Meetings are a mess. 

They are a holdover from the industrial revolution, when companies needed them to communicate information to each successive layer of management. But today’s technologies can track task status, resources and more in real time online, eliminating the need for many status meetings. Better tools are also available to not only make sure everyone gets a clear meeting agenda, but that better and faster decisions can be made without having the need to rehash old (or no) decisions. Integration with online task and project management tools can help provide feedback to the meeting about decision and assignment outcomes.

Our last research showed that only 40 percent of meetings use any metrics, and even those metrics only provide information on what I call meeting metadata: time of meeting, length of meeting, frequency of meetings, etc. None of that data helps to change meetings. I believe that behavioral data displayed at meetings is the only chance of changing meetings for the better.  

Meetings are an unavoidable part of the digital workplace but are often a hindrance in dealing with issues or coming to decisions, so I turned to John and Elise Keith, co-founders of Lucid Meetings productivity suite, to find out their recommendations on how to create a perfect meeting.

The Habit of Meetings

David Coleman: Since you have a tool that works in and around meetings, and you have run many meetings yourselves, what would make a perfect meeting?

Elise Keith: Three things are required: 

  1. Clarity of purpose (Why are we having this meeting? What will we get out of it?) 
  2. Engaged participants 
  3. Need to get work done

DC: So what are people’s or organization's biggest challenges in meetings?

Elise Keith

EK: They talk about meetings in vague generalities. Like I want to be successful with food. I am not sure what to do with that. But If you say I want to have a healthy breakfast, that is specific and something you can work on.

DC: OK, what about the recurring problem of status meetings for say a software development team?

John Keith: Status meetings at their worst can be a habit — people have lost sight of what the meeting is for in the first place. And in the second place it can just be an exercise in political power by the meeting owner (see, I can have 50 engineers show up to my Monday morning status meetings). But status meetings have other functions than just to convey information (which can often be done online more effectively) and one is convergence. 

John KeithFor example, the initial meeting may have a goal that all the participants are in alignment with, but as people work on tasks they may go off in different directions, get new ideas, investigate new avenues. The convergence function of the status meeting is so that everyone can see what each other is working on (transparency) and get all the work back in alignment with the original goal. Often this means you don’t need to have status meetings every week.

Another example is the stand-up meeting or an agile or scrum meeting. Usually those are daily, and only take about 10 minutes (and if in person everyone stands). The goal is to bring everyone into the same context, even as the context is shifting around you. It can highlight issues or decisions as well as making everyone aware of the issue, and getting help to solve it. Unfortunately, there is “agile fatigue” that can set in, as there are never-ending goals with the agile methodology. The remedy is to only do these meetings when there is an issue or something urgent. Which might necessitate stopping the meeting and having everyone work on that issue until it is solved.

EK: In one instance, we posted an agenda for the meeting and asked people to provide input before the meeting, and after seeing the input, we decided not to have the meeting — its content was already covered. Part of the culture where this happened (Silicon Valley Semiconductor company) was that we gave ourselves permission to end the meeting when it was done, not when the time was up or even if we finished early.

Managers that insist everyone be in the status meeting (no matter what) are using the meeting to bludgeon their employees, and it is more about ego than it is about meetings.

Role, Age and Training

DC: Many of the examples you have given are about engineers doing software development. Which is not unusual for Silicon Valley, or given the fact that Lucid Meetings is a software company with distributed engineering resources. How do people in this role deal with the ever increasing frequency of distributed meetings?

JK: Engineers by nature are introverts, that maybe some of the reasons why they are more comfortable with machines than people. This is really not true of the C-suite or salespeople, and engineers may view the meeting as a problem. However, when the meetings are in a systematic framework like Agile development they are less prone to see the meetings as a problem and more of an opportunity. In Agile, which has a lot of meetings embedded in the process, the meetings are systematic, and when well done, have a built-in feedback mechanism to help drive continuous improvement.

DC: What about the Millennials, do they act differently in meetings?

EK: I think it is more an issue of training and experience than being part of a generational cohort. At a recent Gartner conference, their research showed that all the generational cohorts in the workplace (from Boomers to Gen Z) have had a massive uptake of technology and adoption. The use of both formal and informal meetings (ad-hoc interactions, which are on the rise) processes is really based on training and experience. 

For example, a board of directors meeting, or a meeting with a sales team runs very well, those people have a lot of experience with this type of meeting. But go to a start-up, with a bunch of 20-year-olds, and they don’t have the training or experience in meetings (plus most of them are engineers), and they have no clue what a good meeting would look like. The only behavioral change we have seen in a generation is that Gen-Z likes to be connected all the time!

DC: How have meetings changed with the adoption of distributed technologies?

JK: Wayne Turmel in his latest book “Meet Like You Mean It” notes that meetings where everyone is not engaged are a waste of time. The meeting participants have no way of doing anything, and in many cases are not expected to do anything except to wait until the meeting ends. What's more, untrained people are scared to turn over control for fear that the meeting will fail, or the content become inappropriate, etc.


These distributed technologies are generating more informal and ad-hoc communications (but they are still called meetings), and so tools that support this see more and more meetings happening, when in reality it is people talking to each other on Yammer, HipChat (now owned by Atlassian) or Slack. And those ad-hoc conversations can preclude the discussion that might have happened in a meeting.

Attention and Engagement

EK: We have seen people with much shorter attention spans or less engaged in meetings if they are distributed. There are several reasons for this. The first is trust — it is much easier to establish trust in a face to face meeting. When people are at a distance it is harder to trust that they are doing what they should be doing. In the absence of feedback, you make up a story about them, or a “catastrophic fantasy” where what you imagine is much worse than anything that could happen. This type of behavior does not promote trust.

DC: Well, there are tools like UP Work (formerly Elance and Odesk) that allow you to watch the programmer working for you (at a distance) over their computer’s video.

JK: Personally, I would see that as an infringement of my privacy. In distributed working, transparency and accountability are even more critical than in a face to face meeting, and consistency or repeatability are also necessary to help build trust.

DC: I like meeting first with my clients face to face, after that is is easier to use the myriad of collaboration tools to move the project forward.

JK: Some of that might be that boomers like to meet face to face, and by the way, so do project managers. But when you work at a distance, remote engineers all working on a project have to agree on their assignments, and have a higher frequency of ad-hoc (online or phone) meetings. However, I believe that the team needs to meet at least once a week to help with convergence around the project. The meetings are not really the goal, just one way to get to the goal, so a question about meeting productivity is a red herring. More effective project teams mean something, and products getting to market ahead of schedule and under budget, means something.

DC: Thank you both for your insight and transparency.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  markhillary 

Title image by markhillary