How to Run Effective Meetings?
November 1, 2019 7:56 AM   Subscribe

What are your best recommendations for resources on making meetings effective, useful, and dare I suggest it, enjoyable?

I'm not a meeting hater--I frequently think they can be quite useful if done right and well--but I am a useless meeting hater. I'm going to be facilitating more meetings in the coming months around a couple of big projects and want to make sure they are as productive and enjoyable as possible. There are a plethora of things that come up when you search "run effective meeting," but wondering if MeFites have found any particular book, article, or other resource especially illuminating. Bonus points if it is engaging to read, extra bonus points for higher ed settings. (Personal "a-ha!" moments and tips also welcome.)

I have a general understanding of basic best practices, e.g. clear agendas, parking lots, assignments and action items, etc., but would love to have some additional information or guidance.

The content of these meetings, depending on the specific meeting and group, will include brainstorming, strategy development, tactical review and deployment and, as always, some other duties as assigned. Meetings will include groups ranging from 9-20 people (the larger groups being more stakeholder updates). We have Asana to help manage agenda items, tasks, assignments, responsibilities, etc.

I've seen a few previous questions, but they are several years old now--wondering if there is anything new in meetings, particularly from the owners perspective.
posted by HonoriaGlossop to Work & Money (27 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know which specific book (though for higher ed this Allison Green book might be relevant). However, one useful thing which is not so common which I have picked is to make sure that at the beginning of the meeting I check in on meeting expectations, and at the end we go through them all and see if they were met. I also do periodic check ins about what might be missing or could be dropped from the agenda if it is a regular meeting.
posted by frumiousb at 8:31 AM on November 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

When I ran a regular meeting, my big contribution to harmony and productivity was starting the meeting on time and ending it on time. There was an agenda, it was a regular meeting, and I let people wander away only briefly before getting back to business. That had not been my experience of other company meetings and I just thought it disrespectful of everyone's time to let any given person, myself included, go off track too long or dominate the meeting, or waste a bunch of time on stuff that could be handled outside of the meeting. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 8:34 AM on November 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes, start on time and end on time. End it 5 minutes before the half hour or hour so people have time to travel to the next meeting. And have times and outcomes on your agenda to keep the discussion moving. If there's an agenda with no times or outcomes, people will belabor minutia and not achieve the purpose of the meeting.
posted by bfranklin at 8:54 AM on November 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Great advice here. As someone who's ran many meetings with academics, let me underline/expand on a few things:

- definitely be respectful of people's time. Start on time, and end a little early. Resist the urge to wait around for 10 minutes for people who are late, or run over just to get to one more thing.

- Be clear about how long you're going to discuss a contentious matter, and how you'll make decisions. Academics love to talk, and to work things over and over and over - recognize when the basic points have been made and that it's time to make a decision, be done with it, and move on, even if there's not consensus.

- If you're managing the discussion, think about how to make sure that you're hearing from everyone and not letting a few people dominate the conversation. That might mean explicitly asking people to speak, or telling people that they should wait or listen first.

- Think carefully about whether you want to let people join remotely, or whether they have to be there in person. In my experience, it works best when everyone is in the same room, or everyone is virtual. If most people are face-to-face but one or two are joining via Zoom, we waste half the meeting making sure they can see and hear, trying to get the sound right, etc, and then the remote folks are still not very engaged.

- You've already noted this, but I think the most important thing is to be clear about why this meeting is occurring. What are you there to accomplish? What's the outcome we need? That helps to cut off digressions, rants, and the other sorts of behaviors that can make meetings useless.
posted by chbrooks at 9:21 AM on November 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

I've been told I run a pretty good meeting. I don't tell people at work this, but the skill comes from years of running games of Dungeons & Dragons. I check my notes from the previous session/meeting, have a goal in mind and work toward it, keep an eye on the clock, give everyone some spotlight time, pull people back on track before an off-tangent discussion goes on too long, and then make notes on what happened.
posted by maurice at 9:22 AM on November 1, 2019 [15 favorites]

What was said above, with the addition that you shouldn’t be afraid to end early if you run out of agenda. If you laugh and say "Yeah, like that would ever happen” then it’s time to rethink how well you’re serving everyone in the time allotted.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:25 AM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Start with the 1976 HBR classic: How To Run A Meeting.

