Unintended Benefits Don’t Make Meetings Useful

| 7 min read
#productivity #meetings #leadership

About half a year ago I wrote an article about why no one likes your meetings. Since then I’ve talked to a lot of people and been on a few teams that have managed meetings in many different ways. One of the things I’ve learned is how meeting shape differs a ton depending on the different ways groups within meetings are formed. Meetings within a single team have different goals and objectives than meetings across teams or meetings with many people. In direct meetings among a single team it's pretty easy for the group to diagnose and comment on the fact that a meeting wasn't particularly useful, but in broader meetings, and meetings that are more exploratory I've noticed that becomes increasingly challenging.

Especially in cross-functional meetings, one phrase I hear a lot is the concept “I don’t think we accomplished what the meeting wanted necessarily, but it was clearly valuable for other reasons”. Or, "it was nice to connect with people". This has led me to the conclusion that one of the primary challenges we have with meetings is the way that humans are so good at finding reasons a meeting we were a part of was valuable. It’s a natural human thing. But unlike other pursuits, it makes it much harder to diagnose when a meeting has gone off track. I think often when it comes to meetings, typically because we’re all very busy people, we become very very undisciplined about the purpose and output of meetings.

One of, and I mean this sincerely, the most impactful pieces of writing I've read in my life is Shit Crayons by Ian Bogost. It’s about games but I think it broadly applies to meeting culture too. Summarized really shortly it's basically saying your ability to derive value from a meeting (or insert your preferred form of cultural engagement) has nothing to do with that thing's value.

This seems counterintuitive at first because the purpose of a meeting is for its attendees to find value, right? Well... yes and no. I'd like to posit a few things:

  1. The majority of people who attend (especially high level) meetings are smart thoughtful people who got where they got by finding ways to get value out of situations that are less than valuable (or even downright challenging).
  2. People, in our beautiful individuality, like being together, and will generally try to find ways to find meaning in the things we do.
  3. A meeting having some value doesn't mean it had the value we intended for it.
  4. And especially for point number 3, we conflate them, because of points one and two.

Most of the time, frankly, we don't hold the artifact of the meeting accountable to the same standards of practice that we do our other (more tangible?) outputs. And that's the problem.

I unfortunately don't remember exactly who said it (I think it was Jared Spool) but he mentioned when presenting to executives about the benefits of design he would find them nodding along and agreeing with what he said, thinking it was rather straightforward (and obvious). This was unhelpful because it made it less likely for them to make the changes necessary, and he knew going in they had doubts and concerns. So, he started having them write out their design assumptions before giving his talk, so he could explicitly track and have them compare how their opinions changed.

This is the same problem we have with meetings. Because we don't do a good job of tracking the goal of a meeting, we'll find some value in having gone, and then backfill that as the reason for the meeting in the first place. This is backward and makes it hard to actually get a picture of if we're leading effective meetings in the first place.

Dall-E rendering of a woman at a table in a meeting painting an award winning piece of art when she's supposed to be listening to the presenter

Dall-E rendering of a woman at a table in a meeting painting an award winning piece of art when she's supposed to be listening to the presenter

We can be more critical about meetings

One of the challenges we have with meetings is that, because they’re social, we recognize they have value outside their stated purpose, so we’re reticent to put on additional structure that might destroy benefits unintentionally. The analogy I'd like to put forth is one about code. I think there's a lot of value to writing bad code and then learning from it because even bad code that gets tossed is still an opportunity for developers (especially junior ones) to learn and grow and experiment with new ideas. It is possible and desirable to find tangential value in the things we do even if they don't get completed.

But the caveat here is that the code still gets thrown out (or changed or what have you) for not meetings its stated objectives. We don't say, well we learned a lot, so that code must have been good, let's ship it to production. We say, we learned a lot, got some side benefits, now let's go fix it and do it the right way.

We can do the same thing with meetings. We can set goals, aim at those goals, and measure the impact of those goals. We can be forward looking in learning about how to construct better meetings while also appreciating and maintaining the benefits of helpful (but unintended) connections that get made.

