Part 1: What creates shitty meetings?
Before discussing how to run efficient meetings that don’t suck, we should start by identifying what makes a meeting shitty in the first place.
There are many ways to create inefficiency in meetings. From my observations, here are the main culprits.
- No one knows who “owns” the meeting. That is, no one knows who is responsible for leading the meeting and giving context to attendees on what pre-work is expected from them before the meeting begins.
- The meeting is a standing recurring event in everyone’s calendar, but it no longer serves a purpose. Many blue moons ago, there was a reason this recurring meeting was scheduled. It is no longer necessary. Yet, no one has bothered to speak up to question whether the meeting is really necessary or not.
- There is no meeting agenda. Everyone shows up and it becomes a brainstorming session or “jam” session that has no specific outcome. It’s performative, “pretty” work to feel productive without producing results.
- There’s little to no moderation. Therefore, the loudest voices in the room are able to hijack the conversation and talk about things that may not be relevant, while the quietest sit there wondering why they’re wasting their time sitting in that meeting, rather than, say, getting a sandwich at the local deli. (Surely, that would be far better use of time.)
- There’s no time-boxing of discussion topics (see moderation.) Meetings that should take no more than thirty minutes end up dragging on for an hour — or more. All because no one sets a timer on how long to spend on each topic before moving on and taking the conversation async.
- No one is held accountable to action items agreed upon in the previous meeting. As a result, barely anything ever gets done. Or, even worse yet, no action items are agreed upon at all. Everyone walks out of the meeting thinking, “That was such a productive discussion! ...so, what now?” Sure, it might have been productive discussion. But are there “next steps”?
- No one solicits feedback for the meeting or the meeting owner. As a result, the same mistakes get made, over and over again.
Luckily, all of these problems have simple solutions. (Simple in concept — implementing can be difficult, but the payout is incredibly rewarding if done successfully.)
Part 2: The anatomy of a good meeting
All good meetings have the following pieces. In fact, I think no meeting should ever occur without these components.
- A clear meeting owner who commits to being a good moderator, and is the DRI of the meeting and its outcome.
- Explicit pre-work that everyone has opted into, if any (such as reading or writing ahead of time.) If even one person does not commit to doing pre-work, then the meeting owner cannot force everyone to do it because this will create resentment towards the one person who shows up unprepared.
- A clear desired outcome of the meeting that is reemphasized at the beginning of the meeting by the meeting owner.
- An agenda with time boxes that all attendees can easily follow, and that the meeting owner agrees to enforce. The meeting owner might opt to outsource timekeeping to someone else. This is fine, but the other person has to agree to taking on the role.
- Action items that have been pulled out from the meeting and displayed in a very visible place for accountability.
- Feedback at the end for specifically the meeting owner (what they can do to improve as a meeting owner) and for the meeting itself (was it worth the time).
These components solve each of the problems listed in Part 1. See below.
❌ Problem: There is no meeting owner.
✅ Solution: Pick a meeting owner to pick a desired outcome for the meeting, send out pre-work, and moderate the discussion.
❌ Problem: The meeting no longer serves a purpose.
✅ Solution: Empower your team to give feedback to both the meeting owner and the meeting itself to cut out unnecessary meetings and to make necessary ones exquisite.
❌ Problem: There is no meeting agenda.
✅ Solution: Cause the meeting owner to create a meeting agenda that sticks to the desired outcome.
❌ Problem: There is no moderator.
✅ Solution: Have the meeting owner act as a moderator to guide the conversation. Encourage other participants to help by giving them explicit permission to speak up when a conversation is getting derailed from the desired outcome or meeting agenda.
❌ Problem: There is no time-boxing.
✅ Solution: Cause the meeting owner to time-box, or have them delegate that responsibility to someone who explicitly agrees to be timekeeper.
❌ Problem: There are no next actions, or next actions never get done.
✅ Solution: Create actions during the meeting that participants can accomplish by the next meeting. Make all actions visible to all participants at all times through an Actions Tracker. At the beginning of every meeting, give participants time to check off whether they’ve actually done those action items or not.
❌ Problem: No one solicits feedback for the meeting or the meeting owner.
✅ Solution: Create a dedicated time at the end for specifically the meeting owner (what they can do to improve as a meeting owner) and for the meeting itself (was it worth the time.)
Part 3: Roles: Meeting owner, participants, and observers
When you run a meeting using the Mochary Method, there are three different kinds of meeting attendees.
This person is responsible for running the meeting. Their responsibilities include...
