The problem with meetings

Chris Nicol
5 min readJun 29, 2017

When I look back on the meetings I’ve had over the years, far too many have been a waste of time and effort. Don’t get me wrong, some were life changing, with insights and ideas that have shaped the products and teams I’ve worked on and even shaped myself. Most though, were draining. Whether it was because there was no plan, execution, outcome or participation, they just didn’t have the right ROI. Of course some are just plain productive. A chance to get to inbox zero is an opportunity that I can’t complain about.

I would be surprised if you haven’t had similar experiences. The thing is, a lot of meetings are necessary. There are tons of challenges that go along with them. The needs of each meeting are often different. The format’s effectiveness is reliant on the leaders and participates of the meeting. Add in remote workers and you have a whole new set of challenges, even more if everyone isn’t remote. And so the list goes on. Many of these challenges or problems have brilliant products to solve them. Lots of startups are taking innovative approaches to solve many of these problems in new ways.

Still, something is missing because in my experience, meetings aren’t consistently productive or even valuable.

Some aspects are improving

Many components of meetings are improving. Scheduling, for example, doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Right now, if you’re swapping emails back and forth trying to find a time that works … please stop. There’s a better way to live. Products like Calendly, FindTime, Accuity Scheduling, Doodle and others make scheduling a breeze. Some startups are also using bots and AI to help you manage your calendar.

Remote meetings also have their challenges, but products like WebEx, Google Hangouts, Slack, Zoom are improvements over conference calls. However, some formats of meeting are challenging, even with these tools. I’ve yet to have a good Design Sprint work remotely. If you have, please leave a comment.

So what’s the problem with meetings?

Often meetings aren’t all they could be, mainly, because they lack structure or clarity.

People walk into a room, talk around in circles, listen for their chance to speak and leave wondering what the decision was.

Without context, a clear process and especially explicit outcomes meetings are destined fall short of the productivity they should achieve.

Even then you still need participates to … well … participate. Personalities are hard. People don’t communicate or contribute in the same ways. You have to control the outgoing folks who are always ready to steal the show while encouraging the quite, thoughtful people that need a push to express their opinions. Along with everything else in that spectrum. You need good leaders and facilitators to guide the personalities through the process.

So that’s the reality I’ve experienced. Meetings without clear structure and good facilitation will struggle to be effective.

Tactical Meetings

Recently I’ve experienced both good structure and great facilitators. The company I work for is in the process of rolling out a management system called Holacracy. With Holacracy comes a concept of “tactical” & “governance” meetings. These meetings have very specific outcomes, structure and software to support them.

Let’s take tactical meetings as an example. These meetings have a very specific purpose. This purpose is to align teams on the tactical work and provide a venue for team members to resolve concerns or issues. It also provides a space for members to voice opinions, ideas or news. They have the following steps that each meeting flows through:

  • Opening round is a chance for everyone to focus and be present
  • Checklist is a review of weekly, monthly and quarterly items that the group needs to review. These items help with accountability and behaviour.
  • Metrics is a review of specific metrics that the group is measuring to achieve goals or behaviour.
  • Open Agenda, this is where anyone can bring up an agenda item they want to discuss. This time is well defined for everyone and provides a space for people to resolve issues. Most items will result in actions or projects.
  • Closing Round is a chance to reflect on the meeting and for everyone to have a final thought.

This is all supported by either Glassfrog or Holaspirit as product solutions that walk attendees through each step of that meeting’s format. It allows for agendas to be built on the fly and actions or projects to be captured and delivered to attendees post meeting. It also calls for a specific facilitator to be named. The software actually helps provide clear, effective guidelines for facilitators, making the role of a facilitator easier to execute.

Over the last few months I’ve been a part of some really productive meetings using this approach. However, that’s just one format, there are countless other formats of meetings that lack a product based solution.

Future of Meetings

If we need to have a meeting, we want to have a productive one, with engaged attendees. We need meetings that deliver on explicit outcomes and move teams forward. To accomplish this, meetings need clear structure and strong leaders. The right technology can provide and promote all of those things.

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time … Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.

Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter & Medium.

As a product guy, that leaves me with a feeling of excitement. There’s an opportunity here for a product that can provide an improved experience around a variety of meeting styles. One that can make facilitation easier and allow everyone to contribute. A product that can deliver a consistent meeting experience that makes teams more productive, whether they’re local or remote. That’s exciting. Especially if it could support asynchronous work flows.

Meetings are problematic; too many companies and teams are having ineffective and wasteful meetings. Some companies are just trying to do away them with completely. But is there another solution? Perhaps we don’t have to throw out meetings altogether. There is an opportunity here to revolutionize the way people meet.

Note: There are some products out there, but none that I’ve seen that are revolutionizing meetings. If you know of something, or have an opinion on meetings, I’d love to hear your comments. Especially if your company is trying to get rid of meetings or if you’re working with a remote team.