for endless asides and off-topic discussions. Prepare an agenda ahead of time and distribute it to all meeting attendees so they can be ready. The agenda should be detailed and guide you from start to finish. If the meeting must end with a decision, write the agenda to guide you to that decision.
Block out enough time to cover everything you need to cover, and then some. Then start on time and stick to your agenda.
Finally, be sure to end on time. You can even end early if you finish quickly. Respect your coworkers’ time rather than artificially dragging out a meeting that has served its purpose. If you get through everything in thirty minutes instead of an hour, call it a day.
Have a Set of Ground Rules
Make sure everyone is on the same page by setting ground rules and sticking to them. If you want to limit distractions, ask people to put away their phones. If you want to prevent interruptions, require people to listen to each other. If you want to avoid tangents, agree on permissible topics ahead of time. You may need to remind people of your ground rules, but having them in place can set the tone for a successful meeting.
It can be challenging for one person to keep a meeting on track single-handedly. Lighten the load by asking someone else to take on some of the work. This could mean having someone take notes, set up computers, or help with questions on Zoom, which makes it easier for you to keep the meeting on task. Instead of worrying about the little details of running the meeting, you can focus on running it well.
Leave With a Plan
Everyone should leave the meeting with a clear idea of what is happening next. What are the action items, and who is responsible for what? If certain tasks need to get done, make sure they are assigned to specific people, and that those team members understand how to complete the tasks.
If you need to have a follow-up meeting, plan it before everyone leaves. Make sure everyone agrees on what will be covered next time. Will they need to prepare anything? Make sure they know the answer to that question, too. You don’t have to have the next agenda ready right away, but there should be a general goal in place.
What if a Meeting Goes Badly?
Despite your best intentions and stellar preparation, your meeting has gone off the rails. Now what?
Refer Back to the Agenda
If your meeting is not following the agenda, take a step back and evaluate. Assess where you are timewise. If you’ve used up half the time for the meeting, have you gotten through at least half of the material? If not, you may need to skip or abbreviate some things in order to end on time.
Steer the Conversation
If the conversation keeps veering off on a tangent, you can acknowledge people’s thoughts, but pull everyone back on course as quickly as possible. Guide the conversation back to the main topic. If certain tangents keep reappearing, consider moving that discussion to email or addressing it in a separate meeting if appropriate. Sometimes people are just being chatty, but you need to keep them on topic.
Create Space for Quieter People to Speak
You may find that some people are not participating. This can happen because the person is shy or afraid that they won’t be able to make a meaningful contribution. It can also happen because the person is not engaged. Sometimes, the person might be interrupted repeatedly by more outspoken people.
It’s important to pay attention to the group dynamics. If the quiet person is being interrupted, address them directly and give them space to speak. If you’re concerned about disengagement, ask questions throughout the meeting. Finally, you can invite people to voice opinions before the meeting via email. This can help you to get input from those with social anxiety or other issues that make it difficult for them to speak up during a meeting.
There are a lot of ways that meetings can go wrong. The key is to plan ahead to avoid as many of them as possible and to keep your meetings productive. Remember, your goal is to stay on topic, stick to your schedule, and fulfill the meeting’s agenda.
However, if despite all your preparation you find your meeting is getting away from you, take a breath and use the above tips to steer your team back onto the right track.