The Meeting Rules of Engagement

Ever arranged or attended a meeting where you thought everyone could be more productive? You're not alone. Frankly, we have all been there.

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to be invited by Google to Google in Silicon Valley, and during a walk inside Googleplex I passed by a note on the wall with the headline “Better Meetings!”, which took my immediate attention. I was like; if Google have issues with meetings, oh dear, then we all have.

So I took it a few steps further, and made the Meeting Rules of Engagement, which you are now reading.

Wop! I’ve also made a 100% royalty-free, no-strings-attached PDF-download to print out and stick up on the wall of all your meeting rooms! Download-link to the PDF can be found in the bottom of this article — just be sure to read the full article first! :)

Fancy-looking, most likely super-boring meeting, in smashing meeting room loaded with meaningless fuzz. Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

During my 20+ years in the awesome world of business, as a rookie employee, regular employee, department manager, consultant, founder, customer, supplier, advisor, investor, CEO, CTO and what not, I have both attended and organized my fair share of meetings, roughly calculated to 5000+ over the years. Surely I have wasted someone's precious time more than once.

I've more than once been bleeding in my ears over horrible sound quality from remote participants, and over the years learned how to interpret and assemble together bits and pieces of noise as if it was coming straight from Apollo 11, to become somewhat understandable vocal sound from other human beings.

I've listened to dozens of dogs barking and kids screaming or singing all variants of Baby Shark in the not-far-enough-away background.

I am a navy seal veteran in all technical parts of meetings, from getting contact with any projector or monitor (indeed, I have received applause multiple times for conquering the HDMI), and configuring in- and outbound sound settings of any remote meeting applications (surely, Skype for Business banned for lifetime, I have).

I have rejected meetings I felt wouldn't bring any value to the table. I’ve ruthlessly abandoned ongoing meetings. Jez, I have even attended online meetings in online meetings.

So, with that said, I thought it was finally time to share this enormous amount of knowledge and experience with everyone having been in any similar situations, and to help your organization to finally take the wasted time back and to move over to organize and attend great meetings.

But before we dive into the fantastic solutions, lets take a few minutes off to watch this fantastic conference call in real life by Tripp and Tyler:

What you will learn in this article.

  1. What a meeting actually is (doh)
  2. How to arrange optimal meetings
  3. How to be a great participant in meetings

So, what is a meeting? I mean, what is it _really_?

The word “meeting” is the definition of “when two or more people meet by chance or arrangement, or when an assembly of people meet for a particular purpose”.

As the definition states, a meeting does not need to happen in a fancy meeting-room with a whiteboard, projector and post-it notes.

The most efficient meetings are when simply walking over to your colleagues, discussing the issue, concluding, and going back to your desk and putting the conclusion into action.

The most efficient meetings are when simply walking over to your colleagues and discuss the issue. Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

This might sound obvious, but it is important to distinguish between a meeting and a presentation, as people react different upon being invited to a meeting versus to a presentation.

If the main purpose is to gather people to inform about something extremely important that they all will be directly impacted on, then simply name the invite “Important information for everyone”, and do not use the word “meeting” anywhere.

Using the right wording will also help keep people more engaged.

It is important to keep in mind meetings aren’t purely black-painted, toxic stuff like the Basecamp founders’ REWORK book states.

More often it is way more efficient to discuss and to conclude on something by voice, mainly because most of us talk much faster than we write, and that written discussions often tend to end up in a never-ending “ping-pong”-state, being way less productive than simply meet up, discuss, and conclude.

The meetings issues

Yet still, meetings can be.. ok, let's just use the term toxic, then. Fine by me.

According to Google, about 30% of the meetings their employees attend are reported as “less than good use of time” (a.k.a “I should have spent the meeting-time on something more productive).

Google employees spend a staggering 40 million hours in meetings each year, accounting for around 26% of their working time!

And this is Google, which surely focuses a lot on keeping their meetings as efficient as possible — and so we can just assume most other companies are much worse.

  • The meeting isn't needed (doh)
  • The meeting-organizer hasn't prepared a clear agenda, making the meeting very un-productive, and more like a semi-social talk
  • Participants don't show up prepared
  • There are way too many participants in the meeting
  • A few people (normally the extroverts) do 95% of the talking, while — funny as it sounds— the introverts more often are the ones with the right answers
  • No action is taken post-meeting (after the meeting), which basically makes the meeting just be a semi-wasted meet-and-greet thing
  • People are attending the meeting, but in practice they are “multi-tasking” and not listening, further missing lots of valuable information being discussed, hence; keep the meetings short (like, really short)

In most cases a meeting is not required to conclude on an issue, so unless it clearly will bring value to the discussion and end up with a great conclusion, don't send out the invite, and simply resolve the issue.

