How to design a better meeting

If you're going to lead, you might as well start by adding value to the gatherings that you attend

Updated May 23, 2019

If we're going to have a conversation about meetings, let's start by addressing the giant elephant in the room.

Everyone hates meetings.

We've all been in meaningless gatherings that are a drain on everyone associated — especially your company. Even worse, regardless of the quality of meeting, they all cost money. So much so that the Harvard Business Review created a meeting cost calculator specifically to keep us from holding sessions we don't need.

While meetings might be a curse to some, they should be seen as an opportunity for designers because adding value is a key component of our job. It's literally what we do.

Before you scurry away thinking I am referring to other kinds of designers — know that I'm specifically talking to you.

If you're looking for a way you can have an impact on the organization you are part of, there is no better way to get started than improving how meetings where you work.

Some might be confused by the idea that a designer should focus on improving how meetings run, but designers spend up to half their time in different types of meetings. Every user interview and product test that designers conduct are meetings that must fulfill specific criteria to be deemed successful.

A good meeting includes but is not limited to:

  • Being held on time
  • Have a clear agenda
  • Gathering insight from participants
  • Produce properly scoped next steps

Can you imagine sitting across from a user unprepared to conduct a test or interview? That would be a waste of time for both parties, yet that's what often occurs when we gather with our peers for a meeting.

We're moving toward 2020, and many designers have gained a seat at the table (and if you haven't - keep pushing). Now it's time to start applying the external expertise you've cultivated with users to our internal gatherings.

Preparation isn't optional

While you wouldn't share an outline of your meeting for a user interview, you would undoubtedly produce a document that would keep the session on task. You should expect anyone calling a meeting to create an outline and share this document at least 24 hours in advance of the requested meeting. If this hasn't happened, cancel or move the meeting to a later date.

The level of preparation put into this document is also of importance. Too little information and there likely hasn't been enough thought put into the task at hand. In these instances, a discussion using another communication method (Slack, email) might be better than holding a meeting. Conversely, if you can produce a detailed document that is ready for approval — you probably waited too long to call for a meeting.

Unique perspectives require diversity

Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but if everyone on the meeting invite looks like you and can afford to live in the same neighborhood, you're not likely to cover much new ground.

One of the reasons I love doing user interviews is the fact that you get to listen to perspectives other than your own. Generally speaking, these are fantastic opportunities for growth. Sometimes you'll hear something you don't want to hear in these conversations — but you need to seek out this feedback to do your job better.

So look over that invite list again. Do you have the right people in the room to get the most out of the discussion? If not, make the adjustments needed and don't discount the value of bringing in people with little exposure to your project.

Diversity in the makeup of your organization is a benefit that not all groups have, so if you have it — make sure to use it.

Maintain a written record

Every meeting you attend should produce a new task for your team to complete. Want to increase the likelihood that those tasks get done?

A written record from the meeting adds a needed layer of accountability for everyone involved. It helps track what your team discussed and who was responsible for taking the next steps. In some workplaces, these action items will find their way into a ticketing system, but you'll still need to refer to your notes to make sure you are correctly scoping the task and assigning it to the correct party. Additionally, written records are particularly helpful with ongoing meetings, such as weekly staff meetings or your 1-on-1 with a boss or colleague where we often spend time reviewing progress and roadblocks since the prior gathering.

The document should exist in an easily accessible location, shared with all parties involved. Platforms like Google Docs or Dropbox Paper are ideal for this. Just as important, the upkeep of the document should rotate among team members so that nobody becomes the default secretary for the group. We all know how to type, so we all get to participate.

Speaking of participation...

Make room for everyone to speak

Ever been in a meeting where there are eight people but only two were talking? As a self-identifying loudmouth, I've been in such meetings — often as one of the only people talking. While these situations are unfortunate, they're generally easy to fix if you address the issue with the offending party — away from the rest of your team.

Comparatively speaking, it's much harder to get those less comfortable with speaking up to do so. The good news is that you can make it much easier for these situational introverts to participate by providing the right platform to communicate.

Whether you arm your teammates with three votes to distribute among a series of topics for possible discussion or ask them to write their concerns on sticky notes and place their notes on a board (physical or virtual), you can provide ways for people to take the first steps to communicate. Doing this creates space for new ideas to emerge and allows your teammates to express themselves without fear of rebuke in front of their peers.

If anyone is remote, everyone is remote

If you want to establish an us vs. them mentality in your workplace quickly, invite your remote workers to a meeting but forget to provide them with a way to participate in the meeting itself. As more companies become hybrid workplaces, it makes sense for everyone — including those in a central office — to join meetings virtually if anyone is participating remotely.

Tools like Zoom, Miro, Figma, and Google Docs provide an ample toolkit for running productive virtual meetings, and the single camera perspective for all attendees emphasizes team over individuals.

Want to elevate your remote game? A good headset, microphone, and LED light can make all the difference.

Timing and topic matters

Aligning the items we tackle with our internal clocks is fundamental to unlocking peak performance. I've written about how to find your chronotype here. While it's impossible to know the chronotype of your entire team, understand meetings scheduled for important decisions should happen at a different time of day than your less critical gatherings.

If you have a bunch of night owls, shift that decision discussion to the afternoon and vice versa if you're dealing with a group of early birds.

Are you stuck with a group in-between? Alter the form of your gathering and simple have a roll-call. Give people 30 seconds to report what they have been doing and what they are working on next. Everyone gets a turn, and because of that, everyone is paying attention and alert. Bonus, by limiting the amount of time each person has to report in, you can get back to work in just a few minutes.

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To recap, only hold meetings only once a clear agenda is available. All gatherings should include a diverse audience to ensure unique perspectives are present, and steps should be taken to enable all voices present to be heard. Produce a written account of the event, and it's likely that the best meeting room is a virtual one. Finally, aligning time and topic are ideal for getting the best out of your team.

All this may sound like a significant lift, but if you take these steps gradually over time you'll unlock the value of your gatherings and build team morale for the projects you are tackling together - and that's certainly worth the effort.

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