Then read about the Amazon way of running a meeting (kind of intense, a hard lift to implement at most organizations, but thinking about why it might result in a better meeting will help you spot problems in more conventional meetings): Using 6 Page and 2 Page Documents To Make Organizational Decisions.

And finally, you're ready to think about the toughest meetings of all: meetings where a some but not all participants are remote. Again, your meetings might not be like this, but this is a stress test for how you do things, and this series of articles spends time explaining why these problems (personalities!) and solutions (culture and format!) aren't unique to this situation: Why are there always technical problems in remote meetings? , Why do remote meetings suck so much?, How do we make remote meetings not suck? (In general, "how to do a thing with remote participants" is a great google search for any value of "thing", even if you don't have remote participants).
posted by caek at 10:07 AM on November 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am a good meeting runner most of the time and go to a LOT of virtual meetings, and just want to expand on the good advice already given.

- Timing is everything. Start on time, end early or on time at the latest. If people are friendly and social you can build in some time for people to bullshit about stuff, but have that be regulated closely. The meeting must have a goal. Open with brief recap of last meeting if necessary. Have an agenda if at all possible.
- Send out all material that people need to have looked at for the meeting well before the meeting. Do not assume something you send out an hour before the meeting will be read by everyone. Do not build "reading time" into the meeting unless it's unavoidable.
- If you have to re-send a document for the meeting, consider re-sending all the documents again. I am often getting documents out of email and if people re-send three different documents it's hard to track what is what. Make sure documents have dates and revisions numbers on them and in the file name.
- Do not do things in the meeting that can be done before or after the meeting. Do not read stuff aloud from documents (unless it needs to be discussed or is new information). Do not use the meeting to set a time for the next meeting. It's okay to give people a brainstorm topic beforehand and ask them to come with... three ideas or whatever.
- As the person who runs the meeting, accessibility is your concern. Make sure people can hear, if something is getting in the way of that (esp in virtual meetings) step in "Hey please put your phones on mute" "Please stand in one place while you're giving your report" Same with people using visuals, explain them to people calling in remotely if they can't be well-reproduced (or if it's a phone-only meeting). This is also true in terms of talking time, make sure people aren't monopolizing time, specifically call on people who are silent if everyone's feedback is required. Be friendly but firm about enforcing all of this. Ask beforehand if people have accessibility concerns with standard meeting stuff, realize not everyone who does will self-identify.
- End with brief outline of what people will be working on before next meeting. Thank people for their time.
- Any meeting more than 90 minutes should have water/coffee/small snacks (or encourage people to bring) Any meeting longer than about 3-4 hours should have a break for a meal, or a meal (or tell people to bring). Bathroom breaks every 90-120 minutes. Build in enough time for this so people can get to restrooms, potentially wait in line, get back. Let people know in advance when breaks are (can be approximate0 so they can make decisions about when to step out. Here are some Dummies Guides suggestions, just useful to make sure you have all bases covered.

posted by jessamyn at 11:52 AM on November 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you have blocked out, say, a 1 hour block for a meeting but find that you have gotten through all of the agenda items before the hour is up, for Pete's sake please, please, please dismiss everyone then and let them get back to work. Don't dither around just to fill the extra time.

I had a manager who would block out 2 hour department meetings once a month and if we finished early, he'd keep us in the room and make us watch YouTube videos that were peripherally related to our work just to use up the time. It was inane and incredibly disrespectful of our time and it used to drive me bonkers. Don't be that guy.
posted by thereemix at 12:36 PM on November 1, 2019

I'm sure you're more of an expert than me, but the one key thing that massively improved the meetings that I ran was to include on the agenda the expected outcome of each point. So I was the lead for a clinical team and if the agenda item was to discuss a protocol for the management of choking, then the outcome might be three things - a consensus for how we currently manage choking, remaining questions we want to look up evidence to answer and a brainstorm for a written protocol (with a nominated person to write). You might already have the expected outcomes in your head but having them written on the agenda helps focus discussion immensely and makes everyone feel more engaged because they can see the benefit of having the outcomes.
posted by kadia_a at 12:45 PM on November 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

I have attended meetings where everyone has to stand for the duration of the meeting. Assuming the physical fitness of the meeting attendees allows for it, this is an effective strategy for meetings that are meant to run 30 minutes or less.

