When Your Meeting is Getting Nothing Done

This is the sixth time you’ve looked at your watch since the meeting started. How much longer is this going to take? Most people are muted or have turned off their videos. All you see are off-white letters on a series of black boxes. Yet another colleague goes on a tangent, but nobody tries to get the conversation back on track. Finally, the meeting is coming to an end, yet there is no concrete agreement on who does what next. Someone vaguely concludes, “let me know if anyone has any other questions.” As you drop from the meeting room, your calendar notification flies open: your next meeting starts in 5 min. Here we go again.

We’re sure you feel our pain. We often sit through meetings for hours at a time, unable to get any real work done. Even more painful, these meetings rarely produce anything.

As we try to wrap our heads around returning to work, most companies are considering hybrid models of some days working from home, others in the office. Regardless of the structure, meetings are sticking around. Let’s talk about ways to make them productive, and may we dare say, engaging?

What are you deciding on?

First off, why do we dislike meetings so much? Think about your meetings and be brutally honest whether your meetings are suffering from:

  • No or slow decision-making
  • No clear decision-making process
  • Meetings about meetings because decisions aren’t made
  • Lack of real debate or sharing of opinions
  • Over-reliance on consensus
  • Redundancy – “Couldn’t this have been emailed?”

Before diving into the best practices of engaging meetings, it’s important to spend extra time on decision-making. Decision-making is what propels us forward to get things done. According to McKinsey, it helps to understand the kind of decision that needs to be made. Is it a:

  1. Big-bet decision: Infrequent, high risk, will affect the shape of the business, and has an unclear right or wrong. Examples: deciding whether to move the company headquarters, or determining which new product to focus on. Big-bet decisions are made by the leadership team and board. The key to big-bet decisions is to instigate a lot of debate. You want to hear all opinions. Make some people take on a devil’s advocate role. If someone is adamant against the decision, then have them argue in favor of it. Big-bet decisions will often require several meetings as you debate, pore through data, and run through a bunch of “What if” scenarios.
  2. Cross-functional decisions: Frequent, often high-risk, and highly collaborative. Example: the development of a therapeutic drug from idea generation to consumer use. These decisions are often made by senior leaders of various functions, with input from employees who would do the day-to-day work. The key to success is to have well-defined processes, including clear objectives, measures, timelines, and targets, making sure everyone understands the inputs/outputs at each step, who is responsible, and checklists for each step.
  3. Delegated decisions: Frequent, low-risk. Examples: designing a bonus structure or choosing a branding vendor. These decisions are delegated to a person or a working team.

Once you’ve figured out the type of decision to be made, the decision-maker(s) needs to be assigned and announced. Decision-makers speed up the process, but be aware that some employees may scoff at the idea at first.

How to avoid Frankenbabies

Why do they scoff? Mostly because everyone wants a voice, vote, and/or veto power. Although employees may be skeptical in assigning decision-maker(s) initially, they’ll soon see that it can result in faster and better decisions. Decision-maker(s) prevent “Frankenbabies,” a word coined by a client. What is a Frankenbaby? It’s when everyone in a meeting feels like they have a say, a vote, and veto power. In an effort to accommodate everyone’s ideas, a solution is crafted that turns out to be a real monster that NO ONE is happy with.

To prevent this, announce a decision-maker in advance and ask them who they will need to speak with and what they will need to do to make an informed decision. Chances are, the folks in the room will be interviewed, they just won’t make the final decision. It is important that everyone feels heard. Once a decision is made, the decision-maker would announce the decision by first describing the context AND the process used to make the decision.

And the final critical piece about decision-making? Getting commitment. You’re NOT looking for consensus, and not everyone may be happy with the decision. The key is to get commitment. One of our favorite Amazon leadership principles is “Disagree and Commit.” You should welcome heated debates and people having the backbone to hold differing opinions until the very end. It should be expected that once the decision is made, however, everyone will commit to it wholeheartedly. To create accountability, the meeting facilitator should go around the room and ask each person if they are committed to the decision. If everyone was able to state their opinions leading up to the decision and feels they were acknowledged, then you shouldn’t have a problem getting commitment.