How To Fix The "Unrelatedly Useful" Problem

It's one thing to talk about how common this is, it's wholly another to propose actual solutions.

1. Axe them

The challenge to any fix is that they require way more time and effort. That’s always the answer with meetings. You need to put in the prep work and set aside the time to make them valuable. And for the most part that time doesn’t exist. For most meetings that’s going to mean killing a less than efficient meeting that might have some external value. I think in corporate culture it’s really hard to let things drop rather than create a bad meeting, but ultimately that’s the decision we’re going to have to encourage more if we actually want this to go better.

One of the primary reasons meetings stick around is because companies believe that the cost to accidentally duplicating worse is much higher than the cost to sit down and meet. This is an area I would love to know if there’s research on and what the conclusions have been. But my gut says we tend to default to too conservative rather than too duplicative.

2. Create Goals

I talk through this in the previous post, but it doesn’t change the fact that your meetings should have goals. And those goals should not be the content of the meeting. In order to create momentum a meeting should end with your team or you division or your company feeling further along than when it started.

In my previous post, I talk about setting clear goals at the start. But in terms of evaluation of larger, cross-functional meetings I would go a step further. Set specific metrics you intend to measure at the outcome of the meeting. When you work with people on a daily basis it’s pretty easy to tell whether or not what you’re doing is successful.

Goals look like people leaving your meeting with clear action items, meetings creating deeper understanding, or meetings eliminating unnecessary work.

3. "I will know I’ve met my goals when…"

Now that you’ve set goals, you should figure out how you’ll know if you’ve met those goals. At the company level, surveys can be a way of accomplishing this. You don’t need to survey (or talk to) everyone, and you also don’t need these goals to be measurable, but you should have some very clear sense of how you know if you’ve met the goals of your meeting. For example, if your goal for a meeting is to kill a project, you should define how you know that project is killed. If your goal is to create a shared understanding about an important concept, your goal shouldn’t be talked about the concept it should be something more granular and refined, like certain keywords, phrases, or framing you should be looking for.

4. "I know the meeting failed if…"

This might seem like a breathtakingly obvious corollary to the previous point, but it’s important to remember that like people, meetings are multi-faceted. It is possible for one person to have a successful meeting and another to fail, and it’s also possible for both success and failure metrics to have been hit, which might suggest you went in with less than ideal assumptions.

If we go back to our previous examples (killing a project and building shared understanding), you might be on the lookout for something like vocabulary to suggest that work is still progressing or the priorities that made that work necessary are still present. And if you’re looking at shared understanding you might be on the lookout for confusion or soft yesses, or people who are agreeing to understanding but unable to describe the concept on their own.

Tangential Outcomes are Great

I’m worried by reading this you’ll hear that unexpected problems are bad. I’m absolutely not. If you get bonus conclusions out of a meeting that’s awesome. Or if you decide that a meeting should be unstructured time to allow for connections that’s also great. What you shouldn’t be comfortable with is the idea that you brought people together for objective A and you accomplished objective B instead that that’s a positive outcome, especially for a large or recurring meeting. It’s not. It means you have a lot of smart thoughtful people who are good at making the best of a challenging situation.

Part of the benefit of meeting with other people is to build shared understanding. It’s helpful to go into an unexpected path and collect an idea of what other ways others within your team or company have thought about a subject or objective. Meetings can and should have enough space to allow for occasional diversions. But, we shouldn’t let that distract us from our primary goals.

Rip The Band-aid Off

One of the deep ironies of our current relationship to meeting culture is that we despise them so much we refuse to put in the effort to make them valuable. This was one of the most interesting component’s of Cal Newport’s book A World Without Email is about emails. It's really about how information flows at a company. And meetings are part of that. In order to reduce the number of overall meetings, we have to find ways to be more disciplined and demand more out of the meetings we create. And that starts with being more honest about if a meeting was actually successful or not.