What does a great outcome look like for a meeting?

What am I doing in this meeting? I've felt it, you've felt it. I bet everyone in your company has felt like this at some point. Meetings are necessary. However, so much butchering of time happens in them that people are getting fatigued. This post tries to help you improve your team's meeting culture by giving you a clear picture of what a great outcome looks like for different meetings.

People in a video chat room having a meeting. A mug is on the left side and a computer with the video call is on the rightTake responsibility and don't perpetuate a bad meeting culture! Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the statement "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Meetings are much the same.

-- Julie Zhuo

We could write a book on how bad meetings can be bad. So much can go wrong. Good meetings, on the other hand, are easy to reason about. Think to yourself "when was the last good meeting I had and what made me feel that way?"

Good meetings are simple and straightforward. You leave them feeling the same way every time:

  • The meeting was a valuable use of my time;
  • I learned something that will help me be more effective at my job;
  • I left with a clearer sense of what I should do next;
  • Everyone was engaged. The discussion was free and focused;
  • I felt incentivized to share my thoughts and ideas;
  • I felt welcomed.

Your time is valuable. Your teammates' time is valuable. So we should drive that time towards effective discussion. We should take the responsibility of running and attending meetings seriously and strive to build a better meeting culture.

Different Meetings Require Different Outcomes

We set up and have meetings for different reasons. Although the feeling is the same when they're great, we focus on different outcomes for each.

The types we will discuss are the following:

Making Decisions

Good Decision-Making meetings come first from the understanding that everyone ultimately shares the same goals. We have different opinions on how to get there, but if we have a safe environment, people and a process in which we can trust, that common-place will make us work great together. We can safely "Disagree and commit" and move forward, hopefully with the company.

A great decision-making meeting does the following:

  • Gets a decision made (obviously)
  • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker
  • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team's recommendation if there is one
  • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard

Here are some bad outcomes to avoid:

  • People feel that their side wasn't presented well, so they don't trust the resulting decision.
  • Decisions take a long time to make, which delays progress. Be wary of spending too much time on small, easy-to-reverse decisions.
  • Decisions keep flip-flopping back and forth, which makes it hard to trust and act on them.
  • Too much time is spent trying to get a group to consensus rather than escalating quickly to a decision-maker
  • Time is wasted on rehashing the same argument twenty different ways

Oftentimes people feel like they need more data or want to post-pone the decision-making. While this can be true, it's usually an urge to avoid the conflict. Make sure you come prepared, and avoid this urge.

Sharing Information

Email and chat are often enough (and more effective) to share information. We should use them most of the time.

Done well, however, there are a few big benefits of informational meetings over these mediums:

  • Invites more feedback and interaction
  • Captivates more engagement

A great meeting accomplishes the following:

  • Enables the group to feel like they learned something valuable
  • Conveys key messages clearly and memorably
  • Keeps the audience's attention
  • Evokes and intended emotion

Providing feedback

Good feedback meetings start with the mutual understanding that feedback exists to improve performance. To get better outcomes and not to pass judgement. It isn't a time for you to ventilate and get things off your chest.

A great feedback meeting achieves the following:

  • Gets everyone on the same page about what success for the project looks like.
  • Honestly represents the current status of the work.
  • Clearly frames open questions, key decisions, or known concerns to get the most helpful feedback.
  • Ends with agreed-upon next steps.

Generating Ideas

Unfortunately, having twelve people in a room blurt out whatever comes to mind isn't actually effective for innovation.

The best idea generation comes from understanding that we need both time to think alone and time to engage with others. Assembling in smaller groups (take a look at Breakout Sessions) is usually also useful, this will make sure all people get heard and not just the loud ones.

Preparation and good facilitation is key. A great generative meeting does the following:

  • Produces many diverse, non-obvious solutions through ensuring each participant has quiet alone time to think of ideas and write them down (either before or during the meeting);
  • Considers the totality of ideas from everyone, not just the loudest voices;
  • Helps ideas evolve and build off each other through meaningful discussion;
  • Ends with clear next steps for how to turn ideas into action.

Building Relationships

(Team lunches, dinners, and other social events, as do some 1:1 meetings)

A great team-bonding meeting isn't about the number of hours spent together or the lavishness of the event. Instead, it enables the following:

  • Creates better understanding and trust between participants';
  • Encourages people to be open and authentic;
  • Makes people feel cared for.

Every meeting should be clear on which of the above it's trying to accomplish. Don't try to make a single meeting do too much, and remind the group of its primary purpose when the conversation starts to deviate.

Some people dismiss this kind of meeting as non-work. Don't do this. Getting to know the people you work with and building healthy, trusting relationships with them will make your team win in the long term. Invest time in this!

That's it! I'll leave with another quote from Julie. This content is largely based on the Amazing Meetings chapter of her book, "The Making of a Manager" which I greatly recommend for new and experienced managers :)

Practice clarity and ruthless efficiency with your meetings, and people will thank you for respecting the sanctity of their time.

-- Julie Zhuo

This post is part of a series about meetings. I've also written on: