4 Ways to Avoid the Meeting of Doom

Last week I had another encounter with what I call the “meeting of doom”!

I am sure you know what I am talking about: you have just got a meeting invite. You are not quite sure why your presence is relevant, particularly as the agenda seems rather cryptic or perhaps is missing altogether, but absence is not an option. Your to-do-list is a mile long and you can think of about 50 better things to do with a precious hour of workday afternoon.

You show up with about 20 other people armed with their laptops and smart phones and you all settle in. 20% of participants proceed to read and reply to emails, another 30% are busy with their phones and the remaining 50% seem to get lost in some side-line discussions, addressing issues they cannot do anything about, because key decision-makers are missing or because they don’t have all of the information. The manager, who is supposedly leading the meeting, soon loses control of the discussion. And when everyone finally splits an hour and a half later to get back to their desks in search of a bottle of headache tablets, you realize that nothing has been resolved, that in fact you had no clue what the meeting had been designed to achieve in the first place. You wish you had brought your laptop – at least you could have made a dent in your list of emails.

Over the years I have found that four cardinal rules have helped me to control and improve the meetings I have been responsible for and largely eliminate the “meeting of doom”. The first three have to be in place before you get started. The last one you follow during the meeting. This list is not exhaustive. For example, ground rules to set with participants are also a great help, such as starting and finishing on time and not working on emails, texts and other distractions during the meeting.

  1. Never hold a meeting without a clear agenda and time-line. It seems like a no-brainer, but “standing meetings” such a project status meetings, often happen without a clear outline of what participants are supposed to discuss and work through.
  2. Only invite participants who need to be at the meeting. Again, this seems self-evident, but apply a RACI matrix to your last few meetings and check whether this rule is really being followed. Participants should be invited to attend only if they are (R)esponsible, (A)ccountable or (C)onsulted for agenda items. People who merely need to be (I)nformed may be sufficiently included if they receive the minutes after the meeting.
  3. If you find that you cannot come up with an agenda for your meeting, or if key participants cannot make it, either don’t have the meeting or reschedule it until a time when you do have matters to discuss and resolve and you have the right people in the room or on the phone to do so.
  4. And finally, the rule to follow during the meeting: open up a “parking lot”.

If you have an agenda, it is easy to spot discussions that lead away from the topics you wish to cover during the meeting. Often these discussions lead into areas where participants are not qualified to make decisions, but about which they are concerned, or into areas that are only relevant to a small interest group of participants and largely uninteresting, incomprehensible or useless to the rest.

Don’t let these discussions get out of hand. Instead “park” them for the duration of your meeting and have those people work on them, for whom they are relevant and who can make an impact in resolving them.

A “parking lot” can be as simple as a piece of flipchart paper on a wall. Note down the summary of the discussion. One trick is to formulate the summary as an open question, for example: what are we going to do about the new marketing strategy?

Next assign a person responsible for the question and a time by which you need an answer or resolution. Finally write down what the team has resolved to do, for example: meet with the director of marketing, discuss possible approaches and report on the discussion at the next meeting.

Of course the last step in this process will be to follow through and “pick up the car” at the next meeting. Open your “parking lot” from your last meeting; look at the names of the people responsible for the different items and check on progress. Document the answers as part of your meeting minutes, and don’t forget to open a new “parking lot” for all the new discussion points that crop up!