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9 Ways to Improve Your Collaborative Meetings

How to make sure your meetings advance the cause.

Key points

  • Poorly structured meetings deflate morale and momentum, and create confusion and contention.
  • While it is not difficult to design an effective meeting, following through on the plan requires work and discipline.
  • While it may be difficult for some to let go of entrenched meeting practices, doing so will help advance your collaborative goals.
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Staircase and orange wall
Source: Ambrose Chua/Unsplash

I love meetings. Or, rather, I love beautifully structured and well-facilitated meetings that move collaborative work forward with clarity and efficiency. Few meetings hit that mark, which is unfortunate given many people spend hundreds of hours every year in meetings.

Meetings that fail to advance shared work deflate both morale and momentum, creating confusion and contention rather than action and accountability.

Why are our lives plagued by lackluster meetings?

A paucity of excellent meetings means many of us rarely, if ever, get to participate in them. Rather than adopt an approach we have never seen, we instead replicate subpar gatherings, surmising that “this must be the way it has to be done.”

And, while it is relatively straightforward to create an effective meeting, doing so requires significant work outside of the meeting, as well as discipline among meeting participants to walk the walk. In other words, it’s easy to know what to do; it’s much harder to actually do it.

If you’d like to ensure your meetings advance collaborative action, here are 9 steps you and your colleagues can take right away.

1. Know the meeting’s purpose. Work meetings generally fall into two categories: informational and collaborative. If your meetings are plagued by individuals droning on with informational updates and “report outs,” there’s a good chance that content could have been delivered more efficiently in an email or even a brief video update.

Collaborative meetings, on the other hand, require attendees to bring their respective views and talents to bear on a shared question, problem, or project. The whole point of these meetings is to think and do together, a goal that benefits tremendously from careful planning and skilled facilitation.

2. Start every agenda item with a verb. Agenda items like “Statement of purpose” and “Conference” say absolutely nothing about the type of thinking those in the meeting need to do together. Are we to workshop the statement of purpose? Are we to debrief the feedback we all received on the statement? Are we to finalize the dates and venue for the conference?

Our collaborators are awesome, but they’re not mind readers. Verbs like draft, decide, vet, workshop, brainstorm, problem-solve, debrief, and plan tell meeting participants what exactly they are expected to do during that agenda item. Knowing what needs to get done helps people stay on track. (Oh, and if you’re not using agendas: Godspeed.)

3. Treat agenda creation as a collaborative process. If you're the meeting host, you may not know exactly what everyone in the room needs to move forward with their piece of the shared work. As such, it is important to call for agenda items well in advance of the meeting.

It is equally important that meeting participants send agenda items to the facilitator. Don’t assume someone else is tracking your project needs, and keep in mind that you may be seeing around a corner that others have missed. If you need the group to do something, make that need known.

4. Prioritize the agenda. While it can be tempting to stuff 20 agenda items into a 60-minute meeting, doing so means elements of the work won’t get the attention they deserve, participants’ eyes will glaze over, some items will have to be dropped on the fly, or the meeting will run over (which is totally unfair to those participants who made other commitments immediately following the meeting and who will now have to decide how to navigate a likely avoidable calendar collision). These are all junky outcomes.

As the meeting host, estimate how much time each agenda item will take (you may need to ask the person who proposed the item in the first place), prioritize the items based on the needs of the project, and honor the footprint of the meeting.

If you have more stuff to cover than is possible within the timestamp of the meeting, evaluate whether any of the pieces can be moved into an email update or explore whether a subset of meeting participants could handle the item outside of the formal meeting structure and then report back to the group.

If this is a standing meeting that regularly has more work to do than is possible within the allotted footprint, consider whether it might make sense to extend the length of the meeting or to meet more frequently. Caution: Spending more minutes in meetings should be a last resort.

5. Distribute the agenda and pre-work in advance. Assuming you want meeting participants to arrive ready and able to fully engage in the work at hand, empower them to do so by distributing the agenda and any pre-work at least a day or two in advance.

Yes, I know this takes advanced planning and action by the host, and I know that work can be hard to slot in when there are a bunch of fires to put out. But, failure to do the right thing now can have real consequences down the line. If the agenda asks us to vote up or down on the final proposal, but nobody has had a chance to read — much less think about — it, then voting risks errors, inconsistencies, or bad ideas making their way into the project. Likewise, if you would like the team to give thoughtful input on how to problem-solve a snag with an external partner, providing insufficient time to noodle on the situation will ensure their “thoughtful input” is anything but.

6. Respect people and their time. Welcome people as they arrive. Start on time. Honor the agenda (or make clear when you are stepping outside of the agenda and explain why). End on time. Whatever your role in a meeting, be psychologically present: no emails, no notifications, as few distractions as possible. Do you pre-work. Arrive ready, willing, and able to contribute meaningfully.

7. Make space, take space. Be conscious of making space for everyone in the room to share their contributions. Those who tend to jump into discussions early and often can work on sitting back, inviting others to share their views, and listening more. Those who tend to sit on the sidelines can practice contributing earlier. All of us can work on saying what we mean and meaning what we say, though doing so with grace and tact.

Intentionally seek out a broad range of perspectives. Ask questions like, “What are the best arguments against this approach?” and “Who sees the situation differently?”

Practice intellectual humility. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about this angle before.” By recognizing the limits of our own knowledge, we welcome curiosity to the table.

8. Document key decisions. Some degree of communal note-taking is generally needed in meetings. Transcription is a waste of effort in most situations. In addition to making people overly cautious about what they say and how they say it, the person who is trying to capture every iota of content (a huge cognitive lift) is unable to contribute their thoughts to the proceedings.

Instead, record just key decisions, action items, and important issues to hold on the radar.

9. Make sure everyone knows what to do next. Meetings tend to generate more work, and we need to document expectations around that work so it gets done and the project moves forward. The question at hand is this: WHO needs to do WHAT by WHEN?

Save the last few minutes to review the action items generated during the meeting. I typically ask every person to say their action items out loud. If needed, I’ll point out inadvertent omissions (“You also said you’d reach out to the Dean to request the draft announcement, is that correct?”). Record everyone’s action items in a shared space so there's no confusion over who is working on which piece of the puzzle.

At the top of every meeting, check in on the status of the do-outs by whipping through the last meeting’s list. Ask each person to indicate — either verbally or in the shared document — whether each item is “done,” “in process,” or “blocked.” If you notice a certain do-out has been carried over a number of weeks, or if a certain member of the team seems to struggle to get things done, an accountability conversation is in order.

Before venturing into the land of more productive and efficient meetings, keep in mind that it may be difficult for you and others to let go of entrenched meeting rituals and practices. Start with a conversation about if and how your meetings work in service to the shared goals. Be curious about others’ experiences. Name what you have noticed — confusion, treadmill, or a lack of clarity around who needs to do what.

Most importantly, keep the shared goals at the center of the conversation. For example, “I know we are all committed to realizing the promise of this amazing collaboration on time and under budget. I think we can redesign our meetings to advance that shared goal more effectively. Are you open to exploring some possibilities for doing so?”

With a bit of work and a lot of follow-through, your meetings — and collaborations — can become more productive and rewarding.

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