August 31, 2020

Meetings Shouldn’t Suck — Let’s Fix Them Together

Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual.

How to solve nine painful meeting problems 

This is part one of our five-part Better Meetings series, a series being jointly produced between MURAL and Voltage Control.

Most meetings suck. This has become the norm, a secret society that we all adhere to and suffer from together.

But what if meetings weren’t a complete drag?

What if, instead, they were magical?

We’re here to tell you it’s possible. We need to set higher standards for meetings to take them from bad to out of this world, and we’re going to show you how. Learn how to ease the pain of the current meeting culture with visual thinking and collaboration so that your team can do magical, meaningful work together.

Welcome to part one of a five-part series where we’ll teach you how to solve the woes of bad meetings and help you build an artillery of skills and processes to create exceptional ones. We’re on a mission to change the current meeting culture to one that’s magical so that we can all do truly meaningful work together. It starts with one meeting at a time.

Let’s dive in.

9 common problem with meetings

What makes meetings so cringy? At the root, it’s an issue of structure.

Bad meetings can either suffer from a lack or an overdose of structure. When meetings have too little structure, there is no real leadership and little to no direction. You know, the ol’ painful sit and stare at everyone else in the room—or on the video call—while waiting for someone to say anything of value. Conversely, too much structure can make a meeting top-heavy and one-directional. A lecture-like structure is better communicated through a Loom video, for example, saving valuable time together with your team for collaborative work.

You have to strike a balance. We need meaningful guided structure to experience productive and participatory group collaboration and the amount of structure has to be “just right.” Just how much structure is that? Let’s figure it out by taking a look at the most common meeting pains — and how we might solve them.

1. Unclear objective

By definition, pointless meetings have no clear purpose. No doubt you can recall attending a meeting that was nothing more than a time-suck. Nothing was accomplished, you left more confused and/or frustrated than before the meeting started, and there was no tangible outcome to show for it.

These kinds of meetings often look like talking in circles with no real decisions made, talking about what needs to be done instead of doing the work itself, and/or discussing multiple, unrelated topics without offering any real solutions. In the most egregious cases, you find you’re in “zombie meeting” — you know, those recurring calendar invites that bring everyone together, yet their purpose has long been forgotten.

According to Atlassian, 47% of surveyed participants complained that meetings were the number one time-waster at work.

When we gather only to spin our wheels, it’s because we don’t have a defined goal to work toward. We can’t get anywhere if we don’t know our destination. The answer: You must have a clear purpose to call a meeting, period. Establish a concrete outcome or a desired goal(s) you wish to accomplish. Then, and only then, do you have a reason to bring your team together.

2. Missing or inadequate agenda

A meeting is only as strong as its agenda. An effective meeting agenda is the roadmap that leads you to your destination. It sets clear expectations for what you want to accomplish during the meeting and provides an outline of what will be discussed, in what order, and for how long. This structure increases team engagement and productivity.

Prepare each agenda with the overall outcomes in mind. Choose discussion topics that support the identified purpose, and omit anything that doesn’t contribute to your goal(s). Allocate the amount of time needed to tackle each topic and schedule in any necessary breaks. Also, set aside time to debrief at the end of the meeting to review what was discussed and communicate post-meeting next steps. Finalize the agenda by selecting a start and end time, and stick to the schedule to achieve the best results.

🚀 PRO TIP: The ideal meeting length for maximum engagement and productivity is no longer than 60 minutes. In fact, research shows it’s less than 20 minutes. Make your meetings as concise as possible.

3. Actionless discussion

Instead of meeting to discuss the work you need to do, use the time to actually do the work in the meeting together. Bring a tangible prototype or idea to each meeting — something to flesh out, explore, and work on as a team. A prototype can be a storyboard, sample pitch of an idea, coding, or a written brief. Create a workable embodiment of your idea or the problem that needs to be discussed, then use the meeting time to work on and react to it.

💬 PSSST! Wondering how you can share ideas with your team? Stay tuned for our next post as we dive into the importance of visualization.

“A prototype is a question embodied.” — Diego Rodriguez Telechea

When we treat meetings as group work sessions — tapping into the creative problem-solving efforts of your entire team — we bring the spirit of innovation to do truly meaningful work together.

