Meetings without agendas are like hospitals without doctors. You might get something out of it, but there's a good chance you’ll end up hurting more than when you went in.
Even those who recommend an agenda-less approach note the need for outcome statements and goals. If you’re able to diagnose and treat the issue on the fly, then go for it. But for the rest of us without our PhD in Meetingomics, here’s how to make sure your agendas and standards are effective.
Beyond the Agenda
Want to have a good meeting? Create an agenda. It’s been written a million times. But if having an agenda was the answer, we wouldn’t have so many complaints about meetings. The actual first step is align a purpose with your agenda. There are generally six categories.
Decision making - Deciding on a new hire, event planning, selecting a prototype, etc. These meetings require a decision following discussion.
Correct a problem - Responding to an incident, fixing a customer complaint, disciplinary actions, etc. These meetings bring an issue to the attention of a team and identify the best possible action.
Brainstorms - Collecting creative information for client deliverables, marketing content or new feature ideas. Brainstorms can have their own bylaws and standards.
Broadcast information - All-hands meetings, company structure updates, PR and news updates, etc. These instances are reserved for when the information is too important to risk an unread email.
Collect feedback - Reviewing A/B tests, feature reviews, team performance reviews, etc. These help managers and team members collect feedback that would not be shared through other mediums.
Status review - Team cadence meetings, project reviews, one-on-one reviews, etc. These meetings examine the progress of something.
Defining an agenda category is a great first step. The difficult part is when there’s not enough time to pick a category, let alone create a detailed agenda. Enacting meeting bylaws can help with efficiency when preparation is inadequate.
These are some of the meeting rules applied by successful organizations. They’re backed by experts and social science.
The Intro - American Express Executive Christopher Frank popularized a series of questions to begin meetings:
What is the purpose?: If you’ve picked one of the agenda categories above, this question should be known by everyone on the invite.
What is the issue…in five words or less?: Asking this question to everyone in the room immediately creates a roundtable effect. Most issues are complex enough where you won’t get the same answers, which kicks off discussion and reduces the chances of off-topic chatter and confusion.
Who has already weighed in and what did they have to say about it?: This question also kicks off proper discussion. You’ll find out if the right people are present: those who developed the initial issue, the stakeholders, and the decision makers. Ineffective meetings don’t get this question out until near the end, which brings more discussion.
Short and Serviceable - The worst default setting in software history is calendar apps that default to a 30-minute or one-hour meeting time. As if every meeting should be 14% of our day (with lunch) and two meetings should be 5% of our week. It may sound insignificant until you factor in conversations with team members, dealing with customers and all the unforeseen happenings of a given day.
It’s worth noting that there is no scientifically-proven sweet spot for meeting length. Studies that attempt to prove that our attention spans are 10-15 minutes have been inconclusive. And it’s just not true that we have goldfish-like attention spans of 8 seconds (actually, the goldfish thing isn’t true either). Anyway, the point is that it’s not about an exact length of time, it’s about setting the principle that meetings will be short without being rushed. And ramblers shall be cut off (politely).
No tech - Create a digital coat check or assign a single laptop note taker. It’s a simple, powerful concept that isn’t applied universally. The most common objection to banning smartphones and laptops is, “I need to answer customers!” Solve this by limiting meeting length. Don’t forget that handwritten notes stick to our memory more than typed.
No spectators - Everything above encourages participation and purpose. Usually meeting spectators are the ones who feel justified bringing their laptops and multi-tasking. If you don’t have a follow-up task, are not impacted, and don’t need to weigh in - there’s no need to be there. At best, the spectator might contribute something vaguely useful, at worst they’ll discourage someone who needs to weigh in from doing so.
Steve Jobs and Apple are known for the D.R.I. (directly responsible individual) standard for meetings. Every member of the meeting is assigned a task at the conclusion of the meeting. If someone doesn’t have a task, was their presence needed? If it’s a broadcast-type meeting or team announcement, the D.R.I can be replaced with D.I.I (directly impacted individual), everyone should confirm how they are affected by said announcement and what changes, if any, they will make.
The DocOps Culture
These ideas about meeting agendas and bylaws are only useful if they’re shared amongst a team. Team members assume certain bylaws are common knowledge. Creating documents with an organization’s meeting philosophy and protocol is how everything above can be implemented.
Relevant documents for better meetings include:
Meeting Agenda Guidelines - If teams sync up on meeting agendas, it’ll make cross-department transfers smoother. And give new meeting leaders a headstart on how to run their meetings.
Meeting Bylaws - Determine which meeting bylaws should be used throughout the company. This can be a standalone document or one section of a comprehensive overview.
Meeting Tools & Resources - One team might be using a SaaS tool while another relies on their calendar functionality. Allow everyone to use the same resources by documenting what’s available.
Team Charter - Anticipated team and department meetings should be included within a team charter document. This allows team members to prepare and coordinate while giving executives a better look into how everything works.
Smart agendas and thoughtful bylaws are important, but other organizational factors impact meeting effectiveness. Collect feedback from management and individual contributors to build a comprehensive overview of the status quo. You can then begin to implement these guidelines.