There’s no bigger frustration than an aimless and meandering work meeting. You’ve got better things to do, and so does everyone else. But you’re all stuck in a room ten minutes past when the conversation was useful. A meeting shouldn’t put you to sleep or break the rest of your schedule. It should convey important information quickly and clearly, getting people back to work ASAP. Luckily, there are a few ways you can avoid running a stereotypically useless meeting.
Embrace the cell phone stack
The biggest distraction in a meeting is your cell phone. The second biggest distraction? Everyone else’s phones. Almost no meeting should require cell phone use, so instead of having to chastise people individually when they take a glance at their screen, nip the phone problem in the bud by creating and enforcing a cell phone stack policy.
Cell phone stacking is a social convention where groups of friends agree to stack their phones one on top of the other and place them in the center of the table. It’s a great way to encourage conversation and to discourage antisocial phone habits. For meetings, cell phone stacking promotes focus on the objective at hand and even contribute on topics they might have otherwise zoned out on.
So next time you start a meeting, have everyone take out their phones, put them on silent, and stack them up in the center of the table.
Keep the meeting short
The best meetings are short, quick, and impactful, so keep your meeting to 15-20 minutes at the maximum. By making this time limit strict and mandatory, every participant is forced to keep their contributions succinct and tangents to an absolute minimum.
Short meetings promote preparation ahead of time. If everyone understands that the meeting will start on time and last 15 minutes, you can bet those who need something discussed will make sure it’s on everyone’s mind beforehand and with proper materials ready for consideration.
Finally, meetings longer than 15-20 minutes ignore one simple fact about human nature: human beings can only pay an optimal amount of attention for about 10-20 minutes at a time.
Have a written agenda
Setting a written meeting agenda with time allocations to specific topics avoids aimlessness and unhelpful tangents. Whoever organizes the meeting should have a written agenda and send it to participants 30 minutes to an hour beforehand to allow them to prepare necessary information.
Things get done and crossed off the list, providing a sense of progress towards the end goal of a great meeting. All participants will walk away feeling like the meeting was time well spent.
Try conducting a stand-up meeting
Long meetings are endurance tests. The longer a meeting lasts, the more difficult and uncomfortable it becomes. A great way to change this is to take the mental discomfort of a bad meeting and turn it into a physical discomfort.
Next time you meet, do so with everyone standing. Everyone loves a stand-up meeting, and it’s becoming a common practice for managers that want to have faster and more fruitful meetings. Why? Partly because physical discomfort gives people a sense of urgency, and partly because, according to research, standing up during a meeting actually “boosts the excitement around creative group processes and reduces people’s tendencies to defend their turf” (WUSTL.edu).
Consider a quarterback
The best meetings always have a lead. Not every meeting needs someone taking charge and keeping participants in check, but if you have a hot topic to discuss or a lot of folks in one room, it can be essential.
The captain of the room should distribute time amongst team members effectively, cut people off politely, and force every line of discussion into a key action or conclusion. Don't underestimate the power of having an outsider run a meeting on occassion in lieu of a project manager. An outsider can provide live feedback and has no skin in the game. Without something to prove, they're just running the best discussion possible.
Wrap up with a summary
Have someone write down every task that was assigned and every important topic that was hit during the meeting. At the end, have them do a quick summary of key action items and important conclusions. This quick recap gets everyone on the same page about next steps, expectations, and accomplishments.
Having bad meetings can be a thing of the past if the right approach is taken both by the participants and the organizer. Keeping meetings short, removing distractions, and encouraging positive teamwork is key to minimizing wasted time and lost productivity.