How to Avoid the Black Hole of Bad, Horrible, No-Good, Pointless Meetings

The Greatest Time Waster of Them All

The word “meetings” draws a variety of responses from people, but let’s be honest, it’s often negative.

I remember an old saying about the financial consequences of owning a boat. It went, “a boat is a hole in the water that you pour all your money into.” Funny enough, I think the person I first heard that from owned a boat!

We could apply this formula to meetings, too: meetings are just holes in the schedule that you pour time, effort, and resources into with little result. The difference between a boat and a meeting is that the boat is fun.

In spite of this, I don’t hate meetings. No, really, I don’t. Meetings can be productive, valuable gatherings where a bunch of people add value to one another and create something bigger than themselves, accomplish huge goals, and set a course for success. They really can be.

Between you and me and the fencepost, however, most meetings are pointless.

That’s why it’s amazing how, even in the era of high-tech communication tools and always-on messaging/e-mail, meetings are as big a factor as ever.

Meetings are, in fact, more present than they used to be. There’s Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and so many other services that allow a large group of people to congregate online. The increasing number of businesses with remote employees guarantees that virtual meetings will only become more commonplace.

So how do you avoid the pointless meetings and have more good ones? My friend, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ve both run and participated in an awful lot of awful and good meetings in recent years. From my experience, here’s what distinguishes the best meetings from the worst.

Bad Meetings

Let’s start by taking a look at what makes for a bad meeting.

  • There’s no set schedule. A meeting without a timeframe is a recipe for disaster. “Let’s meet at 2pm” without any boundaries can turn into an all-afternoon black hole that eats all the productive activities you could be doing in favor of aimless drifting. That lays the groundwork for the next hallmark of most every bad meeting…
  • The meeting takes the entire time scheduled for it. There’s a famous business saying known as Parkinson’s law. It is: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” There may be no more obvious sign of a bad meeting than when the clock strikes the next hour and everyone gets up from the table at once. If the real goal is sitting around a table for a specified period of time, it’s unlikely that anything important gets accomplished. Let’s rephrase that differently: a meeting is not an end in itself!
  • There’s no agenda. To be clear, I’m not saying you have to have every last discussion point spelled out. Even a simple “the point of the meeting is X, Y, and Z” is sufficient. But the worst meetings have but a vague idea of concept, if any at all. The meeting organizer might say “we need to talk about our strategic plan” and leave it at that. It’s like giving a blank canvas to a child and asking him to paint the fourth dimension.
  • Too many chiefs, too few Indians. When everyone is running the meeting, no one is running the meeting. Bad meetings always have too many chiefs. In theory this could work, if everyone held everyone else accountable to the agenda. But bad meetings don’t have an agenda, remember? So this instead tends to degenerate into lots of shouting, lots of hurt feelings, etcetera.
  • You have the wrong people. Bad meetings almost always have the wrong people. Perhaps there’s an authority figure involved in a lower-level decision-making session or someone from an irrelevant project or department. It’s almost a guarantee that if you haven’t done your homework on the other points above, you have the wrong people in the meeting, too.
  • No actionable takeaways or progress. In almost every bad meeting, there’s a lack of actionable takeaways. Most walk out of such events wondering what the point was, why they wasted so much time trying to figure out what the point was, and what they’re supposed to do afterward.

Yikes! No one wants to have these kinds of meetings, do they? Let’s contrast the features of a bad meeting with those of a good one.

Good Meetings

  • Scheduled for specific times. Good meetings have a specific time in mind to begin and end. If they are about to run over, good meetings are able to postpone discussion until the next meeting.
  • Wrap up when the work is done. In contrast to Parkinson’s law, good meetings don’t run out the clock. They may take the entire scheduled time or even go over if time permits, but the driving factor is what’s actually happening, not the meeting’s existence. Many meetings that are purpose-driven, however, wrap up well before the clock runs out. If the meeting is scheduled for an hour but the meeting’s purpose only takes 45 minutes, it’ll wrap early. That’s a pretty solid indicator of a well-run meeting.
  • Have an agenda. In every good meeting, there’s at least one major point to the meeting that is specific. It may be a specific question, such as “what can we do to increase our social media presence by the end of the month?” It may be an actual agenda. Regardless, every good meeting is driving at something. This leaves little room for aimlessness.
  • Clear leadership in the meeting. Leaders help to keep the meeting on track and on point, within the allotted time, and define actionable takeaways. It’s important to note that while this is often one or two people, it could be everyone. A room full of great leaders will work in synergy to keep the train on the rails and moving full steam ahead. Leadership is about much more than the content of the meeting, however. The leader ensures that all voices will be heard, respected, and find a meaningful place in the discussion. A good leader won’t tolerate bullying or badgering among participants.
  • The right people are in the meeting. Good meetings have the people necessary to answer the question, solve the problem, or make some progress on the issue. Period. This also means that most good meetings are not “open to all comers.” That’s a sure path to disaster, even with a great leader.
  • Actionable takeaways and progress occur. The point of the meeting is to do something, right? Every good meeting either makes progress on the goal, question, or problem, or comes away with something actionable. Perhaps the actionable takeaway is a realization that more information is needed. “We understand that we’re lacking the information to make this decision, so we need to do more research in this specific area” isn’t a cop-out, it’s real progress. That’s the sort of thing you expect at minimum out of every good meeting.

Conclusion

The more good meetings you have, the more you may realize that you’re probably having too many meetings. That’s a subject for another post, but the bottom line is this: if you’re not making progress with your meetings, what’s the point?

Every meeting should strive to do something meaningful. Don’t settle for bad meetings.

Question: What are the worst and best meetings you’ve been to? Leave a comment below!