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How to Craft Meetings People Love (Really)

These gatherings can feel like a prison sentence, unproductively ticking away time. But when infused with some essentials, they can be fruitful — and even enjoyable.

We open today on a familiar scene: After a long day of back-to-back meetings, Bob arrives home to find his wife, Jane, who also has just returned from work, starting to prepare dinner. As Bob rolls up his sleeves to begin chopping carrots, they talk about their day.

Bob: I am just exhausted.

Jane: What did you do today?

Bob: I was in meetings all day.

Jane: Yes, but what did you do?

Bob (exasperated): I just told you, I was in meetings all day!

Jane: And I asked you: What did you do?!

This actual conversation is one that a colleague shared with me. It took him a moment to realize what his wife was getting at, but her point was this: He was tired and frustrated from hours of meetings because he didn’t perceive that he’d actually “done” anything. For him, work was what happened between meetings.

At their worst, meetings are like short prison sentences that have you counting the minutes until your release. Yet there are meetings that are useful and productive, and even invigorating and enjoyable.

In my work, I have found three types of meetings that exemplify variations on best practices and are worth emulating:

The breakfast club. I once worked for someone who gathered her direct reports each Friday for breakfast at a local greasy spoon. We were eager to come in early and pay for our meals ourselves because this was our chance to get her download on the senior management meeting with her boss that was held each Thursday.

Worthwhile gatherings facilitate the flow of information, minimize filters and speculation, and enhance group cohesion.

My boss was a savvy operator, which was essential at this particular organization: She understood that her influence and success were directly tied to the ability of her team to navigate the political shoals around us. We needed to know who was allied with whom and what larger plans were afoot in order to do our jobs well. We met off-site so we could ask tough questions and offer unvarnished reactions. The meeting also added a bit of a clandestine air to our jobs that made the information seem even more valuable: We were getting the “inside scoop.”

It is essential for your people to know that you have their backs — remembering, of course, that there is some information that you may not be able to share. The breakfast club made it clear that our boss had our interests in mind and also emphasized that she was not playing favorites with information distribution. We also built enduring camaraderie that persisted even after she left the organization.

The editorial scrum. The Economist recently published an account of its Monday morning editorial meetings in which stories are pitched, the cover is planned, and the weekly magazine’s position on global events are debated. It’s the kind of meeting that will get your blood running at the start of the week. I have never attended this particular meeting (I’d jump at the chance), though I have attended other editorial gatherings. The best of them are freewheeling affairs with honest and intense debate.

What makes the Economist’s meeting so productive is its egalitarian nature. Rank is put aside and everyone is encouraged to contribute: “The whole paper meets, and anyone  —  from the newest intern to the most senior editor  —  can put forward and write a leader [article]. What matters is not a contributor’s seniority, but the strength and quality of his or her arguments,” Amanda Coletta wrote.

Imagine if other organizations — perhaps yours — followed that practice. Engagement would rise among meeting attendees because they would invest in the discussion. Biases could be mitigated and differing opinions offered and challenged. People would hone their critical thinking and constructive argument skills. Decision quality would improve.

The focus session. Every morning since September 12, 2001, a wide array of stakeholders in safety and security at Boston Logan International Airport meet to share information about the day’s likely events. Rocked by the 9/11 attacks, officials decided that optimizing collaboration and coordination among the various agencies and companies at the airport would be critical to improving security. Unlike most such noble initiatives, this one has persisted — seven days a week for sixteen years and counting. The day I attended as a guest, about 70 people were there. This is not a compulsory meeting for most. They continue to come because they find it valuable.

The meeting centers on whatever is likely to have an impact on the airport that day or in the immediate future: the return home of a championship sports team, an impending storm, construction, or an intelligence alert. The meeting is a crisp, no-nonsense round robin of reports. Anything relevant to the group is welcome. “Nothing today” is also an acceptable contribution, minimizing the temptation to fill airtime with pro forma statements. The meeting lasts not one minute less or more than necessary. It can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as an hour.

It is a highly efficient way to connect, share, receive information, and ask questions. The meeting has also been a key component of building an enduring culture where collaboration and coordination across organizational boundaries is the norm, eliminating back-channel networking that can lead to information gaps and misunderstandings. Many organizations could benefit from such a vehicle.

Although these three meeting types are all very different, at their core, they share some essential concepts.

• Get the basics right. Invite the right people — and only the right people. Be clear about the purpose, format, necessary decisions to be made, and desired outcome. Craft social norms that align with those parameters. Start on time and keep on track.

• Take a systems view. Relevant information needs to flow to the right people at the right time if smart decisions are to be made. Worthwhile gatherings facilitate that flow, minimize filters and speculation, and enhance group cohesion. At the Logan Airport meeting, that involves pushing information out efficiently across the enterprise; at the Economist, it is about drawing great ideas in.

• Make sure it’s the best vehicle. If it is important for people to get the information at the same time or if you want some back-and-forth dialog, a meeting is the right call. Don't put a dozen (or 70) people in a room if they could more easily digest the information reading asynchronously. At the breakfast club meeting, reactions and discussion were as important as the senior management intel itself.

• Know the ROI. Even on-site meetings have costs (and I’m not talking about the bagels). Calculate the rough salary equivalent for the hours that people are there and estimate the return on that investment — for each participant, not just the convener. What is each person contributing and what is he or she getting in return? What is the payback to the organization? One way to find out if people feel a meeting is worthwhile is to make it optional — and see who shows up.

Meetings punctuate the rhythm of our organizational lives; in some cases, they seem to be an end in themselves. But the meetings described above are a worthwhile investment of time, talent, and energy. Attendees both got and gave value. That's how you craft meetings people love.

I’d like to hear from you. Do you have a bad-meeting horror story? Or do you have any tips for making meetings more effective? If so, leave a comment below or tweet me at @RicherEarth with the tag #MaximizeMeetings.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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