Don’t have frequent meetings unless the matter is truly urgent. Instead, resolve the issues.

So, if you still need a meeting — here is the solution to great meetings!

The all-mighty solution to organizing and attending great meetings is split up in two; 1) recommended rules of engagement for the meeting organizers, and 2) the rules for the meeting participants.

I strongly recommend both parties to read and learn the rules of both sides.

1. Rules of engagement for meeting-organizers

Ok, so here is the research-backed (from People Analytics, among others, like myself) tips for meeting-organizers to make good use of everyone's time.

The solution is three-fold; What to do BEFORE the meeting, what to do DURING the meeting, and what to do AFTER the meeting.

  • Prepare a clear agenda that articulates the purpose / goals
  • Less [people] is more. Only invite people who strictly need to be there, and make roles and responsibilities clear in advance. 2–6 participants should be more than enough for most types of meetings
  • Share the agenda 1–3 days in advance of the meeting
  • Cancel the meeting if it isn't needed any longer
  • Keep the meeting as short as possible. 0–15 minutes meetings keep +90% of the participants' full attention, while this drop like a rock to around 60% for 45+ minutes meetings
  • Start the meeting by clearly state the meeting goals
  • Capture key points, action items, and decisions from the meeting
  • Focus the meeting on the agenda
  • Keep people engaged by giving all attendees a chance to speak (do not forget any remote participants)
  • Keep track of the time
  • Make sure to lead inclusive meetings
  • Don't use acronyms or nonsense words hard to understand
  • Pro-actively allow for attendees to leave as you see they will not bring any further value to the table
  • Stop the meeting immediately when the purpose / goals has been met. Don't waste the remaining 12 minutes with small-talk
  • Send out key decisions, action items and the notes if needed
  • Schedule necessary follow-up meetings with relevante context
  • Follow-up on action items in the agenda
  • Check the need/frequency for recurring meetings

2. Rules of engagement for meeting participants

Being invited to a meeting means the meeting-organizer think you will be able to bring value to the meeting/discussion and further helpful in concluding on the meeting goals.

This means being invited to a meeting should be interpreted as
Ah, cool, people think I am an extra valuable resource!
and not,
Damn, not another meeting! I hate this job!

Stay engaged during the meeting — or leave it. Photo by Headway on Unsplash
  • Read through the agenda, and make sure you understand most of it
  • Briefly study the list of the other participants, and — if you feel any of them can give the answers to the relevant topics you are invited for, simply take a quick talk with them and juggle around who of you shall attend
  • Reject the invite (with a brief and clear reason) if you cannot- or should not attend
  • Show up a few minutes in advance if physically attending. If attending remotely, make sure your mic is working together with whatever medium your company is using 5–10 minutes in advance so that you have time for the regular Sound Settings debugging
  • Stay engaged throughout the meeting. Put away your laptop and phone, unless you make your notes on it, or check relevant stuff being discussed
  • Unless you are very tired or have a serious back pain, stand upright during the meeting. This will both make you more engaged- and more eager to get the agenda settled and actions agreed upon
  • Let the meeting-organizer take care of making notes
  • If attending remotely, actively use the mute button when not talking, and keep the dog or children on distance if you are attending via your home office (people love both dogs and children, except during meetings)
Legendary video of awesome children interrupting a super-serious BBC interview with a professor.
  • Do your fair part of the talking. It is fully allowed (and not rude) to break into someone's talking if you feel what you have on your mind is a better response
  • Leave the meeting if you feel you don't bring any further value to the table. This one is actually very important, and as with the previous step it is not rude in any way to leave an ongoing meeting. Simply break into the talk, and in a nice and quiet tone say the sentence “You guys will figure out the remaining parts of this perfectly well without me, so I will head back to my desk and continue on my other stuff.
  • Actively make notes for your action items to do after the meeting. And remember that tons of research has clearly proven that writing notes by a pen on paper to a much higher degree makes you remember them later
  • Take your time to read through the summary sent from the meeting-organizer, and let him or her know if there are important missing parts
  • Make sure to put your action items into.. well, action. A meeting with no action items done is a total waste
  • Always report your completed actions to either the meeting organizer or any other relevant resource
  • Respect your colleagues — stay true to deadlines

To sum it all up

Meetings are indeed an important part of the work life as it brings together great knowledge from many angles and furthermore the most optimal value to the table to make the best conclusions to put into action.

Bottom line, simply be sure to keep your meetings efficient and fun (life is short) by following the above rules of engagement.

Great, got it. Now, where is the PDF download?

Note: The PDF-format is A4, which is European standard (I am Norwegian / European), so if you are located in the US or somewhere else with weird paper formats, be sure to cross your fingers before hitting the Print button.

Father, nerd, entrepreneur, writer, investor and what not.

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