Let’s Save the Meetings!

When I started my proper professional career in 2013, I was a communications assistant in a large digital project within a global corporation. I attended dozens of meetings every week. I was astonished and downright appalled by the meeting culture back then.

A lot of people were invited to every meeting, mostly just to be safe. There was no agenda in the invitations, and the topics were vague. No one took notes on what was said. The purpose of the meetings was unclear. People did talk a lot, though, at least for an hour each time.

However, participants didn’t listen during the meetings; it was very common for them to do other work while the meeting was in progress. If someone asked a question, another person often requested for it to be repeated because they hadn’t been paying attention. Everything felt like a tremendous waste of time.

I thought that such chaos would have been done with by now. However, I have heard stories that it hasn’t.

How to change the meeting culture from within

We may not be able to simply stop attending meetings, no matter how much we might want to. Instead, we can change the meeting culture from within. Everyday meeting anarchy protects individuals from unnecessary gatherings. Small actions can have significant consequences when you do them consistently and get others to follow your example.

Find out the agenda

When you receive a calendar invitation without an agenda, the best thing to do is to send a follow-up message and ask for the meeting’s agenda. If this feels too aggressive, you can phrase it like this:

“What is my role in this meeting? What is expected of me, and how can I prepare?”

One programmer told me that this simple strategy has helped him to get out of numerous pointless meetings.

Determine the meeting’s exit criteria (i.e., its purpose)

If it’s a team meeting or if you otherwise feel you have the opportunity to take charge, ask for the meeting’s exit criteria at the beginning. The exit criteria, a term coined by Jonas Rajanto, is a definition of when the meeting can be concluded. At what point has the meeting fulfilled its purpose?

  • “We can end this meeting as soon as we have decided on X.”
  • “We’ll be done when we have gone through these five things.”
  • “This hour is meant for checking how everyone’s doing and general discussion. We’ll finish when the time is up.”

A meeting is more efficient when it has a clear purpose and everyone knows what that purpose is. It’s also good for everyone to be aware if a certain meeting doesn’t have a concrete goal but is meant to be a time to, for example, brainstorm, get to know each other, exchange news, discuss perspectives, gather information, or just spend time together.

Offer to write meeting minutes

This may not be the most appealing suggestion, but it would be beneficial if someone took minutes during the meeting. If it’s not the current practice, offer to do it yourself first. When people realize how useful they are, you can request that everyone will take turns writing meeting minutes.

Keep the minutes short. Focus on collecting important information, decisions made, and tasks assigned. You can even facilitate the discussion a bit while writing the minutes:

  • “I wrote down that we’ll do task Y. Did we already decide who will do it or who is responsible?”
  • “So, we agreed to do task Y. If I elaborate on it in the minutes, could you clarify what Y means in practice?”
  • “I noted that we’ll do task Y. Should we add a deadline for when it should be completed?”

It’s easier to revisit earlier discussions during the next meeting if they are written down somewhere.

Be a stellar organiser yourself

If you have the pleasure and honour of sometimes organising meetings yourself, distinguish yourself in your organization with the help of this checklist:

  • “Could this be an email instead?”
  • “What kind of meeting is this? Is it a decision-making meeting, a brainstorming or data-gathering meeting, a meeting to express and share opinions, a team-building meeting, a status update meeting?”
  • “What is the meeting’s subject?”
  • “What is the meeting’s agenda?”
  • “What is the meeting’s exit criterion?”
  • “What is the minimum number of people we need for this meeting?”
  • “How can people prepare for the meeting?”
  • “How will the meeting be recorded and documented for future reference?”

Meetings can be an excellent way to handle matters; they just have a bad reputation due to poor meeting practices.

Let’s save the meetings!

TL;DR Improve the meeting culture from within:

  • Find out the meeting agenda. You can ask, “What is my role in this meeting? What is expected of me? How can I prepare?”
  • Ask for the meeting’s exit criteria: When has the meeting fulfilled its purpose and can end?
  • Offer to write meeting minutes so that important information, decisions made, and assigned tasks are recorded.
  • If you plan to call a meeting, consider whether it’s necessary. If it is, use best practices.

Or what do you think?

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