In January 2023, the 10,000 employees of the 95-billion-dollar company, Shopify, received a surprising, but clear memo – all reoccurring meetings are being deleted from everyone’s calendars in 24 hours and managers are not allowed to restart meetings for 2 weeks. Oh, and no meetings allowed on Wednesdays from now on.
So, you, me, and multi-billion-dollar companies all have come to acknowledge the same truth…meetings suck. Even Pulitzer Prize winning humorist, Dave Barry, reflects the power of our meetings so well when he says that if you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: meetings.
Meetings are terrible. But we cannot seem to escape them. Why? And what can leaders do about it? What should we do about it? In today’s episode, we will explore meetings…how to have more purposeful ones, more thoughtful ones, and even less of them. Just by improving our team’s meetings, we can positively impact peoples’ experiences and satisfaction at work. So, let’s dive into meetings!
I’m Josh and welcome to the 3x5 Leadership podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts…in work, in our communities, and in peoples’ lives. In this show, we share simple, practical strategies to help you live, lead, and learn more intentionally.
When we think about the dreadful word of “meetings,” I’m sure you have plenty of your own horror stories. And I’m no different. I inventoried my weekly schedule in some of my recent positions at work and found that I generally spend 27% of my official working hours sitting in meetings. I’ve sat in meetings where colleagues merely go around the group and share what projects or tasks they are currently working on, like they are proving how important their work is and how busy they are to the boss. I’ve also sat in a meeting where the senior leader spent a confirmed 40% of the hour and a half long meeting delivering soapbox-like monologues. Literally, 36 minutes of the 90 were just the senior leader in the meeting room lecturing the audience.
But research reinforces my not-so-ideal individual experiences. Studies of senior managers found that over 60% of them said meetings prevent them from completing important work, were unproductive and inefficient, and came at the expense of deep thinking. From this, I interpret great opportunities at work are lost just to hold meetings. And in the end, I’m not really convinced that the juice is worth the squeeze.
So, terrible meetings are a pervasive problem from our teams to multi-billion dollar businesses and everything in between. And this is a leadership problem. So, while the term “meeting” will likely never generate employee inspiration in the workplace, we can make them suck less, make them actually productive, and worth everyone’s time. But how?
Let’s consider 3 arguments today which are: let’s have less meetings, more purposeful meetings, and more thoughtful ones.
And we start with having less meetings. Now, we might look at our team’s weekly battle rhythm and think that sure, we have a lot of meetings every week, but they are all important. All are needed. We really can’t get rid of any of them. To that, I’d offer a re-frame. A 95-billion-dollar company with over 10,000 employees suddenly eliminated their meetings. And the thing is, Shopify isn’t the only one that has done this. Dropbox, a 10-billion-dollar digital storage company with 2,500 employees has done it. And so has Asana, a four-billion-dollar company that provides digital project management tools with over 1,000 employees.
So, if these multi-billion-dollar companies with thousands of employees can suddenly break their routines to eliminate bad meetings, I think we can too.
And it might have to start with what we can call a meeting doomsday. The theme with all three companies’ actions to reduce meeting bloat was going cold turkey. Each of them ended all reoccurring meetings immediately with little notice, or in Dropbox’s case, notifying employees after removing the meetings from their calendars.
Draw a line in the sand. Decide on a day. And end your regular meeting routine there. Now, we might not have to go to the extreme of abruptly cancelling the meetings and telling managers to figure it out, and to wait two weeks. But a definitive day – doomsday if you will – does generate the transformational change necessary to stick. To support this, on doomsday, we can enact a full meeting schedule redesign, scrutinizing what meetings we need to have, and which ones can go. Or we can completely revamp our meeting approach, designing new and more purposeful meetings. But consider the power of an organizational spring-cleaning type effort with a meeting doomsday. Shopify found that after one month, they eliminated 322,000 hours of meetings. Now, we likely don’t lead 10,000-person organizations, but even on a scale of 10% of that, we give back over 3,000 hours to our teams per month. That’s time spent actually working and getting results. Doing the meaningful things that we actually joined the company to do.
We can also have less meetings through designated no-meeting-days for our teams. Not only do meetings consume large chunks of our time, they also disrupt it, forcing us to halt our work to head into a conference room and shift our focus. Disrupted work is distracted work. It’s not deep work. Let’s give our people the time and space to engage in meaningful work through no-meeting-days. It’s a simple way to show that we honor quiet time and deep work within our teams. It’s a way to show respect to our employees and empower them to design their schedules and use their time well.
