Successful meetings: it’s all in the preparation (part 1)


In the first of our four part series on successful meetings, we look at how laying the groundwork might be the key to making the most of that daily business occurrence: the meeting.

In his crusade to “save the world from bad meetings”, TED speaker David Grady speaks of “Mindless Acceptance Syndrome”, the “global epidemic” he says affects office workers universally, whereby they opt in to meetings of which they know neither the goal, nor what’s expected of their attendance.

“The next time you get an email invitation that doesn’t have a lot of information – click the tentative button,” he urges. “Then get in touch with the person who asked you to the meeting. Tell them you’re very excited to support their work; ask them what the goal of the meeting is and how you can help them.


“If we do this often enough, and we do it respectfully, people might start to be a little bit more thoughtful about the way they put together meeting invitations. And you can make more thoughtful decisions about accepting it.”


So, how to be a thoughtful chair? Well, if it were up to 37Signals, the design company behind project management tool Basecamp and creators of 2011’s National Boycott A Meeting Day, there would be no meetings at all. More and more we’re seeing organisations like Vodafone, Apple and Google ditch the one hour round table in favour of face to face conversations: “Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead,” states 37Signals’ bestselling book Rework.

But the authors concede that sometimes a meeting is essential, and produced three rules: 1. Keep it short. 2. Invite as few people as possible. 3. Be prepared.




In a survey of CEOs by Business Insider, almost every executive in question said that their biggest meeting bugbear was a flimsy agenda, prepared half-heartedly by a chair whose objective in calling the meeting is unclear. “Why are we having this meeting?” is the first thing Joel Montgomery, Managing Director of Affiniti wants to know, while Julie Stevanja, CEO of Stylerunner, doesn’t just demand an agenda at least 24 hours in advance, she also wants “a summary of what they are looking for as the outcome”.

Knowing the purpose of any meeting you call is the first step to ensuring those scheduled 60 minutes aren’t a mindless gathering of opinions with no tangible action points. So before you create an invite, be absolutely clear: what is the purpose? What must be achieved by the end of the session? Once you have that clear objective in mind, consider whether a meeting is indeed the best way to achieve that goal. Would a series of individual conversations work instead? Are you holding the meeting in order to bring about a decision on an important topic? “Decisions should never wait for a meeting. Otherwise, the velocity of the company is slowed to its meeting schedule,” caution the creativity experts at 99U.



Once you’ve established that a meeting is called for, think carefully about every participant’s contribution. Who really needs to be there?

When Google started to grow at the speed of light, eager to hang onto its original start-up mentality it created a rulebook that would keep communications effective. In addition to always having an agenda that clearly aligns with the meeting’s goal, Google bosses stipulated that in any get-together, the key decision maker must be present in order to avoid chain meeting mentality (“let’s generate some ideas and then we’ll have another meeting with the decision maker to decide which idea we should run with”) – a strategy Google bosses credit to its delivery of 100 new features in the 90 days after launch. They also insist on no more than ten participants at any meeting (“attending meetings isn’t a badge of honour,” writes VP of Business Operations, Kristen Gil. Apple, meanwhile, stipulates that only those employees who are likely to leave the meeting with a practical, demonstrable action point should be in attendance to begin with. 


Next, consider the rules you want to apply to your meeting.

If you work for an organisation which hasn’t yet clearly defined how roundtables should be organised, define your own on a case by case basis: do you need to set a rule banning analysis of ideas during a brainstorm? That any off-agenda segues are shut down after five minutes? That each stakeholder gets to speak for a set non-interrupted time?

Goals defined, participants agreed, rules established, location and agenda clearly communicated in good time: it’s time to think about the points you want to raise or encourage from others. “Preparing to speak spontaneously” – a concept popularised by the Harvard Business Review – might sound like an oxymoron, but consider this: “Even some of the casual, off-the-cuff remarks you hear have been rehearsed. If it sounds good, it was probably prepared.”



So whether you’re the chair or the participant, set your intention for speaking up. Rehearse delivering your points in a way that carries weight. Diarise the time before the meeting to create buffer between your deskwork and the session, and use it to run through your notes and for a final rehearsal of what you intend to deliver and how.

Finally, consider the pre-meeting, a phenomenon identified by Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn and Mary Davis Holt (authors of Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking That Block Women’s Paths to Power) as something women in particular neglect at their peril.

Their research demonstrates that while female executives arrive and leave meetings bang on time, their male colleagues use the time outside the meeting room door to connect, network, and discuss the items on the agenda. “We’ve found that men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. They arrive at meetings early in order to get a good seat and chat with colleagues, and they stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on their minds.”



It is in these “meetings before meetings” that “much of the real work happens”. “Men are really good at the pre-meeting…This is their preparation.” It might be worth building in buffer time before and after meetings to ensure you’re in the thick of any pre or evaluative meeting discussions – you never know how useful they might be to your career.


Time for some light relief?

Watch David Grady’s comedic send up of meeting cultures below, and, further down the page, his rousing TED Talk on the subject of why mindless acceptance syndrome must stop: