I have a confession to make: I’m the guy in the meeting who’s always saying, “Wait...are we all on the same page about why we’re having this meeting?” I know: it can be annoying. But, it’s important—so important, in fact, that it’s central to what we’re building here at Miter.
Meetings are often a waste of time. I don’t imagine that’s news to you. Most meeting attendees say 50-70% of meetings aren’t worth the time. But what does it mean for a meeting to waste our time? Simply put: its outcome isn’t meaningful enough to justify the time, effort, and interruption.
So how do we improve meeting outcomes? We plan the meeting outcome-first.
Every meeting has a purpose—indeed, we’ve defined “meeting” as a conversation with a purpose. But, not all purposes are created equal.
Suppose I lead a Weekly Staff Meeting with my team. That’s pretty standard practice. But what’s its purpose? All too often, I haven’t thought about an explicit purpose, giving it an implicit purpose like, “Have the weekly staff meeting because it’s on the calendar.” Which tends to produce a useless meeting. Worse, it’s a recurring meeting, and its purpose makes it difficult to cancel. We end up with conversations like, “Hey, I don’t have any topics for the staff meeting...can anyone come up with some?” We can’t help it: to cancel the meeting would defeat its purpose (which, again, is simply to have the meeting).
That’s not to say recurring staff meetings are bad! There are great reasons to have one:
I started by talking about outcomes, and that’s because the best meeting purposes are outcome-centric. If we know what we want to achieve in a meeting, it can guide every other aspect of planning, running, and following up after the meeting—the types of conversation we have, who’s in the room, who’s in the loop, how long it needs to be, and so on.
To define a great, outcome-centric purpose, just answer these two questions:
The first question gives you the subject of the meeting. It’s similar to the subject line of an email. If we’re going to meet to plan next quarter’s big launch, then the subject is just that: next quarter’s big launch. If we’re doing a team lunch, it might be something like “team relationship-building.” (Note that “team lunch” is not a subject—it’s a format and, ideally, flows from the purpose rather than the other way around.)
The second question provides the goal, the intended outcome. For the big-launch meeting it might be, “pick a feature to use for the launch.” For the team lunch, maybe, “Everyone answers a rotating check-in question.”
Like any good goal, your meeting goal should be specific and meaningful. Note, however, that “meaningful” is different from “measurable”—as in any goal-setting exercise, if we restrict ourselves to what’s measurable, we risk excluding what matters. It’s fine for your goal to be subjective, but it needs to be something you can assess as achieved-or-not, and to represent actual progress of some sort. “Generate a bunch of ideas for the launch” is a great goal, while, “Talk about the launch” is not.
Sometimes, your actual outcome will differ from your intended outcome (goal). That doesn’t mean your meeting is a failure! Suppose your goal is to pick a feature for the big launch event next quarter. As you discuss, you realize nothing is launching next quarter worthy of a big event, so instead you brainstorm alternate event themes and emerge with three great candidates. That conversation needed to happen, you made real progress toward an event during the meeting, and the goal helped you get there: without the pressure to select a feature, you might not have realized you were lacking one.
This two-question exercise is deceptively simple. Simple because it only takes a minute (as opposed to, say, crafting a whole agenda doc). Deceptive because it takes practice to do it well—to identify the real subject, and to create a goal of the proper size, specificity, and meaning.
It’s also deceptive for its effectiveness. In my own experience, the minute or two it takes me to answer those questions makes everything else about the meeting snap into focus. Who should be there, how the conversation should go, how I’ll need to facilitate it, etc.
Even if I do that brief preparation right before the meeting, it’s still transformative: armed with a well-defined purpose, I walk into the room with confidence and an ability to guide the discussion and make good use of everyone’s time.
At Miter, we’re transforming meeting leaders into meeting heroes. We’d love to hear about your experience leading meetings. Have you tried clarifying a meeting’s purpose? How did it go? Drop us a line.