This year, resolve to nourish your calendar with fewer, more meaningful meetings
Welcome to 2023. While we’re all making new resolutions and changes in our lives, I want to introduce you to a new fad diet. It’s a meet-less diet, and it doesn’t involve tofu, meat substitutes, or even any extra vegetables. In fact, it’s not a diet for your body at all; it’s a diet for your calendar.
With the prevalence of working from home, hybrid workspaces, and improvements in telecommuting technology, we have so many tools available to us to get our work done. Yet we continue to have so many meetings that could’ve been an email.
So many meetings that involve too many people. And so many meetings that drift away from their intended purpose.
In a balanced work diet, I like to think of meetings as occupying the top of the classic food pyramid, that spot with snacks and desserts that’s labeled “use sparingly.” It’s not like meetings don’t serve an important purpose. But meetings, much like fries and cake, are only good for you when the timing, convenience, or occasion warrant them. Let’s walk through the main reasons why we meet, how we can make meetings better, and then if you find you can’t make a meeting better, let’s talk about how to remove meetings from your calendar and replace them with alternatives.
Before I continue, I need to acknowledge that some of the following content is adapted from the book The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo. The book centers on leadership principles, but among them is a whole chapter on meeting effectively.
In general, there are five reasons why we might have a meeting: to make a decision, to share information, to provide feedback, to generate ideas, and to strengthen relationships.
Making a decision
These are some of the most common types of meetings, and as you advance in your career, they become more common and the decisions you make become bigger and more critical. Sometimes you’re simply meeting in a small group to determine a project’s direction. Other times you’re deciding how to improve an entire product. And sometimes you’re deciding the direction of a whole team or company.
Sometimes you meet because one person has knowledge that a whole group needs to know. Sometimes this takes the form of a lunchtime brown bag where one person shows how to use a new tool. Other times a manager is explaining how next year’s reviews will work.
Speaking of reviews, sometimes you’ll meet in a capacity where you’ll receive feedback. Sometimes that feedback is from your manager, on a personal performance review level. Other times the meeting might be a design review where you solicit feedback on your work from other designers.
We should all be familiar by now with brainstorming activities, design thinking exercises, FigJams, and any other method we can employ to get creative. That’s what these meetings are about.
If a meeting doesn’t fit into the other four categories, chances are that the meeting is meant to not achieve a business goal, but rather to bring its participants closer together. These can be team-building activities, morale events, virtual coffee hours, or any other way you try to get to know your colleagues better.
Before we skip right to canceling meetings, let’s consider some ways to improve the meetings we already have.
Know before you go
Before you begin a meeting, it’s helpful to establish what kind of meeting it is. From there, be intentional about your goals and what you want the meeting to accomplish. If you’re making a decision, what are you hoping to decide by the end of the meeting? If you’re sharing information, what do you hope people will have learned? If you’re generating ideas, what kinds of ideas do you want and how will they help your next step? Just generally try to determine how you will know that the meeting is successful (otherwise you won’t realize when it’s not!)
Let people prepare
If you’re in charge of a meeting, it’s up to you to ensure a successful outcome. But to do that, you need good participation from everyone else and you can make their jobs easier. Before the meeting, send out an agenda. If you have slides already prepared, include those with the agenda. In addition, list out any specific questions you want answered in the meeting. It’s possible (even probable) that people in the meeting won’t give you their full attention or comprehend the speed of information being shared, but if they have slides to refer to, or if they spent a morning break contemplating those questions, then they might be more prepared to give you meaningful feedback and thoughtful answers.
Encourage your outcomes
People generally don’t like to be in meetings, but if they’re necessary, you should get attendees feeling comfortable to participate. Set a disarming tone from the beginning. If it’s a tough subject, you can be a little self-deprecating about how long it took you to understand. Look for people who might be hesitating to speak and give them a chance. If someone’s taking a wild swing with an incomplete, but innovative idea, try to support it and polish it rather than ridicule it. If you’re in a position of power, try to lend some of that power to someone struggling to find their voice in a meeting.
You can also take the following steps to encourage outcomes of each meeting type:
Making a decision — Be clear from the very beginning of the meeting what you’re aiming to decide and who will be deciding it. Just because there are many problems to decide and many stakeholders in the room doesn’t mean it’s an open forum for everyone to solve every problem. Some decisions are good to decide democratically and others will require an executive decision. By the end of the meeting, recap what decision has been made, as it may have been lost among other discussions. Take notes about why the decision was made. This is extremely helpful so that you don’t find yourself back to square one in 6 months when someone suggests an alternative idea you already ruled out.
Sharing information — Start by assessing baseline knowledge. Ask some context-setting questions to see if people are prepared to learn more or if you need to take a step back first. Check in frequently; assume that people are too shy to ask questions even if they have them. It’s okay to slow down or drill down on important points; the change in pace may snap people back into focus. And live by the adage “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” An initial outline and a recap are perfect supplements to your main content to make sure people gained the information you want.
