How to Hold an Awesome Meeting

My project meetings are awesome.

This is because I personally don’t like meetings that waste my time, and I really don’t like being bored, so I do my best to make sure those things don’t happen to other people at my meetings.

The keys to having awesome meetings are actually pretty simple: (1) keep it small; (2) listen and ask questions; and (3) don’t end without next steps.

Keep It Small

The first key to having an awesome meeting is to invite the absolute minimum number of people possible. For me, this means I nearly always prefer a meeting to be just me and one other person. If it’s a big project, I try to meet individually with all the stakeholders as the first step, before holding a traditional “kickoff” meeting.

Yes, it will take much more of your time to have one-on-one meetings rather than getting everybody together at once. But the quantity and quality of the information you collect will be so much better that it is absolutely worth it.

I’m lucky that I have a job where my projects involve working with “internal clients” within my organization. This gives me the freedom to determine how and when I call meetings, at least for the meetings that only involve internal staff (meetings with vendors I hire are another matter entirely, although those meetings are usually awesome too).

One-on-one meetings immediately solve one of the main problems of bad meetings. Your meeting will not be boring if there are only two of you in the room. You will talk to each other only as long as you have things to say, and when you run out of things to say to each other, you’re done with the meeting. There’s no one sitting in the room feeling like the conversation isn’t relevant to them, or waiting for you to get to their section of the agenda.

Another benefit of one-on-one meetings is that you can give the person you are speaking with your undivided attention without feeling like you have to move things along because other people are waiting. I’ve had many one-hour meetings that have stretched to two hours or longer without us even noticing, because we get on a roll with good ideas and just keep going.

Of course you have to make sure a conversation stays productive when it lasts that long, but at the same time realize that sometimes the best ideas come out when you’re on an unrelated tangent.

Another benefit of a one-on-one meeting is that you will get a lot more information out of people, often things that they wouldn’t say in front of others. People are afraid to risk looking silly or stupid by putting forward ideas that they are unsure of. The more people that are in the room, the less likely they are to speak up.

People are also hesitant to say things that may be seen as a criticism of the status quo, especially if their boss is in the room. But it’s impossible for you to find solutions to problems if you can’t get anyone to tell you that there is a problem. In a one-on-one meeting, people are much less inhibited and will happily tell you in great detail everything that they think is broken.

By starting out talking to people separately, you’ll also be able to get different viewpoints about the project, which you will probably not get if everyone starts out the project at the same meeting.

This isn’t to say that you don’t still need big meetings. But if you’ve gotten all the background information you need ahead of time, and given everybody an overview of what’s coming up, by the time you get to a formal kickoff meeting with everyone in the room, you’re all already on the same page and the meeting will be short with no surprises.

And as you go through the phases of a project and need to hold more meetings, think about whether each person really needs to be there. What will they contribute to the meeting? What will they take away from the meeting? If the answers to those two questions can be accomplished through another form of communication, than that person probably doesn’t need to be at the meeting. If your list of people gets whittled down to zero, then you don’t need to have a meeting at all.

Ask Questions & Listen

The second key to having an awesome meeting is to gather as much information as possible. People like to feel that someone is listening to them and taking their opinions seriously. So do that, and they will leave your meeting happy.

Having small meetings already helps with this, but you need to go further if you want to find all the possible information that will help your project be successful.

The best way to do this is to not make assumptions. In fact, you need to realize that everything you think you already know about the project might be wrong.

But you also need to question everyone else’s assumptions, rather than just adopting those assumptions. A universal mistake that people frequently make is to assume that something is the way it is because it has to be that way. If you don’t question this type of assumption early in the project, then you are going to be stuck working around unnecessary limitations.

A great way to get to the root of an issue is to just start asking questions. Pick something random to ask a question about, and let the answers lead you to other questions, until you feel like you’ve delved into every little crevice of the project. If you want to be formal about it, you can use the 5 Whys technique.

Ask specifically about things you think might be problem areas, but also let people know that they should point out anything they think is a problem, even if it’s been brought up in the past without a successful resolution.

And no matter what project I’m working on, I make sure to ask how the project relates to departmental goals and  organizational goals. The response will give you a better idea of which aspects of the project are most important.

Don’t End Without Next Steps

The third key to having an awesome meeting is to not waste people’s time.

One of the biggest wastes of time when it comes to meetings is when you think you’ve made decisions and moved forward in a project, only to get to the next meeting and have to rehash everything because everybody seems to have forgotten the previous conversations. I don’t understand why this happens so often, because there is an easy solution: end the meeting with an outline of what needs to happen next.

As you go through the meeting, make a list of things that need to happen after the meeting, even small things like finding the answer to a question. These are your action items. Next to each item, write the name of the person responsible for completing that item. Every item must have a name. If there is a specific deadline, write that down as well.

Also write down any decisions that were made during the meeting, even the small stuff. You will likely need to refer to this later, when someone wants to debate something that was already decided. If you tell them specifically when and by who a decision was made, they will likely drop it.

If the meeting is large and/or complicated, ask someone else to take notes and make the list of action items, so you don’t have to worry about it.

At the end of the meeting, read through the action item list and make sure everyone is clear on what is expected of them.

When you get back to your desk, while it is still fresh in your mind, the very first thing you should do is write an email to the other meeting participants with the action items, who they are assigned to, and deadlines. If appropriate, add a note that any items without a deadline should be completed by the next meeting date. Sort the list by name so it’s easy for each person to see what they’re responsible for. Don’t clutter up the email with other information, and give it a clear subject line like “Project ABC Action Items Before June 15 Meeting.”

Send the email as soon as you can so the information is still fresh in everybody else’s mind as well, and so they can let you know if they think anything is incorrect. Re-send the email a few days before the next meeting, since invariably everyone will have procrastinated and not even started their action items yet.

Have an Awesome Meeting

These three keys to an awesome meeting seem simple to me: (1) keep it small; (2) listen and ask questions; and (3) don’t end without next steps. But I’ve been to a lot of meetings that don’t hit any of the three. That’s why meetings in general have a bad name: they’re usually too big, nobody listens to each other, and there isn’t an action plan.

I have to warn you that once in a while you will do your absolute best to hit all three of the keys to an awesome meeting, but your meeting will still not be awesome. In that case, I suggest you bring cupcakes to the meeting. And if they’re chocolate, make sure to invite me to your meeting. I have never been to a meeting involving chocolate cupcakes that was not awesome.

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