24 hacks to improve any meeting hero image


Meetings are an inevitable part of our work. Sometimes you pull the short straw and end up in a Michael Scott meeting. You never heard of a Michael Scott meeting? Oh, well, it goes like this.

 

A Michael Scott meeting is never necessary. There isn't a purpose. There definitely isn't an agenda. He invites the entire office and everyone spends the whole time focused on anything but what Michael has to say. If a Michael Scott meeting is the worst, what makes a meeting the best?

Two studies explored the different parts of a meeting and which ones mattered the most to making the meeting effective.1 The five meeting components included in both studies were:

  • Using an agenda
  • Keeping minutes
  • Punctuality – Starting and ending on time
  • Having appropriate meeting facilities
  • Having a chairperson/leader

Participants were asked to think first about the meetings they attend during a regular week, and then about the last meeting they attended. Each time, they answered questions about how effective they thought those meetings are and to what extent the meetings contained the five components above. Turns out, from the 1,250 surveys collected, people find meetings most effective when:

  • An agenda is prepared ahead of time.
  • The meeting starts and ends on time.
  • They're able to cover every agenda item.
  • The room is comfortable.
  • They feel involved throughout.
  • They chair the meeting.

So, while your meetings aren't likely to reach Michael Scott status, there's probably one regularly-occurring meeting in your calendar requiring a 5-minute meditation and several deep breaths before you attend. If you want to make that meeting better, here are 28 hacks to try.

1. Hand out the agenda BEFORE the meeting

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The thing about agendas is they work so much better when you send them around before the meeting. People can decide whether they need to attend, more introverted folks have time to gather their thoughts, and everyone knows what's up for discussion.

2. Park it.

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If a meeting agenda is like an interstate route to a decision, someone may take an exit at some point. When they do, the next thing you know, they're halfway down a service road and took at least one other person with them. When someone shares something you want to remember, but isn't necessarily relevant to the meeting, add it to the parking lot. A parking lot in your meeting is just a place to list ideas for now to come back to another time. It's also a gentle way of letting someone know the thing they want to talk about isn't appropriate for the meeting.

3. Know the meeting purpose

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Have you ever left a meeting thinking, "Why did we meet, again?" I have. More than once. Before you say yes to the meeting, know what you're saying yes to. If it isn't clear from the agenda, ask. If no one knows, consider whether the meeting needs to happen at all.

4. Set a style

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In his book, Meetings Suck, Cameron Herold suggests meeting facilitators set a style for every agenda item.2 The style lets everyone know how to participate in the discussion. The styles are:

  • Information sharing: Plan on spending your time listening. Typically, one person talks without much discussion or debate. Announcements fall into this category.
  • Creative discussion: Get lots of ideas on the table. Brainstorming is always a creative discussion style.
  • Consensus decision: Making a decision is the objective.

Add a space on your agenda to include the style and you'll eliminate any confusion over how everyone should engage that topic.

5. Write agenda items as questions to be answered

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People understand when they read a question, there should be an answer. Writing agenda items as questions encourages people to think about their response. Instead of writing these agenda items, try their alternative:

Agenda Item
Alternatives
Review dataWhat trends do you see?
Where are we doing well?
How have we improved?
Talk about last week's decisionsDo we have a way to track our progress?
Who needs to know about our decisions?
Schedule a follow-upWhat days and times do you have available in the next two weeks?
Presentation from the site council meetingHow does the information impact our team?
Do we have data to support their decision or to evaluate the impact?

6. Leave no action item left behind

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Our colleagues at the Team Initiated Problem Solving (TIPS) project will be the first to remind you not to stop at writing down an action item. Every time you make a decision, it needs to include who will do what by when. This way, there is no confusion about expectations.

7. Pick a non-default start time

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Fun fact, I've never scheduled a meeting time at a time not on the half hour increment. Outlook makes it too easy to do it any other way. What would you do if you got a meeting request with a 10:36 start time? Seems oddly specific, doesn't it? Maybe I'd think it was a mistake. I'd definitely think it was weird. I'd probably also believe that meeting was going to start at 10:36 and not a minute later. If you've never done it, try sending a meeting request for any time other than a regular increment. See how that changes things.

8. Start (and end) on time.

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If we're honest, everyone is busy with barely enough minutes to finish one task let alone to sit in a conference room for an hour. Responding yes to a meeting means prioritizing it over a million other things you need to finish. Starting (and ending) a meeting on time shows everyone you respect their schedule and the time they carved out to attend.