Standing meetings run smoothly, without endless elliptical discussions, and tend to finish on time or early. People pay attention, they participate, and they don't get lost in their phones.
posted by cleverevans at 1:00 PM on November 1, 2019

I have found the Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making to be a great resource for running meetings. The meat of the book is a series of one page tools you can use to help deal with challenging situations.
posted by elmay at 1:10 PM on November 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Send out the agenda ahead of time and include the start time that each item will be discussed. Schedule all meetings right before lunch so people will be motivated to stay on topic. Gently shut down any cross talking. Follow many of the suggestions above in a predictable way so that your meetings become known as purposeful, effective, and short.
posted by Elsie at 2:01 PM on November 1, 2019

Studies have shown that every participant over 6-8 people massively reduces meeting productivity. Keep the meetings small - only have people who need to be there attend.

Agenda is critical, obviously, but be sure to include the outcome you want from the meeting/agenda items.

Use a RACI so that people understand why they, in particular are there, and what's expected of them:

Responsible for: Typically the chair of the meeting, the person owning the work
Approver: They are there to sign off on something
Consult: Subject matter experts, technical people who will ensure things are accurate correct. Can also be HR etc
Inform: These is just FYI, these people don't get a say. Anecdotally I find a lot of "I" often think they are C's or A's, which can be very annoying so it's good to set expectations upfront.

Finally, take care of all the blockers before the meeting, i.e. if you need approvals to progress then secure them beforehand or get *all* the approvers in the meeting.

People are far, far more tolerant of 30 minute meetings than 1 hour meetings. I try to basically never do 1 hour meetings unless I really have to.
posted by smoke at 2:45 PM on November 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Good advice above. If you are the chair, having the power to cutting ramblers off in order to get to point, and using it, is the essence of good use of time for all participants.

(Unfortunately, in many corporate or academic environments, the goal of the meeting isn't the context, the context is the hierarchy. Within a hierarchy, status is the ultimate thing. "Bloviation" is the word to describe the ritual of a higher status person asserting their dominance over lower status persons by taking their available time as a captive audience within a meeting format. There is no known cure.)
posted by ovvl at 4:47 PM on November 1, 2019

This blog post is my favorite on effective meetings.
My biggest tip is: make sure everyone is participating, and participating at an appropriate level relative to their role in the meeting. I don't believe that you need to overstructure meetings or keep to artificial size limits. But any meeting where most of the participants never say anything is probably a bad meeting. Similarly, any meeting where certain participants over-engage is also not a good meeting. That could be anything from the boss bloviating too much, it could also be the junior members of the team frequently interrupting to add irrelevant commentary (less common, but still happens).
If you're gonna have to have 20 people in the meeting, know who is important to actually be engaged and pay attention to them and their body language or participation. If they are on their laptop/phones, they probably aren't paying attention. When it comes to an "updates" meeting you're really talking more about presentation skills than meeting facilitation skills. Good updates meetings I've seen limit the content being presented to update to a single page/slide (if many people are sharing updates), or follow a 2/6-pager style as alluded to above (for a single focused update), but if your org doesn't have writing discipline I'm not sure this is the place to introduce it.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:49 PM on November 1, 2019

I have attended meetings where everyone has to stand for the duration of the meeting. Assuming the physical fitness of the meeting attendees allows for it...

...and that there won't be any backlash for being the first person to be unable to comfortably stand for half an hour, and that someone fearing that backlash doesn't spend the last 15 minutes of the meeting fretting over how uncomfortable or in pain they are, instead of paying attention to what's going on around them...

I can pretty much always stand for a half-hour meeting. I can't always stand and concentrate for half an hour, but I have a very well-developed "of course I'm paying attention to you" expression.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:05 PM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Know what you need to get out of this meeting - what decision needs to be made or data to be reviewed. Then make sure other people have done their pre-work so that you walk into the meeting with all the information you need.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:09 PM on November 1, 2019

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker has some great tips and stories.
posted by tinymegalo at 5:57 PM on November 1, 2019

