We're all frustrated by pointless business meetings, so when we founded Book In A Box, my co-founder and I swore to not have them.
We ran our meetings the way that I thought start-ups did: loose, free, positive, opt-in, letting anyone speak. Because this is the opposite of corporate meeting style -- rigid, structured, long, lecturing -- it should work, right?
We succeeded in not having corporate meetings -- but we screwed up in totally different ways.
Luckily, our new CEO, JT McCormick, is an expert on running effective meetings and one of our advisors Cameron Herold is too (he literally wrote the book on the subject, "Meetings Suck").
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Cameron and JT have nearly the same philosophy of meetings, and as a result we got a master class on how to run effective business meetings. In the four months since JT took over, I have personally cut my time in meeting by 50 percent, our company meeting time is probably reduced at least that much (and they are twice as productive). This is exactly how we did it:
1. One day of the week for all departmental meetings.
When JT arrived, we had a standing all-hands meeting Monday, then four different departmental meetings, each on a different day of the week. We thought this was efficient, because it meant just one meeting a day. We were wrong.
JT made us switch to having all meetings on Monday:
"You have all your standing meetings on one day. First departmental meetings, then the day ends with your all hands, so you can express to the group collectively any insights that came up. After the all hands everyone is in execution mode the rest of the week. No more talking, just action, which is what a start-up must have."
This has the added benefit of enabling people to spend the majority of their week on a maker's schedule, versus a manager’s schedule. Paul Graham explains the concept well, but the basic idea is that having large blocks of uninterrupted time is the key to doing the type of work that entrepreneurs and start-ups do.
We thought we were helping people, but actually we were robbing them of the time to concentrate and get actual work done.
2. Every meeting must have a clear agenda.
Zach and I made the agenda of every meeting open and crowd-sourced. We thought this was a really cool way to do it. But it didn't work. JT ended this quickly:
"Many times your meeting was to understand why you were having a meeting. People would be saying, ‘Okay. What's going on? Anybody have any feedback? Anybody have anything they want to discuss? Is there an agenda?’ You don't collectively bring everybody together for a meeting to find out why to have a meeting.
Instead, one person owns the agenda for every meeting. Anyone can put something on it, but they clear it through the meeting owner. That agenda is public. You stay on topic of the actual meeting agenda. At the end of that meeting there's a takeaway, and action to be taken."
JT has a very simple four-part test for both having and running a meeting: "What is the agenda for this meeting? Why are we going to talk about it? What are the takeaways? What are the next steps, if any?"
Related: 5 Tips for Effective Team Meetings
This is so simple, but so very effective. And the best part is that it lets you cancel all sorts of meetings, makes the ones you do have hyper effective, and makes clear what you need to track.
(Cameron recommends posting the cost of each meeting to keep people aware and on task. We don't do this anymore because JT keeps our meeting schedule so tight, but you can use this Meeting Cost Calculator to figure it out.)
3. Everyone must speak up.
Zach and I often found ourselves lecturing and pontificating during meetings. We didn't intend to do this, but it always happened. JT quickly diagnosed our problem, and reversed it:
"You're trying to show everyone how smart you are by telling them everything, even what they should be thinking. This is why it feels like you're lecturing. Instead, give them the basic information, then ask if there are any questions, and then shut the hell up. Give people space to answer.
Also, you need to make it very clear that all discussion of this topic must happen in the meeting. If you disagree, or have an insight, or want to contribute, the time to discuss this is during the meeting, not after, because if you don't, it's not going to get fixed.
You must absolutely not allow the 'wait to talk in smaller groups after the meeting' mentality that leads to no feedback in meetings, and decisions being made in small groups in the dark instead of the whole group in the light. This has to be part of the culture of the company."
JT was totally right about this. We even integrated these principles into our company culture, and it has really worked -- there is virtually no "water cooler" discussion anymore. Any discussion or debate goes on in public, in the meetings where it's designated and everyone engages.
4. Delegate meeting leadership.
A big part of having engaging meetings is to actually delegate who runs the meeting. Instead of always having the "bosses" run the meetings, JT now has lots of different people running meetings:
"When I have someone else run a meeting, it not only engages them in that meeting, but it makes them more engaged in meetings they don't run. That's because now they're thinking about every meeting in terms of 'How would I run this?' They are judging every meeting now as a potential meeting leader.
A huge part of having great meetings is having everyone see themselves as a leader at some level, and the only way to do that is to actually let them lead meetings."