Bringing Sanity to Meetings and Con Calls – You Can Do It!

A sequel to this post has finally been posted. See it on Medium here, and subscribe to my feed there for more early-look content. It will be posted on rsts11 by the end of the month.

And a third part was posted first on Linkedin here.

I’m sure all of my readers love meetings. If you’re like me, you wake up looking forward to people who forget they’re on mute, people who forget to go on mute before yelling at pets/neighbors/unpleasant BMs, and of course what I call Cisco Standard Time (“We’ll get started about 5 minutes late because everyone before us did.”).

But for those of you who want to make a difference, I thought I’d share some ideas to help you make the most of your meeting time, whether you’re running a meeting, participating in one, or thinking you’d rather get a few more root canals and maybe a vertebra replacement instead of going to another conference call.

Caveat: I work remotely (not to be confused with remotely working), so a lot of my recent thoughts on this topic are focused around Webex or other conference call methods. I hope they’ll help you with face-to-face meetings as well, but don’t count on hitting mute in a conference room to save you from your woes.

I’ll start with an anecdote. I worked for a search engine company about 13 years ago, and one of the CEOs during my time there made an interesting observation. He walked around our San Francisco office and saw meeting rooms full most of the time. Many/most of the people in the meeting rooms were disengaged, and people couldn’t justify the meetings to him in many cases. So a mandate went out, a decree from on high, telling people to cut back on meetings and trim down the attendees. It was one of the wisest admonitions from a CEO that I’ve ever been in the room to hear first-hand. And it seemed to work. (The company failed later for other reasons, but nobody who left the company thought “if we’d only had a few more meetings each day, we would’ve made it.”)

1) If it’s worth having a meeting, it’s worth reporting on the meeting.

How many meetings have you had where the result is an hour-long recording, or a slide deck, or worse yet, nothing at all?

If you’re calling a meeting with more than one or two other people, it’s worth making sure that the results of the meeting are shared consistently with all attendees, as well as any of the S-C-I part of RASCI. Doesn’t have to be forensic transcriptions, or interpretive dance, but have someone take notes of the highlights and any action items, and send them out to anyone affected by the meeting.

If your meeting doesn’t have any result or outcome, maybe you should cancel the meeting, or hold it less frequently (and yes, I know it probably is a recurring meeting if this happens).

This guideline may also help you with my second guideline, which is:

2) Not everyone who can attend, should attend.

I had a call with a vendor late in the last decade. I believe we had 12-15 people from the vendor, including a few from my account team, their managers, and their managers. I found I only needed two people on my side, since 15 people aren’t needed to discuss color and length of Ethernet cables to go with a server purchase.

It may be tempting to pull everyone who’s interested in your meeting topic, or anyone who works for or is worked for by anyone in your meeting, or some folks from another team or two. Resist the temptation.

Bring the people who are critical into the meeting. Inform the others using the guideline in #1 above. The odds of derailment go down, and the odds of a successful meeting go way up.

3) Set your agenda to fit the time allotted. Not the other way around.

One of the worst things you can hear is “If you can stay on, we just have another 30 slides to go.” A poorly planned and executed meeting can expand to fill the remaining life of the Milky Way Galaxy, and that’s not a challenge.

Back when I used Google Apps for Business, they added a feature to the calendar to automagically set your meeting requests to end before the half hour/hour. So an hour long meeting ended on the schedule at :50. Half hour meetings ended at :25/:55. Built-in time for bio breaks, quick headset charging, etc.

When I call a meeting, I will start it as close to on time as I can, and end it before the end of the hour. I’ll often set the call to end at an odd point, i.e. 1:47pm or 1:53pm, and people tend to notice that and not get into the mindset of “1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 5-6” and just run all the meetings beyond their windows.

4) If your meeting can be replaced with 2-3 emails, do it.

If your performance is measured based on the number of meetings you hold, and the number of captives you acquire for them, your job sucks and I feel bad for you. (Some exception is allowed for customer sales calls, but be careful with those too.)

You can usually tell when a meeting can be replaced with emails. If you’re reciting a slide deck, that’s a good indicator. If you’re expecting people to respond to the deck with no advance warning, that’s an even better indicator. Hold a meeting to address interactive topics, not antiphonal performances.

If you want feedback on a document, start by sending the document out and setting a deadline for responses; hold a meeting if you still need more, or to negotiate between the responses.

5) Respect your fellow attendees

We know, you love your cool catchy ringtone, and your dog is really saying his favorite baseball player’s name, and so forth. But silence your devices before the meeting starts. Close the door if applicable, have some water handy, find your mute button in case you have to cough or pass gas or yell at the kids or pets or neighbors.

I find that sometimes I have to double-mute (on my phone and on Webex), so that a meeting manager doesn’t unmute me while the neighbors are cheering on a big sporting event, or while I’m screaming at the Dyson fan about someone talking about “big data Hadoop” (as opposed to the other kind of Hadoop). But most of the time I remember to unmute both when I need to speak.

Get comfortable with your mute button(s), minimize the distractions you generate in the meeting, and everyone will be happier. Except maybe your Dyson fan.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously many people who read this will think “this doesn’t apply to me, I am the GRAND POOBAH OF GREAT MEETINGS.” They’re wrong. But you can only stop so many people from jumping off a cliff.

Think about how you can apply these guidelines to your own meetings. Share the post with your bosses, coworkers, neighbors, etc. And if you have a suggestion I’ve missed (there are many, I’m sure), welcome to the comment section below.

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