After we eliminate meeting bloat and have less meetings, we must design the meetings we do have to be purposeful. We do that through 3 simple tools: meeting purpose, meeting agenda, and meeting format.
What is the purpose of each meeting? Not all meetings are the same, nor do they aim to achieve the same thing. We need to designate the purpose of our meetings. Is it a decision meeting, where the leader or group needs to make decisions about projects, purchases, or things that will impact the company? Or is it an information meeting, used to synchronize the audience? There are also collaborative meetings to brainstorm and plan.
The first way to make our meetings more purposeful is to designate the type of meeting and its purpose. This helps audience members and leaders properly prepare and come into the meeting with an appropriate mindset. As the senior member of a meeting, am I going in to make decisions, to listen and learn, or collaborate to create? All three require different framing, preparation, and behaviors within the meeting. Being clear on meeting purpose will help make it more productive.
Next, we must also be in control of our meeting agendas. Few things are worse than a directionless meeting, sitting there thinking, “What is going on right now? What am I doing here?” Pre-planned, deliberate, and controlled agendas help keep meetings productive, focused, and flowing. Meeting efficiency isn’t the end-all-be-all, but I don’t work for the purpose of meetings, and I would much rather have a more efficient, disciplined, and even shorter meeting than not so I can get back to meaningful work.
Two things we can do about our agendas. First, we can list out all the topics we want to discuss at a meeting and then organize them into categorical buckets. Through this, we can improve the logical flow of the meeting to help it make sense to the audience, but we can also identify areas for improved efficiency like combining similar topics. Some approaches may call for topical categories like an agenda for a staff meeting where we combine like departments or fields. Another approach may be time-based where we look at events through a short, mid, and long-term time horizon.
Second, instead of organizing and categorizing topics, we can form our agenda through questions we must answer. So, rather than having an agenda item of “project status update by project leads,” we can frame it as a question like, “what decisions and external department support do you need for your active projects?” This leads project leads to frame their meeting inputs to focus on things they need support on or keep leaders informed on, versus the norm of providing an unnecessarily too-detailed and too-long update on the project.
Framing your agenda as questions also clarifies the due outs of the meeting, further reducing long and unhelpful fluff. So, consider crafting your agendas as questions.
Lastly, beyond meeting types and agendas, we create more purposeful meetings by designating their format. Do we need to have a meeting with everyone sitting around a long conference table all oriented on an extensive PowerPoint slide deck for 90 minutes? Or, instead, can we deviate from that super bureaucratic design and add some more efficiency or even creativity to the meeting? Can we cap the meeting at 75 minutes? Or 60? What about 50 or 45? Can it be a standing meeting to prevent briefers from getting too comfortable and the audience from getting distracted with multitasking? Or could we do a walking meeting, keeping the audience on the move? What about a counter to the norm of beckoning all subordinate echelons to the ivory tower, alternatively having leaders meet the lower echelons in their workspace? Meeting length, location, and format all impact how the audience experiences it for good or bad. What can we do? Should we do? What would be best to keep members engaged, the meeting effective and efficient, and help keep all the meeting bad habits at bay? Explore what would be best for your team, what you need to get out of the meeting, and best ways to structure your meeting.
Now that we have less meetings and more purposeful ones, we can finally look at how to make them more thoughtful. We’ve looked at ways of using our peoples’ time better and focusing their attention. But leaders also have an obligation to make meetings quality experiences for the audience. Bad meetings can lead to a bad day. Good meetings can encourage and energize a team. And there are a ton of ways we can make meetings more thoughtful, so let’s look at 10 easy ways.
One, provide read aheads to the audience before the meeting. That can include slides, reports, or other relevant material to help everyone come to the meeting more informed. This way, we can move beyond introductory or rudimentary conversations and toward more elevated ones.
Two, be selective on your meeting audience. More is not better. Larger groups not only make a meeting less engaging but wastes more peoples’ time. Be conscious of who you designate your meeting audience to be. Who needs to be there. Why? Or, instead, could some potential attendees’ involvement be satisfied through a post-meeting summary email? Be restrictive in your required meeting audience.
