How to save your meetings from disaster

How to facilitate an effective meeting

In 1865 Tampere, Finland, two mining engineers built a pulp mill.
This was quite a unique mill as it was one of the first to provide hydropower to the nearby factories.What was particularly important about this mill was where it was built. It was built on the banks of the Nokianvirta river. The rivers name might sound familiar to you, and you'd be right. These two engineers founded a company called Nokia.

You know the rest of the story, don't you?
A century and a half of innovation, right up to the modern-day mobile telephone. Until one day, they met their demise as the iPhone surged in popularity, leaving Nokia in the dust.

You'd think Nokia would be too big to fail.

Yet their stronghold on the mobile phone market was over. Unfortunately for Nokia, they persevered as if it wasn't. They kept developing and innovating new mobile devices, all the while their market share plummeted. Nokia had died long before it became apparent to them.

Nokia became "the walking dead", and our meetings can go the same way.
It might feel like work is happening in our meetings, but actually - nothing gets done. But we still think that long meeting was our 'hard work' done for the day.
The problem with spotting a failing meeting is that they don't always seem like they're failing.

These meetings create the illusion of being helpful.
After the meeting, it may feel like it moved the team and the business forward. But in reality, nothing has happened at all. So how do we spot a failing meeting?

The first sign is that the meeting invite has no outcome or goal.
Here is a safe rule of thumb to follow. Do you know the purpose of the meeting? If you don't, then it's likely the person who planned it doesn't either. How can you be productive in a session if you don't know what you are trying to achieve?

The second sign is a lack of agenda. 
You'll spot this early on, as people arrive at the meeting and start talking. With no agenda to get through, how do you know what to discuss? Depending on the personalities in the room, it's a gamble that you will get anything done. You are strapped in for an indefinite ride to the end of this rudderless meeting!

The third and most subtle sign is that no one is keeping order.
Anarchy is running the room. By halfway through, the two loudest voices in the room have led the conversation astray. If we're lucky, someone might speak up and try to get the focus back to the matter at hand. But without structure or order to the meeting, this seldom happens.

We endure meetings like this because we don't want to rock the boat.
Why would we put our neck out and risk looking the fool by asking what the point of the meeting is? No one wants to be that person.

When we allow free-for-all conversations to happen, it can feel productive.
It activates our brain in a way that makes us feel like we are making progress. It's exciting! The problem with bad meetings is that they don't feel bad. Because everyone feels 'busy' being in a 'meeting' it creates the illusion that work is getting done.

Unproductive meetings can turn into chaotic nightmares.

Meetings fail when no one leads them.
A meeting without a leader turns into a free-for-all. When the organiser abdicates responsibility, the session is doomed to fail. It is no fault of the meeting's participants, no matter how unruly or sidetracked they get.
It requires no effort to put a meeting in the calendar and have people turn up, talk and leave.

Can meetings with no action afterwards be a good thing?
Studies have shown that we are having more pointless meetings than ever - and for a good reason. They are a form of therapy and a way for us to individually work out our status in the social hierarchy. If our meetings are therapeutic social wrangling, how do you get things done?

One of the essential facets of a productive meeting is an excellent facilitator.
A meeting can be like herding cats. If the facilitator doesn't set a structure, or keep order, then things can get quickly out of hand. The real reason meetings fail is that they lack structure and order.

So we know that creating structure and order is the secret to a successful meeting; how do we do that?

Set an agenda and a goal.
Most meetings centre around the discussion. We aim to make a decision based on that discussion. Create structure by setting a simple goal and agenda.

Give topics a time limit - and enforce it.
Time limits create order and turn our meetings from chaotic free-for-alls into productive time with our team. Have a goal, so everyone is on the same page about the outcome. An agenda is a clear path to that goal.

What if you're a passenger to these frustrating meetings?
Maybe we aren't in control of what, when, or how meetings are held. We probably even roll your eyes at the idea of having to attend yet another meeting. How can you influence a meeting that isn't yours?

We can facilitate a meeting in secret
It relies on some tact. We ask three critical questions at the right time.
When a meeting starts without an agenda or a clear goal, the first important question we can ask is "What do we hope to get out of this meeting?" Depending on the context, this could be to the meeting owner or the room.

The earlier you ask it, the better.
The best response we can hope for is "I'm just about to get to that!" We must ask this question in an earnest and enthusiastic way - especially if your meetings have a reputation for being particularly unproductive.

This question may make the organiser think for a moment.
We aren't putting them on the spot, it's a genuine question; especially if the meeting has no agenda. When we ask from a place of genuine desire to understand, the question is appreciated.

If the meeting chair struggles to answer, the next thing we can do is put it to the group. Then we're in a position to help the group find out what the answer is. In a few minutes, the meeting's purpose should be much more apparent.

That brings us to the second important question.
"How are we going to do that?" or "What do we need to do in this hour to get there?" Ask this to extract an agenda gently. We may find the meeting organiser already has a plan that they've been keeping to themselves.

If we get an uncertain answer, we have the opportunity to suggest something.It only needs to be simple, luckily there is a Workshop Tactic for that.

The Democratic Discussion tactic
With this tactic, we time-box a discussion point to 10 minutes. When the timer goes off, we ask: "Have we finished discussing this point, or do we want to keep discussing it?" You can present the tactic in an easily understood way:

"We could write down whatwant to talk about, and vote on what is most important to us".

Adding time limits to activities creates milestones in the meeting.
When everyone understands it's time to stop, it's much easier to move on to the next thing. Keep time to keep the momentum up; time is precious, so prevent people from abusing it.

Support the person running the meeting, but don't take over.
Asking these questions can lead to an opportunity to facilitate and make the meeting productive. However, if you steamroll in and take over, you won't make many friends. Gently guiding a meeting is an art that takes practice.

So let's summarise:
1. Meetings fail because they lack structure and order
2. We create structure and order by

• Setting a clear goal for the session
• Running an activity that will get us there (e.g. Democratic Discussion)
• Time-restricting discussion points

3. When we aren't in control of a meeting, we can facilitate in secret. Gently asking the 'why', and then suggesting 'how', to permit us to facilitate the 'what'.

When we're aware, we're more likely to make a change.
Nokia was unaware they were a corporate zombie. They did nothing to change their business strategy, and they met their demise.

When we are aware our meetings have no structure or order; we can do something about it. By asking a few small questions, we can begin to guide the meeting towards a productive outcome.

Next steps

Take a look at Meeting Wizard. A Workshop Tactic to help you effectively facilitate meetings by providing a clear structure. You can run this with the group and build the agenda together.

Level up your career with Pip Club

Join 100,000+ leaders who get unique tips every week on storytelling, leadership and productivity - plus exclusive how-to guides, first-dibs on upcoming Pip Decks and our very best discounts.

No spam, no email sharing - ever. Privacy Policy

One of the few newsletters I look forward to.
— Dave Cunningham, Head of DesignOps @ NHS

Five pro facilitation tips for enthusiastic participation
Five pro facilitation tips for enthusiastic participation
Learn some hot tips to encourage lively participation in your next workshop.
Read More
OKR vs KPI: what’s the difference?
OKR vs KPI: what’s the difference?
OKRs, KPIs, OMG. It's time to untangle those acronyms and drive better business performance.
Read More
Tell your workshop like a story
Tell your workshop like a story
Tell your workshop like a story to grab people's attention (and attendance) and enact change!
Read More