Matt Gornick

Why meetings fail and how to change that

Posted in Work by mgornick on May 16, 2009

I recently attended several meeting which, in hindsight, turned out to be completely pointless.  Oddly enough, we have meetings to fulfill a particular goal (e.g. inform others, brainstorm, follow-up on pending tasks) but when meetings occur just because their is nothing else to do, everything gets lost in translation.

I see one huge reason that meetings fail: lack of strict agenda.  From this there are two things that could occur:

1. There is absolutely no agenda at all, or

2. There is an agenda but it is not strictly adhered to

The first bad, but the second is worse.  May people lack agendas in their meetings because they don’t think ahead or they do not think that it will drastically improve the quality of their meeting.  Unfortunately, it is even worse when people think that their agenda is solid and perfect.  This gives people the false sense of hope that their meeting will in turn be successful and productive even though the opposite is usually true.

So how do you fix dysfunctional meetings?  There have been books written on this topic and a laundry list of remedies that people prescribe, but their are two fundamental laws that should be followed:

1. Create an agenda.  This includes:

  • creating a document that outlines the date/time/duration this meeting will occur
  • key bullet points that need to be addressed (limit to ~2 or 3 per hour)
  • sub-bullet points that are more specific and granular
  • try to separate the document so notes can be taken on the paper (if necessary)

2. Follow that agenda.  This includes:

  • Having the person in charge (usually the one who created the agenda in the first place) keep the group from digressing.  This is critical!  Many meetings start with a goal to inform the team of everyone’s progress only to find that one person spoke and then started a debate about new features, previous meetings/engagements, and highly granular topics.
  • Sometimes the agenda creator is shy or timid and thus feels bad if they need to cut a topic off or move onto other items.  I would recommend trying a timer or something to the effect of, “We’re going to go around the table and give about 5 minutes per person to fill everyone in on what action items they’ve completed. Go!”  This gives each person a clear understanding that they need to fit possibly months of work into a 5 minute summary so they need to be concise and cogent.  Once you allow for unlimited time to be spent talking and digressing, the meeting will in fact fail.

This summer, I’ll be following my own advise when setting up meetings with OrangeQC.  We’ll be following a mix of Agile and Extreme Programming methodologies in order to get things done.  I’ll keep you in the loop as to the successes and failures of my future meetings.