Is “better meetings” an oxymoron?


I’m probably one of the few people who enjoy meetings. But it’s a very specific type of meeting that I enjoy: mentoring entrepreneurs. What makes these meetings so enjoyable:

  • They are scheduled on demand by the entrepreneur. I dislike so-called “standing meetings” that is meetings on a regular schedule, not meetings at which everyone stands up. The problem with standing meetings is often there is nothing to meet about – but people attend because they should and much time is wasted.
  • The number of attendees is kept small. Typically no more than two or occasionally three entrepreneurs and two or three mentors, at most.
  • Every meeting has an agenda, driven by the entrepreneur. The founder always has a purpose for the meeting: they need help with something, reviewing a deal, learning how to add a partner, etc.
  • Meetings end with an assignment – for the entrepreneurs. The first order of business of these meetings is reviewing the assignment from the previous meeting. The last order of business of each meeting is developing the assignment for the founder. Assignments, homework, to do’s, whatever you want to call them, tend to focus the discussion.
  • Each meetings is recapped by the founder. These summaries get sent to the MIT VMS office, posted on the intranet, and emailed to all participants. Knowing that it’s up to the founder to recap each meeting tends to keep meetings on track. Reviewing the previous meeting summaries helps prepare for the next meeting. Summaries are also helpful to mentors and founders who miss the meeting for one reason or another.
  • Meetings are held in well-equipped conference rooms. The walls are all whiteboards, thank to special paint; every room has a video projector, there are plenty of seats available. (But at MIT, like many institutions with old buildings, it is hard to regulate the room temperature.) All mentor/founder meetings are held in the same building, same floor, though the room may vary.
  • Superb admin support is provided. The MIT Venture Mentoring Service sports well-trained, diplomatic, friendly admin assistants who can do everything from bring coffee to set up a conference call to hook up a laptop to the video projector.
  • Excellent scheduling software helps ensure attendance. VMS uses Qipo to schedule meetings. Email reminders with the objectives/agenda for the meeting are sent the day before. While it’s not encouraged, those who can not attend in person can call in.
  • All meetings are scheduled for 90 minutes flat. While occasionally we might wait for an attendee who is held up for some reason, all meetings end firmly after 90 minutes, no matter when they started.

So here’s your checklist for holding productive meetings! For more about meetings you can read the article The Science of Better Meetings by Steven G. Rogelberg in The Wall Street Journal, subtitled You can’t abolish office gatherings, but you can make them shorter, smaller and smarter with the help of recent research

Here are some valuable points from the article, many based on research:

  • In a survey last year by meetings, were cited by 47% of 3,164 workers as the top time waster at the office.
  • Keep meeting attendance small. Jeff Bezos of Amazon famously said that if it takes. more than two pizzas to feed the meeting attendees you have too many  people at the meeting.
  • To widen the scope of meetings without having too many people there you can ask those outside the meeting for their input beforehand and provide a meeting recap afterwards.
  • Sit-down meetings last 35% longer than standing meetings with no gain in effectiveness.
  • Use a count-down clock to make sure your meetings end on time, which is important in not affecting attendees’ schedules.
  • Agendas need to have clear goals and/or key questions to answer.
  • Preparation for meetings increases engagement and sense of purpose.
  • If you have problems getting the meeting agenda together, cancel it!

While not every meeting can be as stimulating as mentor/founder meetings, you can certainly do a lot to ensure that your meetings are both effective and productive. And for a fun way to teach your entire staff how best to conduct meetings, screen the video Meetings Bloody Meetings staring John Cleese of Monty Python fame.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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