Talk is cheap; action ensures results. Make the most of group collaboration by bringing collaborative work into the meeting.

4. Low engagement

We all know the awkward sound of crickets and the feeling of stale air in a meeting room. There are few things more stifling to team creativity than attending a meeting that’s not interactive and engaging. Being part of a conversation is far more enjoyable and productive than being lectured in a one-sided exchange.

More heads truly are better than one. That’s the power of room intelligence — that the bundle of sticks is stronger than any individual one. That’s why we have meetings, after all — to collaborate with others and find creative solutions.

Diverse perspectives bring the best results. But a lack of engagement in meetings prohibits ideas from being heard. To avoid this, offer a collaborative, psychologically safe environment for attendees where everyone feels comfortable to voice concerns, insights, and opinions.

Let people know you want their input and hold space for it. At the same time, monitor engagement. Prevent over-sharers from stealing the show and encourage under-sharers to be an active part of the conversation.

5. Elephant in the room goes unaddressed

If there is a problem — whether it be among team members or within the company at large — address it. Face problems head-on. The tension will fester and boil over if you don’t. That kind of environment is not conducive to productive meetings.

Approach issues with structure and strategy. Start with common ground and areas of agreement among the group to define the problem. Then, hold space for everyone to voice their concerns and objectively listen to understand. Open and honest communication is key to conflict resolution.

There is also a shadow side of communication that’s important to consider. An often overlooked and noteworthy aspect of effective communication is looking for the “negative space,” or anything that is not being said. There might be an important topic or issue that’s being left unaddressed. There might be someone who’s not speaking up that you need to hear from. Don’t let anything of use be left unsaid.

It’s crucial to create a safe and collaborative environment for every meeting to get the most out of them. What kind of atmosphere would you want to be a part of? What do you need to feel seen and heard? Offer that to attendees in every meeting. One heuristic to apply: Create the environment you would want to be in as an attendee. You might call this the Golden Rule of meetings.

6. Wrong attendees

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting only to wonder why you were there at all? A major pitfall of meetings is inviting the wrong people to them. The more isn’t necessarily the merrier; inclusivity doesn’t always mean productivity. Meetings are leaner and more focused when you only invite the people who need to be there.

Choose the specific people who will provide value and insight instead of habitually sending out a mass invite. This is an honest strategy, not an act of exclusion. Lean meetings move quicker and are more inclusive by design. You respect people’s time by being choosy. If someone cannot meaningfully contribute to the meeting, they don’t need to be there.

Try the RACI acronym to help you identify who should attend a meeting:

  • Responsible: Who should perform this activity or do the work?
  • Accountability: Who is primarily accountable and has the power to vote yes or no?
  • Consulted: Who needs to provide feedback and contribute to the project or activity?
  • Informed: Who needs to know of the decision or action decided upon?

7. Hierarchies

Power struggles and unclear roles create unnecessary blocks in meeting flow. What do you need for the meeting to function well, and who should fill those roles? Every task needs someone to spearhead it for smooth sailing. Establish clear roles within the meeting by designating a facilitator, moderator, scribe, and any other position you need to keep the meeting organized and constructive.

Hire an outside facilitator for help when making big decisions. A third-party leader who is removed from emotion and office politics is an extremely helpful asset when you’re solving difficult problems. A skilled facilitator will provide a fresh perspective that is unbiased and objective.

8. One-directional

As previously mentioned, meetings are best as collaborative work sessions. One person talking at a group is far less fertile than an active conversation or brainstorming session. It’s critical that each attendee is an engaged participant and takes ownership of their role to contribute. When the lead in charge completely runs the show (or a dominant voice controls the room), there is little or no room to hear others’ ideas. You need to hear each perspective to achieve the best results.

Remind the group that you want to hear from them; you need their contributions, equally. Then, give people space to participate and collaborate. Pro tip: use the acronym “WAIT” (Why Am I Talking?) to evaluate your own contribution to conversation. Do you have something of value to contribute? If not, it may be more valuable not to speak!

9. Poor documentation

Like an effective agenda is a roadmap for a successful meeting, meeting notes are the script for post-meeting next steps. How will you implement the decisions made or information obtained from the meeting? Documenting the meeting in real-time is essential for execution later. Meeting notes are important for debriefing, keeping the momentum going post-meeting, and aligning team members.