Make Meetings Great Again

Okay, let’s move on to leading engaging and effective meetings. We have several tips:

Is this meeting necessary? Look through all of your meetings. Just because you have a two-hour team meeting scheduled every other week, is it necessary? Can they be shorter? Imagine if this meeting had to be cut in half, can you still make it work? If so, cut it in half. Are there any redundant parts that can be covered by email? Are there meetings you should be having that you didn’t have pre-COVID?

Manage the number of participants. Meeting attendees should be adding value. Rule: NO tourists! Tourists are folks who want to be in the meeting, usually because they want to feel important or know about the content. Tourists can grind meetings to a halt if they think they have a vote or veto power. Instead of allowing tourists, think about what information will be helpful to them. When the meeting is over, determine which information to disseminate, to whom, and by when.

Send agendas and pre-reading material. Sending information in advance is especially helpful for introverts and employees who need time to think before they speak. They may want to look at additional information or form questions in their minds. They’ll come to meetings more prepared.

  • Agendas: Make these action-oriented, e.g. “Debriefing first pilot plant run,” or “Brainstorming to discover our next product,” or “Developing company rollout plan of the new bonus structure.” Action-oriented agenda items not only tell attendees what you’ll be covering, but it will move their minds to action. One client replaced agenda items with agenda questions, like “What great product should we produce next?” This gets the cogs turning in our minds and excited for dialogue.
  • Pre-reading material: Send out all data, info, etc. ahead of time. If you’re going to spend a meeting reading a slide deck word for word, that is an unnecessary meeting. If attendees can read in advance, then you can have lively dialogue about issues and questions that came out of the reading. What if attendees don’t read the material in advance? You may try what Jeff Bezos has been known to do, make everyone sit together and read the material silently at the beginning of the meeting. It may seem awkward and make some people antsy enough that they’ll get the idea and read material beforehand next time. Or perhaps it will turn into part of the meeting agenda, “Read material silently.”
  • Designate meeting roles: This is KEY to making meetings hum along.

    Facilitator: The most important role. So important, we recommend that you get all employees trained in facilitation. Great facilitators:

    • Encourage opinions – making sure quiet people get a voice, respectfully quieting down some of the loud voices, and ensuring that employees working from home (who are often forgotten about) are seen and heard.
    • Summarize thoughts, ideas, and input.
    • Stay on topic – not letting conversations stray from the agenda.
    • Move meetings along – being aware of covering topics while staying on time.
    • Establish accountability – not ending a meeting until everyone knows: What you/we are going to do?
    • How you/we are going to do it? – If people aren’t volunteering, the facilitator volunteers people.
    • How will we know it’s getting done (check-in dates and deadlines)?
    • BONUS TIP: Increase engagement by assigning a different facilitator for each meeting. It’s a terrific way to develop leadership skills, and employees will develop empathy for each other if they know that they’ll all have to do it at some point.

    Decision-maker: Assigned in advance or announced in the meeting.

    Notetaker: The facilitator is doing a lot, and notetaking isn’t one of them. Assign a different person who can type up summaries and accountability items in real time. Determine who should receive the notes and get them sent out ASAP.

    Timekeeper (optional): If you find that meetings often run over and/or you don’t get through all of the agenda items.

  • Cameras on. Shouldn’t really be an option. Cameras allow us to see non-verbals, e.g. boredom, confusion, frustration, excitement. Nonverbals often convey more than words do. Having cameras on also shows that you respect others enough to engage. When we engage, we build trust, and trust is needed for collaboration and delegation.
  • Accountability. Leave 5-10 minutes at the end of a meeting to establish accountability (see section under Facilitator’s responsibilities).

Now you’ve read all about effective meetings, we’ll leave you a little homework assignment:

As you begin thinking about returning to work, now is the perfect time to meet with your team to discuss what they liked about working from home, and what can be carried forward? How will you do it? And knowing they’ll be returning to work, even if just 2-3 days/week, what changes would be helpful?

See if you can make a short, sweet, and engaging meeting out of this topic. Remember: send in an agenda, assign the right roles to the right persons, and no Frankenbabies!


Next topic: you may be thinking about changing jobs after having your life turned upside down by the pandemic. Maybe you have relocated to a new place; maybe you’ve discovered new interests during this time; maybe you just no longer feel challenged by your current job. How do you know if it’s a good time for a job, or even career change?

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