Meetings That Matter

Keep your staff engaged by making the most of your time together

Back Article Jun 9, 2016 By Tania Fowler

Meetings are the organizational fulcrum where individuals work together cooperatively as a team. At their best, good meetings get people’s brains fired up. At their worst, meetings provoke a fight-or-flight instinct in the poor souls gathered at the table — they shut people’s brains down.

Meetings often follow an outdated arc of written agendas emailed days ahead, the reading and voting on minutes never to be seen again and robotic sharing of mind-numbing progress reports. Agenda items repeat ad nauseum as teams repeatedly fail to deal with real issues.

A team of researchers in Google’s People Operations (their HR) launched Project Aristotle, a research project designed to answer the question “What makes a Google team effective?” They learned that the five key dynamics that distinguish successful Google teams from others are:

  • Psychological safety: Employees believe they can take risks with their team without embarrassment.
  • Dependability: Employees feel they can count on each other to do high-quality work on time.
  • Structure and clarity: People have clarity on goals, roles and how to execute and achieve their plans.
  • Meaning of work: People believe they are working on something that’s personally important to them.
  • Impact of work: Employees fundamentally believe their work matters.

It’s worth taking this page from the Google playbook when planning your staff meetings. If they aren’t inspiring your team to do their best work, use these tips to run meetings that perk people up.

Incorporate quick stand-ups into the schedule: These popular mini-meetings are like what Twitter is to blogs: a concise way to communicate, share key objectives and ask to get on a colleague’s calendar all in 30 seconds or less — versus a long, drawn-out meeting. That’s right, everyone gets 30 seconds (tops) to say what they’re working on. Stand-ups are not meant for social time, problem-solving or discussing anything in-depth. Keep them short and succinct. Leave the chairs and coffee cake for another time.

Leaders, model the tone: Meetings should be productive, offering a safe space for people to put forth all ideas knowing that the team encourages fluid thinking. Conscious leaders know that what they model will be — if they lead open and honest discussions, the team follows. But, if leaders don’t handle issues or skip out on meetings, soon team members will follow that lead as well.

Be consistent: A consistent schedule for weekly or biweekly meetings is a must, so people plan accordingly. Consistency eliminates excuses of not knowing about it or scheduling something else instead.

Have a mission for the meeting: What’s the meeting for? Is it to come to a specific decision? Is it to flip ideas over to brainstorm possibilities? Whatever the reason, state the purpose of the meeting clearly and then ask people to come prepared so they can contribute fully.

Appoint a facilitator: Appoint a good facilitator to keep control of the room and discussion. Effective facilitators chart out the important points people make, keeping the staff focused on what’s been said. This practice enables people to stay on point and not restate comments. When people go off-track, the facilitator asks, “Help us understand how this discussion is relevant to this issue?” to bring the wanderer back on topic. Rotate the facilitator role among all team members at different meetings.

Create norms for working together: Co-create a set of rules for working together, hang them where people can see them and watch people interact more productively. Rules should include how to handle topics like technology, discussions and listening. Also, challenge talkative people to be succinct and quieter people to speak up.

Keep meetings relevant, on point and short: Invite participants only for whom the material under discussion has real relevance. Keep agendas tight with a time stamp if possible. Instead of forcing people to endure the “reading of the progress reports” segment, send these updates to staff via email, Dropbox or IM — it helps maintain sanity while keeping meetings shorter but smarter.

Brainstorm with a lightening round: Agendas are typically written prior to meetings, while a lightning round creates an agenda in the moment — a terrific tool for discovering what is relevant to the people at the table. Ask: “What is most important to you right now in terms of team success?” Each person has 30 seconds to answer. A facilitator notes all of the contributions, asks questions for clarification and the team green-lights projects theydeem useful.

Allow for negative input with constraints: Conflict is actually good for meetings. Avoiding discussion about what’s not working will ensure repeat agenda items and growing problems. A good rule for dealing with negative comments is that no one can make one without offering up a solution to the problem. No solution, no discussion.

Use improv as a guide: The first rule of improv is to say “yes, and …” instead of “no, but.” In meetings, ask, “What’s possible here?” or “What’s missing that can change the game?” Be curious about where an idea can go and mine for new insights; say yes then explore.

Have a decision-maker present: After a productive discussion, the leader makes final decisions. While consensus is nice in a perfect world, what people are really looking for is the opportunity to discuss ideas and have their voices heard. Waiting for everyone to agree bogs down the discussion, causing people to capitulate even if they don’t agree — not a great way to get buy-in. A fully vetted discussion contributes to the best decisions.

Create clarity at the end of each meeting: Seek clarity by asking, “What have we decided here today?” End-of-meeting clarification makes the agreed-upon actions crystal clear to everyone and ensures that 12 slightly different versions of what’s been decided don’t walk out the door. Be sure to take time to map out the defining objectives for the agreed-upon actions.

It’s time to put the routine and boring meeting down. You’re competing with a smartphone now — make sure the meeting wins.


Darin Herle (not verified)June 13, 2016 - 2:15pm

Hi Tania,

Great article! I think you've made some solid points.

Completely agree with your take on how leaders should role model ideal meeting behavior. Our teams are watching us for what is culturally acceptable and permitted in the organization. Also, conflict is something every meeting should have a little dose of - it leads to the best decisions.

When we sat down to design Trackmeet with a group of experienced meeting organizers (www.gotrackmeet.com), we tried to capture many of the best practices you've articulated for running meetings, into a software tool.

Keep up the great writing!

Darin Herle

Tania Fowler (not verified)June 14, 2016 - 12:07pm

Thank you Darin! That is so nice to hear from you. I will check out your software tool for my clients. Thanks!