Three, is it worth integrating a check-in and / or check-out activity to your meeting? Sure, they can be cheesy or an unhelpful waste of meeting time. But, if done authentically and carefully, they can be great ways to get people mindfully present with the group and the meeting. For example, a favorite check-in of mine for virtual meetings is desktop show-and-tell. Give everyone 10 seconds to grab a favorite trinket or item on their desk and place it in view of the camera. Then give everyone 1-minute to share what the item is and why they love it. A plus to exercises like this is that we get to know more about one another through a different lens than just work topics. It can build team cohesion. For in-person, you all can vote on a question or give feedback for an upcoming decision. For check-outs, I like having members answer a question anonymously on an index card and turn it in before they depart. We then review answers at the next meeting. There are 101 ways to craft check-in and out exercises but be conscious of how you include them in your meeting if you so choose to.
Thoughtful meeting tip four, have members share lessons learned during meetings. Did a team fail, or are they currently struggling through a tough task? Did a team recently complete a new or monstrous project? Have people share what they learned through their recent experiences with the rest of the group. It helps people learn from others’ challenges of course, but it also helps cultivate shared vulnerability, trust, and a collaborative mindset among the team.
Five, in thoughtfully designed meetings, leaders focus on asking questions to understand rather than on soapboxes to be understood. Leaders can use the acronym, WAIT – why am I talking? Am I giving guidance, feedback, or something only I can offer? If not, the most valuable thing I could do instead is to ask more questions, then shut up and listen to others.
Six, should we designate a meeting accountability role to someone in the group? There might be value in assigning someone to keep us accountable to our meeting design – things like purpose, the agenda, and time boundaries. They can also help us prevent certain people from dominating meetings or from hiding and not engaging. Think about having a meeting accountability person to keep us on track.
Seven, what about a designated meeting dissenter? Group dynamics or power-distance to the presiding leader may make meeting audience members cautious to speak up and share a dissenting view. So, designate that role to someone. It makes disagreement and candor safe, because the person is merely fulfilling their designated role rather than being seen as difficult. It’s not just the designated dissenter that can offer counter views in a meeting, of course, but ensuring we have at least one person we know will speak up can encourage others to safely do the same too. It normalizes healthy conversations that finally dig deeper than the mere surface of a topic because people are too afraid to add some friction to the discussion.
Eight, be aware of the meeting’s share-of-voice ratio. Who participates in the meeting and for how much of it? Do certain people dominate conversations? Do others hide in the periphery, electing not to inject? Use someone like your meeting accountability person to track how often and how long people speak in meetings. The data can reveal a lot about the power dynamics of the group, where or from whom we value insight, and who wields influence. Share the insight and use it to place parameters to improve your group’s share-of-voice ratios during meetings.
Nine, to further regulate contributions during a meeting, establish a goal input length, say…like…4 sentences. Everyone’s goal should be to keep their individual contributions as close to 4 sentences as possible. This helps prevent diatribes from individuals and further create space for others to participate as well. This does not aim to limit how often people speak up in a meeting, but to better manage how much they say when they do. It improves individuals’ communication skills, leading them to be more clear and concise, prevents diatribes from the self-righteous, and creates more space for others to participate as well.
Finally, 10, record meeting due outs throughout and assign who is responsible for what item. Due outs are outstanding deliverables that need to be actioned after the meeting. Assign someone to record them during the meeting, review them at the end, and pin responsibility for who will do that. It prevents meeting discussions and decisions made from dying in the meeting room.
So, consider these 10 rather simple ways to improve our meetings by making them more thoughtful.
As you analyze your current weekly meeting schedule, think on how you can improve them through these recommendations shared today. Can we have less meetings? And for the ones we maintain, should we redesign them to be more purposeful and thoughtful? Doing so may seem like a small adjustment with similarly small impacts. But meetings can radically affect our workday experiences. They can drain, frustrate, and remain wasteful. Or they can be efficient, productive, and valuable touchpoints.
This is a leader’s responsibility and challenge. I encourage you to take a hard look at your team’s meetings this week.
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Now, go and champion better meetings in your organization. It will make your workplace more meaningful, your team more engaged, and your organization’s time better employed.
Thanks for joining us for today’s episode. And thanks for showing up every day to be the best version of yourself you can for others in whatever leadership role you serve in. Again, I’m Josh. And until next episode, friends, take care and lead well.