Caution: Strenuous meeting notes are an output trap with written documentation, meaning people can fall into thinking note taking is productive, which isn’t always or even usually the case. Lengthy notes can squander debrief, retention, and momentum. No one wants to read a transcript of a 60 minute meeting. Note dumps are not a user-friendly resource to refer back to and can lead to a loss of momentum and alignment.

On the other hand, people forget things, and it’s hard to play catch-up with stakeholders not present in the meeting. A visual representation of work accomplished in the meeting is easily digestible and makes async collaboration easier. Using visual documentation, IRL or virtually, allows your team to see all of the work accomplished in the meeting — including the thought process behind it — and makes it easier to continue the work together after the meeting.

🔎 We’ll show you how to do the work in the meeting as well as specific tools to use to do so in our evolving better meetings series.

How might we have better meetings?

Once you can solve these challenges, you can take meetings from being something you dread to something you actually look forward to. The following are some of the key ingredients of meetings, both in-person and virtual, that will help you reach greatness:

  • Shared space for collaboration
  • Technology that makes collaboration easy, from anywhere
  • Guided methods to bring the right amount of structure
  • The inclusion of both solo work and group work.

Throughout our developing five-part better meeting series, we’ll show you how to bake each of these ingredients (and more) into your own meetings. In the meantime, you can evaluate your current meeting structure with your team by using this fun and interactive template: Magical Meetings Bingo.

How does this work? Open the Magical Meetings template here. (You'll need a MURAL account to get started — try it free for 30 days.) Then, share board with your teammates. Designate a "Bingo Caller" to read off the squares on the board. The squares are all positive meeting tactics with extra points for the gold squares.

Once you've gotten through the board, discuss as a group. What are your meeting strengths? Where is there room for improvement? How can you avoid problems in the future? 

Game on!

Magical Meetings Bingo template

To see how the board can be used, watch as Douglas Ferguson and John Fitch give the Magical Meetings Bingo board a spin:

Take remote work to the next level

Meetings are challenging enough when you’re in the same room, but what about when you’re working remotely? It’s an entirely different environment. As more and more teams transition to the virtual landscape, the world is utilizing technology to assist in remote work. The proper use of technology in addition to intentional facilitation is how virtual teams survive and thrive.

Communication can be challenging when working with other people, and it’s even more difficult virtually, when there’s no effective space to collaborate. Remote work brings about an entirely new dynamic of meeting pains. There are the big issues of human disconnection in the virtual landscape and outside distractions working from home, on top of the problem of meaningless and unintentionally planned meetings.

We feel the acute pains of technology as well, like experiencing a wonky internet connection because you have too many browser tabs open while on a video call. Relying on virtual tools that are extremely transactional is also an issue. For example, a testy Google Doc comment from a company’s head honcho can set an unproductive tone for the rest of the team without the proper space to work it out. Or because only one person can talk at a time in a Zoom meeting, people can feel like they can’t get a word in, making problems like #3 and #7 even worse!

THE SOLVE: We need a creative, communal space to collaborate successfully and do the work in the meeting.

In this five-part series, we’ll show you how to have magical, productive meetings — every time. We’ll dive deep to help you solve your meeting pains. We’ll show you how to use MURAL as your remote collaboration secret weapon, too.

The series will outline: 

Working together virtually is tough, but it’s possible to make it both effective and enjoyable for your team. A productive and collaborative work environment is crucial to a strong company culture and contributes to maximum productivity. When your team is happy, they perform better.

Stay tuned for our better meeting series to learn how to work together innovatively with your team so that you can do outstanding work.

"Ensure you have reliable tools. Many types of work can now be done remotely if people have the right digital-collaboration tools. Virtual whiteboard tools like MURAL, for example, allow teams to co-create and share ideas more effectively. "

Seattle Business Magazine

“When you implement MURAL in your Teams workspace, you get a custom channel and a notification bot built-in. The range of features you receive with MURAL will allow you to brainstorm quickly with coworkers, send notifications to coworkers, and manage a complete collaborative canvas in the heart of your Teams channels."