A lead artist at my last job said that I could run a meeting like nobody’s business. It’s an odd compliment. On the one hand, I’m happy to be recognized as an expert; on the other, I know that expertise comes from practice, and I’m not sure I like what that says about me. Meetings (formal, scheduled, official meetings) should be a last resort. They’re such notorious black holes for team time, energy, and focus that they should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. But, inevitably, you are going to need a meeting for something, and when that day comes, keep these tactics in mind:
- Schedule early. People need time to prepare for a meeting. Make sure you get into people’s consciousness and not just their calendar. Before you schedule a meeting, check in with all of the attendees and make sure they really need to be there. Attach any relevant information to the appointment. Meetings interrupt workflow, so try to give your attendees time to mitigate the interruption.
- Own the meeting. One of the simple things I started doing a few years back was to announce at the start of every meeting I called that it was my meeting. This serves a number of purposes; it says that the meeting has officially begun; it orients everyone around the speaker; and it makes meeting organizers responsible for the productivity of the meeting. Over time, other leaders in the studio started doing this, not because anyone pushed them to do it, but because it works.
- Bring a clear agenda. If you don’t have an agenda, cancel the meeting right now. You (and everyone on the attendee list) should know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish in a meeting. If not, you’re wasting someone’s time because you can’t be sure who you need if you don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t go overboard here; an agenda is not a list of topics you’re going to cover, it’s a commitment to achieving resolution on certain issues. Keep the agenda as small and focused as you can manage.
- Limit the size. Communication efficiency decreases by the square of the number of people in the room. I’ve heard stories about an EA exec who would walk out of any meeting that had more than 5 people in it; that’s a bit extreme, but it is good to keep meetings as small as possible, not just because of communication issues, but also because the more team members are in the meeting, the fewer are directly working on the project.
- Stay focused. The biggest time thief in meetings are the digressions – personal stories, arguments for the devil’s advocate, getting side-tracked into some other issue, etc. If the topic you’re trying to cover has so many dependencies that you can’t resolve it in one meeting, you’re doing it wrong. Go back to setting a clear agenda.
- End early. In general, meetings lose efficiency around the 50-60 minute mark. Everyone’s tired by that point. If you have to go past that, take a break, but it’s much better to end the meeting, give people time to leave that context and digest, and set a follow-up. Psychologically, meeting time is “lost time” in the calendar. The shorter the meeting is, the more of that lost time you give back to your team, the more positive they are going to be about the meeting as well as freeing them up to get other work done.
- Be explicit about action items. Specify what is going to happen as a result of the meeting, who is responsible for getting that done, and what the timeframe is. Meetings need to lead to results. If they don’t, cancel them. When the attendees leave, each of them should know exactly what is expected of them and when they can see the results of the other people. Being responsible to the team is a powerful motivator. Send this information around in a follow-up e-mail to all the attendees so that everyone knows this is being tracked. Repetition also helps with reinforcement.
The first rule of meetings is to avoid unnecessary ones. If you’re going to have to have a meeting, though, make sure it is small, focused, short, and results-oriented.