I'm Not Coming to Your Bad Meeting

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I am not really a pet person, but I do collect peeves. One of my pet peeves is bad meetings. 

I have been known to refuse to attend certain meetings. I have even instructed people who worked for me to refuse to attend meetings if they didn't meet our standards. At a minimum, I try to remind people who invite me to meetings that there are certain things a meeting organizer must do to get full participation. Sometimes that makes me seem difficult, rigid, or even arrogant. I prefer frugal.

I find it incredible how much time we spend in meetings with nothing to show for them. Common sense tells me that businesses wouldn't tolerate the amount of time and money wasted in unproductive meetings but, of course, I would be wrong. For some reason, bad meetings are accepted as part of corporate culture. If I do nothing else in my life, I hope to eradicate bad meetings in my world.

In an earlier post, I used the Dwight Eisenhower quotation about planning, so I won't restate it here. However, it is good for almost any occasion. There are many reasons why a meeting goes bad, but almost invariably, the meeting never had a chance because it wasn't well planned. With all credit to my friends at the Agile Coaching Institute, a meeting has a better chance of success with a P.O.W.E.R. start.

A meeting plan starts with the purpose (P). If the facilitator can't articulate the purpose of the meeting, there is no reason to continue planning it. The purpose doesn't need to be detailed, but there does need to be an overall rationale for the meeting. If the best you can come up with is, "Because this is the weekly status meeting, and we have it every week," you are missing the point. Even recurring meetings need a clear purpose. Otherwise, they are just bad habits that need to be broken.

Going deeper into the purpose of the meeting would be helpful for attendees to prepare. For that reason, facilitators should consider the outcomes (O) and deliverables they expect from the meeting. If there will be any templates used or if there are examples of the deliverables, share them ahead of time.

As the facilitator is building the guest list, consider that every person will think about one thing before they accept the invitation - the dreaded acronym within an acronym: WIIFM (W), what's in it for me? This is not entirely a selfish thought on their part. How can you expect a creative and collaborative environment with people who don't know why they even care about the outcome of the meeting? Let invitees know what their takeaway will be and they will come motivated, and maybe even excited, to get the most benefits from the meeting.

Of course, sometimes the problem is knowing what participants want to get out of the meeting. You could guess, or assume, but you know what that gets you. How about the simple approach? Engage (E) your participants in the planning. The easiest way to build an agenda everyone can believe in is to have them build it. They can at least share their personal objectives for the meeting so you'll know if you are on the right track. Engaging them early in the process is also a good way to vet your guest list. The initial group of invitees will tell you if you have missed anyone, or if someone you included should actually be left out. Then, once you have heard from everyone, check in one more time to be sure the agenda will meet their needs.

The last part of your P.O.W.E.R. start should be well-known at this point in your planning. Each of the participants has a role (R) and responsibilities. Make it clear what everyone is empowered to do. You don't want anyone coming to the meeting thinking they have the authority to make decisions if, in fact, they don't. On the other hand, if the purpose of the meeting is to make a decision, you need to be sure you have invited people with the right authority.

All of this planning seems like it might take a lot of your time. Consider the alternative though: spending time in meetings without accomplishing anything, so that you need to schedule another meeting. Planning a meeting is an investment that pays off almost immediately. In fact, if the purpose is not clear and the meeting is cancelled, the planning does pay off immediately.

For recurring meetings, much of the work can be done once and only reviewed prior to the next meeting. While sprint planning, sprint reviews, and retrospectives would seem to be self-explanatory, wouldn't they be more effective if there was a clearly stated purpose right up front? A little reminder never hurt anyone. Those little reminders can lead to better attendance, a greater level of engagement, a quicker meeting, and consistently positive outcomes. With that kind of promise, I'll be there with bells on.

What are some of your pet peeves? What meeting techniques have worked for you? Let me know in the comments.

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