Make. Meetings. Better.

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be meetings.” - Dave Barry


Thank you for joining me for another blog (#35), highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.


We are currently exploring group dynamics and how that impacts decision-making. Today's question is ‘How can we make meetings better’. Meetings, in theory, can be a great way to benefit from each others knowledge, insights and judgment.



I did a quick count and, in 2019 doing a broadly similar role, I had roughly 12 meetings a week, and now that number is nearer 20 on average. Hybrid working has meant that rather than chance office encounters or an ability to reach someone at their desk, there are more scheduled meetings. I have seen the same sentiments expressed by others, that meetings have increased ~50% since 2020. Many people I have spoken to have highlighted that the strain caused by too many meetings is the worst part of their job. Ineffective meetings are counterproductive. They reduce an individual's impact and autonomy which for many is an essential part of the job.


The functions of meetings?


I see meetings having 4 main purposes:


- Acquaint: Start or deepen relationships

- Approve: Evidence that trusted people got into a room and discussed something

- Coordinate: Progress work that needs expertise from different people/teams

- Inform: Give people context about where their efforts fit and how the firm is doing


I think there are 3 main categories of improvements I would call out.


A. Be considerate


For some people that tend to manage large teams, a larger proportion of their day is focused towards the benefits of meetings but for many others, they have a demanding technical workload too. Time spent in meetings is time not performing the other tasks they have - consideration is a must.


The first two recommendations are for the organiser:


1) Have a clear purpose: If the meeting is not expected to achieve anything, it will probably.... not achieve anything. The best meetings have a crystal clear agenda of relevant and important topics to be discussed.


2) Not too many, not too few invitees: Too many people at a meeting leads to the bystander effect (Bystander effect - Wikipedia). This is not just a case of having people waste their time at your meeting, this also means that anyone there feels less accountable and less likely to share their honest opinions or contribute to follow up. Too few means that you are missing a key part of the puzzle and stalls decision-making.


There is also consideration the other way round. If you are needed in the meeting room, your attention is required:


3) Arrive on time: Try and avoid being late. If you are needed, there are a lot of people waiting for you. My advice (controversial) is to leave early if your participation has ended. If you have done your bit why not tend to other priorities.


4) Engage. Digital addiction (The digital addiction industry (hartejsingh.com)) is a real problem, but it can also be veiled as productivity. Checking email or your phone is both distracting to you and others and lowers the focus in the room. There will always be emergencies that you need to be aware of, but habitually getting distracted digitally will mean you will neither learn anything from this meeting nor participate to your fullest. Not a good outcome for anyone.


B. Conduct it well


5) Have ground rules: Making these clear up front is a must. Is this an open discussion or are we trying to make sure certain people are heard first? Understanding the ground rules makes sure people can participate to their best and your agenda can progress.


6) Leverage the expertise: There are some people who are shy to contribute and others who are not. Make space for people with expertise that have not spoken. This can be by directly asking them, or making sure those who are less credible do not steal the mic.


7) Keep it relevant: Interesting but not important topics do not deserve a primetime billing so make sure any diversions are quickly brought back on topic. Move swiftly on from discussion of minor details with minimal impact to the overall outcome.


C. Drive it forward:

8. Prepare and invite others to be prepared: Good meetings that require decisions to be made need prepared people. The discussion of prepared people gets to the relevant details and this favours a much more focused agenda to the highest priority items.


9. Have outcomes: What has been agreed? What are the follow-up items (who/what/by when)?


10. Follow-up: Make the meeting worthwhile by progressing the idea and follow-up. Update everyone of progress.


How else can we improve meetings?


So What? How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week: 1) Good meetings achieve one or more of the following outcomes: acquaint, approve, coordinate and inform. Ineffective meetings are the worst part of people's jobs. 2) Good meeting organisers are considerate, conduct meetings well and drive them forward. 3) Please contribute to the discussion: I would be delighted to buy anyone a box of chocolates (or healthy similar) for the best meeting tip. Thank you for joining. Next week – 'How to encourage informed debate'.