9. Stand up

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Sometimes, a meeting doesn't need to be that long. When you want to keep things short, try conducting it standing up. You're more likely to say what you need to say, make a quick decision, and get back to your work.

10. Unplug

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Computers are such an integral part of our daily lives, it's a natural tendency to use them even when they aren't necessary. Some of the most productive brainstorming sessions I've been a part of never touched technology once. Instead of wasting time opening a word document and trying to figure out how to format our ideas, use a good old fashioned white board. It's so much easier to put up an idea, erase it, move it around, group things together on the fly when all you need is an eraser and a marker.

11. Don't meet if it's not necessary

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If your agenda contains only information sharing items (see #4), or you think you only need to get together for 10 minutes, I'd invite you to consider whether or not you actually need to meet. My colleague, Anne Todd, once told me: "Any meeting where one person does most of the talking is a memo, not a meeting." Her words stick with me every time I send a meeting request. Still don't know whether to meet? Here's a flow chart from the Harvard Business Review to help you out.

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12. Schedule a meeting for less time than you think

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Parkinson's Law says work will fill up the time you allot. Give someone an hour to do a 30-minute job and it will take them an hour. It's a good rule to consider when you're figuring out how much time to allow for a meeting. Outlook calendars make it easy to choose 30-minute increments. Do you need 30 minutes? Could you meet for 20 minutes and still get what you need? 10 minutes? If you answered yes to making it a 10-minute meeting, I invite you to review hack #11.

13. Set up the room BEFORE the start time

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Let me let you in on a little pro tip: No one wants to watch you set up the InFocus projector. If you don't know the meeting room like the back of your hand, give yourself plenty of time to make sure the room is in order before the first person walks in the door.

14. Make it comfortable

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In our office we have four primary meeting spaces

  • The big one.
  • The one in the middle of a hallway
  • The tiny one near the bathroom
  • The one in the new space

Everyone knows the big one is the best one, but it also needs to be warmed up before people get there. About 10 minutes before the meeting starts, I'll go turn on the lights and make sure the heat has a chance to warm up the room by the time the first person walks in. Meetings are already a tough sell sometimes. Make sure people are as comfortable in the room as possible.

15. Feed the people

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Whenever possible, offer food. I know my mood immediately lifts the minute I spy a baked good on a conference room table. Go the extra mile and be mindful of the food preferences, allergies, or restrictions in your group.

16. Bring coffee

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Trust me. Bring coffee.

17. Establish expectations for cell phones and laptops

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You're probably familiar with setting school expectations. Have you set group expectations for your meetings? In our office, we have three expectations you might recognize.

  • Be respectful
  • Be responsible
  • Be a team player

Great. What does this have to do with my cell phone?

There is a way to use technology to engage in a meeting and there is a way to use it as a distraction. I'm very familiar with both methods. Give specific expectations on what they can do with their phones and their laptops. Forbes has some ideas to get you started:

  • Phones are turned off or silenced during meetings
  • Phones go in a basket at the door before the meeting starts.
  • Every meeting longer than two hours will have a break scheduled to check phones and email
  • Unless it's an emergency, take phone calls after the meeting.

18. Understand your meeting personality

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According to the book, Meetings Suck, there are four types of meeting personalities:

Dominant
Expressive
Extrovert
Assertive
Verbose
Push for their opinions
Excitable
Animated
Think out loud
Eagerly jump in to speak
Analytical
Amiable
Introvert
Quiet
Think through an idea before speaking
Avoid conflict
Passive
Often feel left out

Knowing your meeting personality – and the personalities in the room with you – helps everyone get a handle on the feeling in the room. Each type would benefit from the other's strengths. If you find yourself leaning forward, sipping water to douse your parched mouth, or going hoarse from so much talking, take a cue from the quiet side of the room and do a little more listening. Ask a question and wait for a response instead of offering your own.

19. No facilitator? Nominate yourself.

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What's that saying? If you want something done right, do it yourself. According to those same two studies, people say the most productive meetings they attend are the ones they facilitate. Maybe that's just ego talking…or maybe, if a topic matters to you, maybe you're the one to lead.