If the purpose of the meeting is decision-making, I try to get people to do most of the preliminary work over Slack beforehand. Way too many meetings that are supposed to be about putting a final stamp on something wind up with two people wordsmithing endlessly, a third musing about one of the main sections even needing to be in there at all, and two more wanting to just run out of the room screaming because they just don't care. So, a few days before the meeting I get everyone in a channel, present whatever it is and ask some pointed questions about it so everyone can have their few moments to make some noise about it, see and be seen doing so, and by the time the actual meeting arrives we are actually ready to be done with it and close the book.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:23 PM on November 1, 2019

Beyond 40 minutes there is zero value-add to any discussion. IMHO.
posted by j_curiouser at 7:10 PM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

The answers to this question are a great illustration of why meetings are so difficult to run. The OP is asking for a "book, article, or other resource... bonus points if it is engaging to read, extra bonus points for higher ed settings".

Almost all the answers are from people saw the words "how to run meetings" and not much else, and decided to give their opinion.

I guess the moral of the story for the OP is that a clear agenda will only get you so far.
posted by caek at 9:56 PM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Freakonomics had a very good podcast episode about meetings recently....
How to make meetings less terrible: In the U.S. alone, we hold 55 million meetings a day. Most of them are woefully unproductive, and tyrannize our offices. The revolution begins now — with better agendas, smaller invite lists, and an embrace of healthy conflict.
posted by watrlily at 10:19 PM on November 1, 2019

Great advice in this thread. To add:

Please consider learning about who speaks in meetings. When two people start speaking at the same time, which one yields? Are solutions coming from diverse people (defined demographically or departmentally.)

Watch your people. Do you see people who are clearly paying attention, look like they have something to say, but they aren't saying it or worse, they're being talked over? Use your privilege as meeting-leader to interrupt the flow and clear space. It's a bit awkward to call on people, exactly, but it's my experience that we get better solutions when we include all the perspectives.

If you have someone who keeps attending but never says something, check in with them privately for their point of view. Faculty at my school, we're used to being experts and we hate looking stupid, and for some of us, that means that we won't say anything publicly. But faculty at my school aren't stupid, and if someone is coming every week who doesn't have to, they probably have some interesting ideas.

Can you work with a partner? Have one person run the meeting and the other person sit in the back and just watch the body language and do the textual meta-analysis. Then use that information for follow-ups. That helped us find some problems before they got to the big mess stage.

When people criticize your thing, try to separate the emotion from the grain of truth. Find your core institutional bedrock identity (the thing that everyone there agrees on) and remember that when disagreements happen, you share that bedrock. Build up from there. At my school (and probably a lot of schools), we're all deeply committed to students. When someone criticizes a solution from my group, it's because it's not fitting their needs, not because they hate us and want us to fail - even if they're yelling or otherwise very angry.

My two favorite go-to books for higher education and problem solving would be

Senge et al., Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares about Education. (more about K12, but some good ways to conceptualize vision integration)

Evans, The Human Side of School Change: Reform, Resistance, and the Real-Life Problems of Innovation. The Jossey-Bass Education Series. (Excellent for understanding why people act the way they do around educational initiatives)

And, if you want something more just to think about educational leadership as separate from business or political leadership, this one's a good primer:

Sergiovanni, “Leadership as Stewardship.” Josey Bass Reader, 2014.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:47 AM on November 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm reading through The Complete Idiot's Guide to Robert's Rules, 2nd Edition right now in an attempt to answer this same question.

Robert's Rules covers agendas, procedure, etc for meetings of all sizes and different levels of formality.

Additionally, make sure you know what type of meeting you're hosting - is it a learning, sharing, or deciding meeting? And then focus on that goal.
posted by jpeacock at 7:45 AM on November 2, 2019

Can you take some facilitation training?
posted by oceanjesse at 1:15 PM on November 2, 2019

"Breaking Roberts Rules" is an approachable/readable guide to consensus-building for folks who do not have a background in consensus decision making strategies, if that's helpful. It's from some Harvard Business School folks. Talks about ensuring you involve everyone who needs to be involved in making a decision, groundwork that needs to be laid, reaching a decision, designing enforceable/self-enforcing agreements, and following through.

The IWW has some good, clearly written guides on a variety of aspects of running meetings.

I don't know enough to recommend specific resources, but I've also seen some helpful instances of visual (aka graphic) facilitation.
posted by eviemath at 7:47 PM on November 2, 2019

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