How to Make These 5 Common Business Meetings Productive Events

Business professionals in a meeting looking bored
Gettyimages/ Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

You do not have to look very far to find articles from experts on time management, accomplished executives and other gurus and pundits decrying meetings and suggesting you avoid, shrink or otherwise dispense with these often laborious corporate time wasters.

Nonetheless, sometimes we just have to meet. And yes, there is some great advice available from experts on time management, agenda control and rules of order.

The focus here is a bit different, offering some tried-and true-guidance that will help managers turn five common meeting types into painless and productive events. 

Five Common Meeting Solutions

1. Eliminate Death by “Around the Table” updates. You know this meeting. Cram eighteen people in a room and then require every person to share an update that typically sounds like an attempt to justify their existence and make a case for their enshrinement in the great employee hall of fame. CEOs and senior leaders are notorious for running these meetings, naively believing that this is a great way for everyone to hear what’s happening across the firm. In reality, people mostly tune out and focus on planning their own update that no one will listen to. 

Instead: By all means, get together with your peers, team members or key colleagues, but don’t succumb to the “around the table” approach. Offer information on an exception basis.

Share relevant news, including financial results, big customer wins or updates on organization-wide initiatives. Also, extend the offer for individuals to raise important issues. If something noteworthy and not widely known has occurred, someone should share it. If one group needs help from another group, raise the request.

Otherwise, do not compel all of the attendees to share.

2. Status meetings in general. These can be brutal time-killers, particularly when they lock-in as recurring events and are poorly managed.

Instead: Never call a meeting for something you can look up. Leverage the technology tools of the day to ensure your work teams maintain a current and visible status update where everyone can see it with the click of a mouse. If you must meet cut the planned meeting time in half or, use agile approaches and run short “stand-up” sessions. Be draconian about the digressions and distractions that elongate these sessions. Focus on sharing status and require people to tackle issues outside of this forum.

3. Unstructured brainstorming meetings. Most brainstorming meetings are so poorly facilitated that we end up suppressing ideas, supporting the boss’s idea or generating great lists of cool things on post-its that are never heard nor seen again.

Instead: Work to define the brainstorming topic and share it with invitees ahead of the session. Collect their input and consolidate and post it or share it without attribution to the ideas. Use the live session to jump and build on the submitted ideas, adding to the list.

Resist the urge to evaluate ideas in this session. Incorporate other techniques that minimize socialization pressures, such as brain-writing. And above all else, consolidate the ideas and create a process to evaluate them as well as to archive them for easy group reference in future sessions and situations.

4. Operations reviews that make the Inquisition look tame. If you have ever suffered through a session where the meeting leader—usually an executive—focuses on either one struggling function or searches for the weak spot in everyone’s presentation and then grills the messengers mercilessly, you know how destructive this format is. Do not perpetuate this process.

Instead: keep the deep functional dives and corporate proctology exams private and focus on sharing key operating indicators, problems and opportunities.

The group meeting is not the time or place to rip apart an underperforming area or individual. Set up a follow-up meeting on the spot, but do not subject everyone else to your visible cross-examination on this issue. Do not back off on accountability for improvement, but eliminate cruelty and what amounts to public shaming from your meeting management repertoire. 

5. Meetings that raise issues demanding spontaneous decisions. Oddly or ironically, the meeting room is one of the worst places for quick decisions. Raising an issue for the first time and calling for a decision puts people on the spot, and they will resent you for using this approach. 

Instead: Work unceasingly ahead of group meetings to engage key stakeholders on issues and options. Solicit their input, offer your perspectives and work to broker shared interests. Use the meeting forum to validate the interests of the stakeholders and identify their recommendations. While you may still not get the immediate decision without another step or two, you will have strengthened your working relationships with your pre-session work.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

We are communal creatures by nature and even with a variety of technology tools that enable us to connect without being in the same place, sometimes, it just helps to be face-to-face. Leverage this time wisely and show your respect for participants by producing meetings that minimize time investment and maximize high-quality information sharing in a non-threatening environment.