Making every meeting count.

Nikos Liokalos Chief Technology Officer

It is truly amazing how counterproductive a meeting can be, regardless of the participants' intentions. Sometimes, coming out of a long meeting - internal or with clients - I get the feeling, that we have just wasted time on something that, in my mind at least, would have required just a few minutes of conversation. Based on a similar realisation, many companies avoid meetings in general or introduce no-meeting days, in the interest – theoretically - of productivity.

But is the problem the meetings themselves or rather the way they are held and what we think we can get out of them?
How can we meet more productively, especially in a hybrid corporate environment (part digital and part physical) where the number of meetings has increased exponentially?

This is my version of a Meetings Survival Guide, so read on!

Meeting types

Not all meetings are the same; there are many types and objectives, with the main ones being:

  • Decision-making: When a group decision needs to be made.
  • Problem-solving: When the team comes together to solve a problem that has arisen.
  • Team-building: Meetings held to build team cohesion and improve collaboration.
  • Brainstorming: To generate ideas and introduce new innovative concepts.
  • One-on-one: Between two people that need to discuss a specific subject.
  • Check-in: To monitor task/project progress.

Leaving aside Team-building and One-on-ones, it would be interesting to explore how we could render the rest of the meetings more productive and worthwhile.

Should we meet at all?

The first thing one needs to examine is whether a meeting is necessary. We meet to agree on a decision, align opinions or work together on a specific goal. If the goal is to simply transfer information, then an email might be enough, saving everyone's time. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is said to often advise his Managers to ask themselves about the goal of each meeting. Is it to make a decision or just to have a chat? If the answer is the latter, then a meeting probably is not the right place for this.

Two pizzas should be enough

One of the determinants of a meeting’s effectiveness is the number of participants. There is a rule, formulated by former Amazon chief Jeff Bezos known as the two-pizza rule.

According to Bezos's rule, the participants of a productive meeting should not exceed the number of people that can eat two pizzas. This is theoretically defined at 5-8 people, which is the ideal number of participants to achieve a meaningful conversation and bring results.

A study carried out by Bob Sutton at Stanford University suggests that the effectiveness of meetings with more than eight people diminishes, since the large number of participants can cause friction, with the task of having a meaningful discussion becoming more and more difficult, as people cannot articulate adequately their opinions in the time given.

On the other hand, it seems that meetings with less than five people are problematic too, as there can be an unnatural convergence of views, since the participants with stronger personalities usually influence others and prevail. The participation of fewer people also means a smaller range of opinions and experience, which can affect the quality of any decisions taken.

Apart from the number of people, it is equally important that participants know in advance what is required from them and are in the position to communicate the conclusions drawn and decisions made within the meeting to colleagues and teammates that have not participated.

PowerPoint presentations be gone

It seems obvious, but many meetings miss a clear agenda. The objective of the meeting should be clear and determine its structure; ideally, the agenda should ensure that every minute of it is used productively. Research shows that almost 13% of a meeting is spent on discussions outside of its scope. Proper preparation is also critical to the effectiveness of a meeting. With the agenda known, each participant should study the topic to then be able to contribute.

Although the agenda provides the backbone of the meeting, PowerPoint presentations are often used to analyse the topic and present necessary data, info or suggestions. Even though PowerPoint presentations are better than nothing, they probably leave much to be desired.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon's former CEO, suggests something different, since he believes that PowerPoint presentations are usually too concise, in the form of bullet points, and fail to capture the topic comprehensively. As a result, Amazon is replacing PowerPoint presentations with memos of a few pages. These memos detail the topic to be discussed, the data on which it is based, as well as possible suggestions for discussion, in a format that can successfully convey the entire essence of the topic.

At the beginning of each meeting, participants are given 15 to 20 minutes to study the memo, which ensures a better understanding of the topic and corresponding data, in order for them to have effective communication and reach a better decision.

Trust, honesty, and open mind

Whichever methodology one follows, a successful meeting requires active, meaningful participation. Respecting the personality of each participant is essential, as is respecting everyone's time. It is, therefore, crucial to be precise about the starting and ending times of the meeting.

The prerequisite for a purposeful result is a purposeful conversation. Egos should be left out and everyone should feel safe to speak in honesty, even about their own mistakes, without the fear of being judged. For the best possible outcome in a meeting, we need an open mind, critical thinking, and trust in the available facts - even those contradicting our opinion.

I'll borrow a tweet from Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who seems to know this all too well:

Finally, there is a view, especially in senior positions, that quick decisions, with little information and a "seldom wrong, never in doubt" attitude is the key to success. Unfortunately, this attitude leaves no room for personal growth and for allowing others to come together and find solutions – even more so when we’re talking about complex problems.

Changing this attitude, especially in the presence of a high-rank company executive, is another crucial factor for a productive and successful meeting outcome.

ATCOM: From Digital to Purpose