How to Avoid Meetings

A calendar showing the dates in June 2020
Image by Author

Last week, I was invited to a ‘highly focused’ meeting. I was excited! I wasn’t sure if I had ever experienced such an occasion before. However, my excitement soon diminished when I realised that highly focused meant compressed timeframe - 30 minutes in which to understand the background, acknowledge the problems, hear opinions, facilitate solutions and take actions. It just meant everyone had to speak faster. In the end, the meeting over-ran.

Over the three months of lockdown, most of us have spent endless hours in online meetings. ‘Virtual insanity’ has included back to back joining and leaving, jumping from one platform to another, camera off/on, mic off/on, muting, unmuting, no pauses to gather breath, limited rest breaks. Occasionally, people have even been required to attend meetings outdoors so that can they enjoy the great weather whilst simultaneously squinting and struggling to see their screen in blinding sunlight. The 2020 work pattern is all-day meetings, catch up on emails at 5pm and spend the evening doing the actual work.

In my organisation, some attempt has been made to counteract meeting overload by suggesting ‘meeting free Wednesdays’ and only scheduling them on other days between the core working hours of 10am and 4pm. This is a positive step but it still falls somewhat short as it fails to address the underlying meeting culture, the over-usage of meetings as a communication mechanism and at times, their ineffective management.

I am sure many of us have experienced most of these common meeting problems:

  • No purpose - it is not clear what the point of the meeting is and why people are there.
  • No structure - there is one hour to be filled so the discussion goes round and round in circles or completely off course into ‘meeting drift’.
  • No outcome - the meeting ends without an agreed way forward, leading to the arrangement of …. another meeting.
  • No follow-through - the meeting ends with an agreed way forward but no-one is identified to action it.
  • No facilitation - the meeting is dominated by the loudest voices while others stay quiet, provide no input and then email their thoughts after the meeting (usually changing the entire outcome!)

In addition, there are two huge red flag meetings that should be avoided at all costs - the ‘saving the world’ meeting (the one which tries to do absolutely all things for all people all in one go) and the ‘brainwave’ (the one where someone (usually more senior) has a bright idea and everyone else tries to make it work for them).

So, how can these common meeting problems be avoided and people freed up to enjoy more productive activities. Here are my four questions that might help those responsible for organising a meeting.

1. Is a meeting actually needed?

So many meetings could just be avoided if this question was asked at the very outset with consideration given to alternative options. Would an email do instead?

2. What is the purpose of the meeting?

Understanding the purpose of the meeting can help determine whether a meeting is the best option i.e. what is it you specifically want to achieve by the end of the meeting? If the meeting does not involve reaching a collective decision based on a summative analysis of all required information, then it probably does not necessitate a meeting.

Meeting purposes tend to fall into one of the following categories:

  • Action – we need to do something and we need to all agree what exactly that is. (This is probably best decided together so a meeting is probably a good idea).
  • Engage we need to do something but we are very people-focused and want to bring stakeholders along with us in relation to the decision-making process. (A survey to reach large numbers, or one-to-one conversations and focus groups for smaller numbers may work better).
  • Brainstorm – we need to do something but we need to generate a range of ideas, options or solutions first. (A meeting is not always the most effective mechanism (particularly online) but it does allow one idea to stimulate another).
  • Plan – we know what we need to do but we need to determine how exactly to do it. (This is more effective via email with clear allocation of tasks and roles. Occasional progress meetings may or may not be useful).
  • Connect – we need to bring people together to build relationships. (This is too vague for a formal meeting and is better in any other format which involves food).
  • Inform – we have made a decision to do something and now we need to let people know what that is. (Definitely an email)

3. Who needs to be there?

The number of meetings people have to attend could substantially reduce if this was given adequate consideration.

Firstly, identify who holds the specific knowledge and needs to be consulted. Check and double-check that this is the right person and really, the best way to do this is to consult them in advance and explain the reason for their involvement.

Secondly, establish if they are actually the person that makes any decisions. How many times do people attend meetings and leave saying they will check it out with their line manager/boss/superior? Choose the decision-makers!

4. What would make the meeting as effective as possible?

Prepare people for the meeting. Quite simply, too many meetings start from nothing with no contextual information and no opportunity to ask questions in advance. Pre-meeting guidance eliminates unnecessary ‘round the room’ comments, leaving only the specifics of the collective decision to be discussed at the meeting.

And so, that’s all well and good but what if I am not the person organising the meeting and I have received a calendar invite to attend one? Just remember, it’s an invitation and you can exercise your freedom of choice to decline. Ask yourself these two questions. If the answer to both of them is no, you shouldn’t be there:

  • Am I a decision-maker?
  • Do I care about the outcome?

And if you really feel you have no choice other than to attend, enjoy the advantages of the online environment - you can switch off your camera and sound and carry on with something else….

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Deborah

Deborah

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to do more writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter