Meetings That Don’t Suck

Break free from the tyranny of the conference room

By Ken Norton

5 min read • Nov 25, 2015


Meetings That Don’t Suck

Ken Norton

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For most of us, and certainly for most of your team, meetings are the least productive part of our day. Yet too many brilliant people are stuck in too many meetings. Meeting cultures begat more meetings, and the downward cycle continues, crippling productivity and crushing psyches.

As the former product manager for Google Calendar, I had plenty of exposure to how people handle meetings. As a partner at Google Ventures, I’ve also worked directly with more than 100 startups. I’ve even given a workshop on making meetings suck less. I’ve seen the good and the bad, and have come away with some tips for how to make life better. Here’s what I recommend:

Kill the status meeting

The most vile creature on any calendar is the weekly status or “check-in” meeting. You know: “Let’s go around the table and have everyone give an update.” They’re a waste of time and harken to a bygone era where managers used them to make sure people were doing work.

The vast majority of updates are only relevant to one or two people in the room, and everyone else painfully waits for their turn. Replace them with real-time messaging apps, smaller team standup meetings or even email lists.

Hold one-on-one meetings sacred

It’s remarkable how many managers are too busy with meetings, yet consistently cancel or reschedule one-on-ones with their direct reports. One-on-ones are the most important meetings on your calendar when you appreciate one detail: They’re not for you, they’re for the employee.

As a manager, you’re there to make decisions, clear roadblocks and help them feel happy and valued. Sticking with a schedule and being present shows your employees that they’re important and respected.

Every meeting must have a single owner

This person is responsible for sharing the purpose and the agenda, identifying decision-makers, arranging follow-up and sending notes. No one should have to ask, “Whose meeting is this?” Don’t schedule a meeting unless an owner has been identified, or you’re willing to step up and be one.

Share the purpose of the meeting and agenda ahead of time: What decisions need to be made and who are the attendees? Nobody should walk into the conference room without knowing why they’re there and exactly what needs to be accomplished. Encourage employees to vote with their feet: Give them permission to decline meetings that don’t have a purpose, an owner and an agenda.

Your calendar doesn’t make you important

Too many executives think a busy calendar makes them seem important, and that being double- or triple-booked is their chest full of medals.

You’re a manager, not a professional meeting attendee. It only makes you unavailable and out of touch with the needs of your team. If you’re not needed, decline the invitation or leave. And don’t take it personally if you’re not invited. Often, that’s a testament to the strength of the team you’ve built. If you have input, share it with the organizer ahead of time.

Calendars shouldn’t postpone decisions

If a decision is urgent, gather the decision-makers right away. Create a culture of urgency where decisions are made quickly and aren’t allowed to fester. Another advantage to an un-cluttered calendar is that you’ll have more time to be available to others for these ad hoc decisions.

Keep meetings small

Fewer than five people in one meeting is ideal, and research has shown that effectiveness drops when more than seven people are in the room. Teams should send representatives rather than the entire group. If you can’t figure out how to hold the meeting with a smaller group, rethink your goals or divide and conquer.

Of course, large team or company all-hands and weekly celebrations are excluded (such as Google’s TGIF or Twitter’s Tea Time). For those, identify presenters in advance and make sure to keep plenty of time for open Q&A.

Consider the opportunity cost of every meeting

How much will this meeting cost your company? For example, a two-hour meeting with 16 attendees is 32 person-hours. That’s almost an entire person-week of time. Is this meeting more valuable than whatever one of your employees could accomplish in an entire week? Look for visible ways to remind everyone of meeting costs, with a timer or digital meter.

Treat other people’s calendars as a scarce resource

Be considerate of how much time you’re taking from your team. Borrowing an hour of somebody’s time is the same as borrowing a neighbor’s ladder. Ask politely, keep it only as long as you need it, return it quickly and say ‘thank you’.

Try never to schedule a meeting longer than 60 minutes, and aim for 30 minutes as a default. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish. End on time and leave promptly so the next group doesn’t have to wait for the room. And respecting their time goes both ways: If you’re an attendee, stay off your laptop or mobile device and be present.

Escalate, don’t undermine

At many companies, “escalation” is a naughty word. Why should that be? Managers exist to resolve disagreement. Disagreement leads to immobility. If people can’t agree, they should quickly and civilly escalate to someone who can make the decision. And healthy teams “disagree, but commit” if the decision doesn’t go their way.

If the meeting is over, end the meeting

How many meetings have attended where someone said, “Well, we still have 20 minutes, what should we talk about?” That’s absurd. If your commute home took 15 minutes less than normal, would you spend the remaining time sitting in your driveway? If you’ve accomplished the meeting goals early: Well done! End the meeting and give everyone their time back.

Declare calendar bankruptcy

Sometimes the best way to get out of meeting debt is to clear the slate and start over.

I worked with one startup that decided to do just that. On January 1, they deleted every scheduled meeting at the company. Meetings were only added back if they were essential and had an owner and the right attendees.

Everyone was astounded at the results. Weekly “check-in” meetings that used to take three hours were eliminated entirely. Some were restored, but with a smaller attendee list and for shorter durations. The company gained back thousands of hours of employee time. Time that can now be used for, you know, work.

😴 Kill the status meeting
👯 Hold one-on-one meetings sacred
📅 Every meeting must have a single owner
📋 Share the purpose of the meeting and agenda ahead of time
👑 Your calendar doesn’t make you important
☔️ Calendars shouldn’t postpone decisions
👥 Keep meetings small
💸 Consider the opportunity cost of every meeting
🌳 Treat other people’s calendars as a scare resource
🚨 Escalate, don’t 🔪undermine
⌛️ If the meeting is over, end the meeting
🔥 Declare calendar bankruptcy

This article was originally published at TechCrunch.

Emojis representing each item on the list above

Originally Published: November 25, 2015

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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