Good meetings

You won’t have fewer meetings. Abandon that fantasy now. Meetings are to a manager what lessons are to a teacher. Plenty of vital work goes on around both, and you can have too much of a good thing, but they are the arena in which the work comes to fruition.

You won’t have fewer meetings, but you can have better ones: short and useful meetings which advance your agenda, which you look forward to and which feel worthwhile.

  • Purpose and pace
  • Diversity and decision

There’s no shortage of tips for meetings. I’m a fan of Walter Citrine’s ABC of Chairmanship. (A shout out here to Kathy and Magnus for their mastery of the arcane skills of compositing.) Speaking for myself, I have four suggestions for better meetings:

It’s obvious that every meeting should have a clear purpose. It’s less obvious that it should be a purpose that can only be achieved by a meeting. If you can achieve it any other way, you should. Do it by email, pick up the phone, make a unilateral decision. The kind of purpose that requires a meeting is a decision or agreement that needs a rapid exchange and modification of views.

If you have an appropriate purpose, you want to get there as quickly as possible. Move straight to the decision and only open up debate if there is disagreement. My favourite opening line is “Who doesn’t think we should do this?” Although this only works if you are genuinely interested in the answer: you do want disagreement if it exists.

Watch to see if debate becomes sterile, repetitive or circular. It is an art to balance openness with decisiveness, but it is your role as chair to move to closure at the right point. People will thank you for it.

To maintain pace, you should keep as much work as possible outside the meeting – distribute useful background info in advance; expect it to be read. Ensure attendees have consulted each other where necessary before submitting plans that depend on others.

I’ll be honest: although I often say “Can we take the paper as read?” I have never, never been able to prevent people from repeating their written submission. It is human nature to warm up. I think the best you can aim for is “Can you start by highlighting the two or three main points to guide us.”

Healthy disagreement is the bedrock of unity and cohesion. Your task when chairing the actual debate is to ensure that all perspectives are heard. Groupthink is dangerous and hierarchy can stifle. If you have guests or junior colleagues present, start with them. If someone looks uncomfortable, bring them in. Look for the gaps and the silences. Encourage people to play devil’s advocate. Make sure no one is afraid to voice half-formed worries. Mockery, derision, contempt: these are poison to good decision making.

One way to ensure purposeful debate is to make sure that every delegate has a reason to be there and a unique perspective to offer. There should be no ceremonial, ex officio or political attendees. You don’t want people to feel they must speak in every debate or even every meeting. But if they never add anything, they’re wasting their time. If they are there simply to report back to their team or keep an eye on things, you are better off just recording the meeting and sticking it on the intranet.

This also means that you must insist that everyone present is empowered to make decisions on the spot without seeking permission or referring back to their manager. This keeps things moving, and makes attendance count. I can think of few more important steps for purposeful, engaged and decisive meetings. If a manager can’t trust their delegate enough to empower them, either they need to send a more senior colleague or attend themselves.

This rule also sets the scene for the final requirement. Every meeting must finish with an explicit agreement or decision. It is also good to agree what messages you want to pass on to the rest of the organisation. You’d be surprised how often agreement is fake or assumed, how often people walk out of a meeting with entirely different impressions of what was decided. You may think you have captured actions, but you haven’t until you’ve precisely repeated agreements back to everyone and checked that they understand and that you haven’t missed anything. If you do nothing else in a meeting, do this.

Whatever their original perspective, by having participated in open debate, participants are now bound by the decision and must advocate it to their teams and colleagues. Leave sufficient time for the summary at the end of every meeting. Make it your invariable habit. Never let vague or fudged understandings persist – even if it means reopening the argument or causing discomfort.

If you follow these principles, you may find your meetings more valuable. They may be shorter. This could mean that you have more of them! It is, therefore, a mundane but vital discipline to start and finish on time, preferably with sufficient gaps to take stock and get to the next meeting. If you finish every meeting with a check of agreed actions, you must plan the debate to end even earlier. Speaking personally, I’m not bothered if people are occasionally late – there are always emergencies – but the meeting will begin on time whether they are there or not. This rule means that, as chair, I must be on time and preferably early. It is simply not acceptable for meeting chairs to regularly swan in late because they are senior enough to get away with it.

Essentially, this also means that it is impossible to run back to back meetings well. Whatever your preferred unit of time, 30 minutes or one hour or whatever, you have at best 70% of it for the substance of meetings.

Purpose, pace, diversity and decision: the ingredients for better meetings. There are, of course, exceptions. There’s nothing wrong with a good social event to build bonds, and one-to-ones are slightly different (in reality your direct report is the chair). Otherwise abandon hopes of fewer meetings in favour of shorter, better meetings.

If you fancy an insight into well-run meetings at the highest level, take a look at the appendices of Kenneth Harris’ biography of Clement Attlee, which contain cabinet minutes and records. Attlee was a brutally efficient chair. And managed to establish the NHS and the modern welfare state.

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