20. Survey the room

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We use Consensus Cards around here when someone proposes a decision. These are just index cards in five colors:

  • Red: Block. When you don't agree, and feel you can't agree, to the proposal.
  • Orange: Stand aside. When you feel fine about any decision the group makes.
  • Yellow: Agree, but with reservations. When you think it's a good idea, but worry about some aspect of it.
  • Green: Agree. When you are all in on an idea.

Everyone in the meeting gets four cards – one of each color. When a decision is proposed, we survey the room and everyone holds up one card. It's a really quick way to see if there are any differences of opinion we need to talk about before agreeing to the action item. Specifically, we want to hear more from those holding up yellow and red cards.

21. Follow the 2-pizza rule.

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When it comes to meetings, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, has a 2-pizza rule. He won't call or attend a meeting where two pizzas wouldn't feed the group. It's unlikely he provides those two pizzas at every meeting to verify the rule. However, the sentiment stands. The more people you pack into your meeting, the less likely you are to (a) hear from everyone or (b) even come close to finishing your agenda. As you put together the list of people to invite to your meeting, think about how much pizza it would take to feed everyone.

22. Let people opt out

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The flip side of providing an agenda before the meeting is someone you invite may look at it and decide the meeting isn't for them. There are two reasons to invite someone to a meeting:

  • You see value for them.
  • You need value from them.

If someone looks at your agenda and doesn't see value for them, it should be ok for them to opt out. If you're the person opting out, be sure to let the chairperson know you'd like to sit this one out and ask them if they had a need for you to attend. If there's no value for you, and no value needed from you, respectfully decline the request.

23. Get decision makers in the room if you need decisions made

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If you need to make a decision during a meeting, it's important to have the deciders in the room. If you're the person with the authority to make a decision, make it clear if you can only stay for a portion of the meeting so those decisions can be made before you go.

24. Find the positives

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Here's a graph. What do you notice first?

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December. You probably noticed December.

When we look at school improvement or student behavior data, the tendency is to look for the places we can fix. I encourage you to first look for the positives. Maybe you had a goal for November to be below 10 referrals per day. You met that goal. Diving head first into problem solving starts the meeting off on a tough note. Celebrate your wins…the big ones and the small.

25. Ask the 5 Whys

And That's A Problem Because

If you know you're going to need staff buy-in to implement a solution, you'll need to give people the why behind your decision. One trick to finding that is The 5 Whys. It looks like this:

Let's say we're about to head into a staff meeting discussing our PBIS implementation. Our initial statement might be: We're implementing PBIS. To get to the purpose, we ask ourselves why…five times.

  1. Why? The district mandates it.
  2. Why? Our school refers students more frequently than other schools our same size.
  3. Why should we refer fewer students? If students spend less time in the office, they spend more time in class.
  4. Why is it important for students to be in class? We need students in class so they can learn from us.
  5. Why do you want them to learn? Because we care about our students' futures.

There's our core idea. Share this why with people at the beginning of your meeting and they'll stick with you to your next point.

26. Summarize before the meeting

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It's easy for meetings to turn into group work. Sometimes that's fine. Brainstorming works best in a group. When it comes to problem solving, getting a better handle on what the data say is a task best completed before the meeting. If your team doesn't have a designated data analyst, talk about appointing one. The data analyst reviews the data before the meeting, looking for potential problems to discuss as a group. They get those items on the agenda and share the data in the meeting.

27. "Dent your way to victory"

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I love this idea. It came from a colleague during a discussion about action planning. We were talking about whether teams should pick the big items to work on throughout the year, or the small ones. His recommendation was to pick the smaller, low-hanging fruits. These are the little wins you can accomplish to build momentum throughout the year. Rather than taking one giant swing with a sledgehammer, try smaller taps with a hammer and dent your way to victory.

28. Connect the Dots

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You have lots of data. Odds are high, a problem presenting itself in one dataset will show up in another. Some questions to consider are:

  • Would committing to one item improve another item's score?
  • Are you already committed to working on some items as a result of action planning you've done previously?
  • Is there a way to embed any item inside of actions you're already taking?



1. Leach, D., Rogelberg, S., Warr, P., & Burnfield, J. (2009). Perceived Meeting Effectiveness: The Role of Design Characteristics. Journal Of Business And Psychology24(1), 65-76. doi: 10.1007/s10869-009-9092-6

2. Herold, C. (2016). Meetings suck. Lioncrest Publishing.