Providing feedback — If you’re the presenter, frame the scenario: what design are you looking for feedback on, who will be using it, and how will they be using it? But most importantly, what are you looking for feedback on and what are you not looking for feedback on? It will waste everyone’s time if the critics spend the meeting finding faults with unrefined details and missing the areas where you really want their advice. If you’re the one giving feedback, be thorough and explicit with your feedback. Suggest not only what doesn’t work and why, but also what things work well and why they work well.
Generating ideas — Enter with an open mind. This isn’t always easy to do, so sometimes a cheesy ice breaker or round of introductions helps. Be clear about the goals for the brainstorm: is it a purely open forum or are there constraints on the ideas? Give opportunities for participants to think alone and also together, because people tend to be more creative while thinking independently, but new ideas are generated by hearing other perspectives.
Strengthening relationships — Be supportive and authentic. These meetings are usually about building trust, not impressing anybody with your professional talents. Look for ways to lift people up and be a positive contributor to conversations.
Okay, we’ve covered how to make meetings better, but do we even have to meet in the first place? Sometimes meetings truly are necessary, like when it’s crucial that everyone on the team receives the information. An email can get the information across, but you can’t always count on everyone to read the email and there are few substitutes for the body language when someone hears and acknowledges what you’ve told them. Sometimes a meeting is necessary when it’s important for everyone to participate in the decision being made. When everyone has a chance to add their voice to a common goal, they will feel more personally invested while they work on it.
Meetings are expensive
When meetings are not necessary, it’s worth considering how much each meeting costs your organization. Remember that every employee has a value to their time and every meeting is a balance between the value of that meeting’s outcomes and the collective cost of that time.
Consider a meeting in your organization that occurs every week for one hour and averages 20 attendees. If those attendees average $60/hr in compensation, then that meeting is costing your organization $64,000 per year. Maybe that’s the meeting where you all share the best ideas that drive your product to be the best it can be, in which case $64k is a great value. But maybe it’s the meeting that everybody dreads and few people ever chime in; think of all the better ways your team could use that money instead.
If you’re in charge of a recurring meeting, you’re likely in a position of official or unofficial leadership, so maybe you’re not hearing the whispers from attendees when they’re not enjoying it. If you want to know the brutal truth, give an opportunity for feedback from time to time. Every few months, start the meeting by asking attendees if the meeting is useful to them. Be ready to hear and accept the feedback. Sometimes a meeting just needs a new format, but sometimes you reach a consensus that the meeting just doesn’t need to happen at all. Remember, if people aren’t compelled to make the meeting effective, then it’s just a waste of time and money for everyone involved.
If you’re attending a recurring meeting, ask yourself from time to time if you understand why you’ve been included. If you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask, even if it’s off to the side after the meeting is over. This can be a good topic when you meet in a 1:1 with your manager. Maybe you really don’t need to be there. Perhaps all the designers were included in a business meeting as a courtesy but it always turns into a business discussion that cuts out the rest of the group. It’s important to frame it as you contributing as effectively as possible. You have valuable skills you’re being paid good money for. If your skills aren’t being used effectively in a meeting, you can be making a better contribution to the organization by giving yourself more time to do the work you’re paid to do.
Maybe the meeting is important, and you’ll value the outcome, but you simply can’t be in meetings all the time.
Many managers find it important to attend every meeting that involves their direct reports, but plenty of these meetings can function just fine without a manager. Delegating a team member to take the lead on the weekly standup or critique session is a way to provide some leadership opportunity while also giving you a chance to step back. It also means the whole team can practice and rely on better note-taking, summaries, and recordings of the meeting content so that the people who don’t attend can refer back to the outcomes.
Refer back to something I said in the introduction: I like to think of meetings as occupying the top of the classic food pyramid, that spot with snacks and desserts that’s labeled “use sparingly.”
Using meetings sparingly means to exhaust your other options first before you resort to a meeting. Think back to my silly food pyramid diagram and work your way up from the bottom.
Think to yourself: can this meeting be an email? Can I ask someone in a DM or a group message? Can I write up some notes about it? If not, can I make a recording of myself walking through the problem for others to watch at their convenience? Can I aid the question with a slide deck, a diagram, or a spreadsheet? If none of those will work, can I limit my audience by having a quick ad hoc 1:1 call? Can I walk over to the person in real life and ask them the question face to face? All of those options can be used in place of a meeting, but occasionally the meeting will still be your best available option.
You’ve done it. You successfully shaved off a handful of meetings that didn’t need to be on your calendar. One way you can keep it that way is by protecting the new time you’ve gained. Schedule a monthly meeting-free day for yourself or even for your whole team so you have more focus time. Add blocks of time to your calendar to focus on non-meeting tasks; choose whether to be strict or flexible with this focus time when new meeting invites come in. Build in blocks of time for eating lunch or exercising if you have to; even if these blocks don’t hold firm, they might save you from finding yourself with an unhealthy 6 straight hours of sitting at your desk.