"Meetings are not about being efficient. They are about transferring energy. Before and after the meeting the energy in the meeting room should rise. If it did not, then it was not a good meeting."

This was one of the most counterintuitive things I had ever heard about meetings during a coaching session that Scott Cook, the Founder of Intuit, conducted for his leaders.

By that time I had both worked in consulting and in startups.

My consulting experience has shaped me into thinking that meetings have to be well-prepared and run well. You must have a well-defined agenda sent out in advance. Do diligent follow up on who is attending and who is not, manage expectations well with everyone. Capture minutes of the meeting and send it out just after the meeting ends. From the consulting world another big thing that was baked into my head was that meetings should start on time and end precisely on time. Else it is a stain on your professional ability. Every meeting has to be program managed produced i.e every minute has to be stage-managed.

The startup world however was the polar opposite. Many people leave corporate or bigger jobs because they hate the calendar schedule that they are subjected to and tortured with in a large company. So the first impulse is to throw away all meetings in startups. In small enough teams, meetings happen ad hoc because someone in the team had an interesting thing to say - whether it is a choice in architecture design, or how a team member is slacking, or what funding happened, or an interesting email someone in the team had received.

Counter-intuitive as it might sound, it is in startups that you need better meetings. Better run meetings.

Reducing meetings is a false goal

First, all meetings are not the same. Indeed startups definitely don’t need a lot of meetings. Yet some meetings are needed. Whether it is a tribe or an entire kingdom coming together, people must gather together to coordinate on things that matter to them. That is how meetings started historically. They were called by different names earlier such as forum, town hall and many others. Meetings are the moving force behind coordinating any group of people.

Saying meetings are bad is like saying technology is bad. Fire can burn if not dealt with properly. If channeled well it can help cook. It is how you deal with technology that makes it good or bad. It is how you run meetings that makes it good or bad.

To become a better leader you must become a better manager. Most startup founders, especially those that have been brilliant individual contributors, struggle with this i.e become a good manager.

Meetings bring individuals together to function well as a group. If you run your startup like a dictator then you may not need to do any meetings to gather people towards a goal. You command and the followers will get it done. However, if you want to be democratic and inclusive as an organisation, then running better meetings is the cultural investment that you must make.

Start with respecting other people’s time

Rest will take care of itself. Through blindness or unconscious arrogance, people senior in an organisation stop respecting other team members' time. If they become conscious about it then most of the meetings that are designed would automatically be better.

Bad meetings are time theft. Meetings are hated the most when people attending it feel it was a waste of their time. Don't include someone in a meeting if they are not relevant to the topic of the meeting. The first question to ask for any meeting is how many people need to attend a given meeting. Err on the side of staffing the meeting with lesser participants. Most do the exact opposite.

Put a strict time limit. No matter what. Parkinson’s law impacts individuals but groups too. Parkinson's Law states that work expands to the time available.

Keep it short, see if you can make it even shorter. Want to run a 60-min meeting? Instead schedule a 40-min one.

Get feedback on how the meeting went. In that feedback, ask if the participants felt whether the meeting made good use of their time.

Get everyone to set ground rules

Before you start a meeting, set ground rules, crowd-source it from the participants. You don't have to do it in every meeting but whenever a new type of meeting gets started, do the ground rule exercise. Brainstorm and make a list of how you should conduct the meeting to serve the group's purpose. Ask everyone to suggest ground rules they think should be followed for the meeting. Make sure everyone in the group has spoken. Write it down. Read it back after all ideas have poured in. Ask everyone explicitly if they are willing to agree to the shortlisted ground rules. Some examples include:

  • No beating the dead horse i.e don’t belabour a point if it has been discussed.
  • No ringing cell phones or checking email. (For this to work well, keep meetings short or give ample breaks)
  • Suspend judgement.
  • There are no bad questions.
  • There are no bad ideas.
  • Ideas outside the scope of current meeting will be set in a parking area.

Different types of meetings will involve a different set of ground rules. Board meetings may have different ones than a staff meeting. However make the assembled group commit to ground rules discussed.

By setting ground rules you design the space in which a meeting gets conducted. Oftentimes the space designed needs to be a safe space so that things that matter get discussed and progress is made.
At Upekkha, leaders invest in crafting meetings that energise and bring forth diverse views. 

Good meetings need facilitation

Good meetings are those where tough conversations are asked.

When you run a meeting, you are a facilitator not a dictator. The role of the meeting organiser is that of a facilitator even if you are the boss. A senior leader's opinion in any discussion gets treated as a dictation. Therefore it is important to set ground rules to create a space where things that truly matter can come out for discussion. Ground rules such as 'there are no bad questions or dumb ideas' set the stage for anyone in the group to ask bold questions.

As a facilitator be watchful for who raises voice. Ask them what makes them so passionate about the topic that made them raise their voice.

Most arguments happen because two people are not talking about the same problem. Ensure that first problem-framing is set in place. Ask 'Are we solving the problem?' or 'how might we ——?'

Look out for the most silent participants, volunteer them for adding their viewpoints.

Meetings are definitely not a place where tensions open up but don't resolve. In good meetings, decisions happen and get communicated well, along with clear ownership on who executes them.

When you facilitate, ensure you break the discussion time into two halves, one for divergence where the tension may come up, but in the second half ensure that there is convergence happening.

Meetings are not a medium where information transfer happens most densely. They must energise. Get people to physically move. Giving people an activity at the start, such as asking them to write their thoughts about a topic, will force everyone to become present. The best way to move anyone's energy is by telling a story about wins.

If meeting is the input, clarity & alignment are the output

If you are not sure how well are you doing your current meetings and what to improve, here are some things to do and the questions to ask:

  • Audit all your meetings.
  • Ask which ones you can remove.
  • Check where you can reduce the time by 30%. Which ones are providing clarity and bringing alignment, and which ones converged to a decision.
  • Find which meetings have more than 7 people, how can you reduce it to less than 7.
  • Look at your last 3 big meetings and make a self-assessment on what you can improve.
  • Ask which ones left participants energetic.
  • Send a feedback survey for one of the last big meetings and ask what can be improved.
  • Ask another founder to shadow your meeting and give you feedback afterwards on how you facilitated.

How do you know you are doing good meeting, your team has clarity and alignment of what goals matter to the team, and how well you are making progress? Productivity is the absolutely the wrong yardstick for measuring a meeting. You know that it was a good meeting when the participants don’t want the meeting to end even when the time has expired and they have other things to get to.