The Challenge: Runaway Meetings 

boring meeting

Image courtesy of Ambro at

One of the top workplace gripes is too much time spent in meetings. Specifically, workers complain about long meetings that accomplish little, meetings that get off track and long-winded colleagues.

The Question: How Can You Keep Meetings In Check?

One way is simply to cut down on meetings. Before you schedule that meeting, ask yourself if a meeting is necessary. Is there a more efficient way to get something done?

Consider This

“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

—John Kenneth Galbraith

Try This: Stay In Control

To accomplish more in less meeting time, employ these eight strategies:

1) Define Your Outcome

Be clear on the outcome you want from the meeting; design the meeting agenda and process to achieve that. What do you want to come away with at the end of the meeting? Ideas to investigate further? An understanding of issues? Changed behaviors? A specific decision? A plan? A process?

2) Prepare to Move

Prepare people, prepare information and prepare process so you can move quickly.

Let people know what to expect and how to prepare. Provide an agenda, participation list and guidelines, including time limits and formats for presentations. Specify expected preparation. If appropriate, clue participants in on big issues to give them time to think them through carefully or talk them through with others in advance.

What’s needed to make a decision? Gather and prepare information in an easily digestible format. Agree with higher-ups on direction and decision criteria. Check in with gatekeepers, people who can block you or say “no”, to make sure you are set up to be able to move ahead. Obtain approvals and resources you will need.

Different types of meetings require different processes. Given the outcome you want, what process will get you there smoothly? What format will your output take? What potential obstacles or issues can you anticipate? Plan your agenda and process to achieve your outcome the most efficient way.

3) Ask, “Who Really Needs to Be Here?”

There are times when it’s ideal to include a lot of people in a meeting. For instance, “town hall” type meetings allow you to get in front of a large number of people and hear a broad range of opinions. By expanding meeting participation, you may be providing an opportunity for participants to learn by listening to others. You could be accessing greater diversity of experience. You might be helping to create a more inclusive community.

Generally, though, don’t involve more people in the meeting than needed. The amount of time it will take to come to a decision will be in proportion to the number of people involved.

One question to ask before inviting more people is, “Will more people make us smarter or dumber?” Sometimes involving more people dumbs down the process by slowing things down unnecessarily or leading to “group-think”, where the easiest path is to just go with the crowd.

This is not to say you shouldn’t get broad input for your decision. There are a number of ways you might solicit input from people who will have a stake in it before your official meeting. Ask. Survey. Hold a “Meeting Before the Meeting” for a committee or a “town hall” to gather broader input.

If all you’ll need from a person is a discrete specific reaction or piece of information during the meeting, consider asking them to be “on call” to give you that, rather than asking them to sit through the entire meeting. Contact them during a break or ask them to step in at the appropriate time.

4) Consider Specialized Help

To accomplish more in less time in important meetings, consider bringing in a meeting facilitator. A facilitator manages the process, while allowing you to focus on the meeting content. A good facilitator will help you design and set-up an effective meeting process, keep everyone focused, manage the time, ensure good participation, move the process forward, record output and define any follow-up process—all while remaining neutral on the content and decisions.

5) Don’t Punish Good Behavior

Don’t punish the people who showed up on time by delaying the start of the meeting and then running over to accommodate chronic latecomers. Don’t punish the people who came prepared by going over material people should have read before the meeting. Don’t punish good listeners by repeating information people missed because they were talking or texting.

Some of this may require reshaping your meeting culture. Let people know the ground rules. We won’t have a meeting unless one is needed. We expect you to arrive prepared. We’ll start on time. To keep the meeting as short as possible, we ask for your full attention.

6) Be Ready to Control Runaways

Got colleagues who likes to hear themselves talk? Consider using one of these techniques to keep meeting hogs under control:

  • Use nonverbal language to discourage them. Limit eye contact. Move toward someone else.
  • Impose time limits on comments.
  • Ask for others to contribute.
  • Thank them and redirect the conversation.

When tempted to go off course on a different issue, put it in a “parking lot”. That is, acknowledge it’s importance by putting it on a list of issues to discuss at a different time. Be ready steer the meeting back on course.

7) Lead the Way 

Say what you want. Show what you want. Help people learn how to contribute productively by modeling productive input. Show that you’ve done your homework. Use constructive language. Turn gripes into requests or solutions by reflecting them back as questions, such as “What would work here?”, “What would you suggest?” or “What’s the request?”

8) Frustrated? Take a Break

If your meeting is stalled, consider stopping to do a quick check-in. For instance, you might say, “I want to pause for a few minutes to take our temperature. Let’s quickly go around the room—let us know in 25 words or less where you stand at this point.” That may provide some direction on how best to proceed.

Another option is to take a break or table your issue and agree to come back to it at a specific time in the future, noting specific steps that need to be taken in the interim.

Apply & Evaluate: What Do You Notice?

Try these strategies in your next round of meetings. Then notice:

  • What worked for your group?
  • What else can you do to improve your group’s meeting productivity?
  • What, if any, shifts are needed in your culture to support effective meeting behaviors?

Take Action: Now What?

Remember that process can be as important as content in determining your meeting outcome. Watch effective meeting facilitators and leaders. Learn techniques for running specific types of meetings and continue to improve this important leadership skill.

©New Century Leadership LLC 2015