- Ensuring everyone present knows whether there is any preparation needed ahead of time, such as filling in updates before the meeting (known as “pre-writing”), or reading other attendees’ updates (known as “pre-reading”)
- Declaring at the beginning of the meeting what the intended outcome of the meeting is
- Driving the meeting agenda: what is being discussed during the meeting and in what order
- Starting meetings on time
- Timekeeping: staying on track to get all pertinent agenda items discussed
- Focusing the conversation and eliminating anyone detracting from the intended outcome
💡 Examples of meeting owners: Department heads, managers of teams, etc.
These folks actively participate in the meeting, meaning they are encouraged and expected to speak and write during the call. Their responsibilities include...
- Completing any pre-writing or pre-reading required, per the meeting owner’s instructions
- Suggesting topics and issues relevant to the discussion for the meeting
- During the meeting, keeping the meeting’s intended outcome in mind and minimizing deviations from it
- Create action items that they have to get done, and adding those action items to their own agreements tracker.
💡 Examples of participants: active members of a department during a department meeting
These are folks who attend the meeting, but they do not engage in the meeting. This means...
- They have no pre-writing or pre-reading to do
- They cannot participate by speaking live during the meeting unless explicitly called on
- They’re allowed to read and write as much as they’d like, but the meeting owner reserves the right to skip their comments in the interest of time
- Their “intended outcome” of being present is to be informed / in the loop
💡 Examples of observers: teammates from other departments, EAs and CoSes who are there to take notes and hold execs accountable for their actions
In any given meeting, there should be no more than six active attendees. This means at maximum, there should be five active participants and one meeting owner. Otherwise, there are too many voices.
The beauty of having observers is that there can be as many as fifty observers. This is because the meeting owner does not have to go through the steps of “Heard” by repeating back to observers their comments, nor do they necessarily have to weigh observers’ voices while making Decisions. In other words, observers cost meeting owners no additional time or prep, and it promotes a spirit of transparency and knowledge-transfer in an organization.
Part 4: Example of Team Meeting
☝️ Above is an example meeting doc I’ve created to illustrate my point. Please click on it and feel free to duplicate it as a template if you’d like to use it for your own meetings.
I’ve also broken down each section of the sample meeting doc below, so you can understand exactly what happens during the meeting. Please untoggle below if you’d like to read further.
Anatomy of the sample meeting
There is an Engineering Meeting that takes place on Wednesday. Dorothy, the Head of Engineering, is the meeting owner.
Dorothy creates the meeting agenda. Here is a picture of the agenda. You can also click below under “Engineer Sync” to access the doc itself.
In the previous meeting, one team member said they could not commit to reading and writing ahead of time. Therefore, Dorothy decides that everyone will read and write together during the first part of the call. Thus, there is no pre-work needed.
Dorothy promptly starts the meeting on time to train her team that she will not wait for tardy folks to start the meeting. During the beginning of the call, all participants fill in their good things, check their actions, and fill in any topics. Dorothy gives everyone ten minutes to do this. Meanwhile, observers do not have to fill anything in, and so they can use that time to do emails, catch up on Slack messages, and so on.
Once the writing is done, the meeting begins. Through the meeting, Dorothy guides participants by saying, “Now, let’s move onto the next section, Actions...” and so on. She also screenshares so everyone can see where she is.
As they progress section by section, Dorothy keeps track of time and prioritizes the agenda accordingly. For example, if there is not enough time, Dorothy reserves the right to prioritize one topic over another (and revisit the skipped topic for next meeting if still appropriate.)
Finally, at the end, Dorothy leaves 10 minutes for her team to write their feedback down and deliver it to her verbally so she knows how to improve for future meetings. She follows Feedback - The Five As to assure her team that she values their feedback, especially critical feedback. She then declares whether or not she accepts the feedback.
Part 5: Other FAQs
Upon reading first drafts of this write-up, some of my friends had further questions. I couldn’t figure out where to put the answers, so I’ve written them here in hopes you will find their answers helpful.
What makes a good moderator?
A good moderator is unafraid of interrupting people when the meeting veers offtrack. They are able to focus the conversation on the topic at hand.
They know when it is appropriate to add extra time to a discussion and when it is time to wrap up the conversation. Not all topics hold equal value, and the moderator has context on what topics are mission-critical to the company versus nice-to-have discussions.
As soon as it becomes clear that discussion has become unproductive, good moderators won’t hesitate to ask the participants to take it offline — and they’ll even make sure there’s an action item for the participants to follow up asynchronously.
For example, they may ask a notetaker, such as an EA, to create an action reminder for those participants to discuss, and then bring back the topic in the next meeting as a “conclusion” if necessary.
Moderators should also be good at spotting when people are triggered emotionally. No productive discussion happens when people are in Fear or Anger. Therefore, the moderator should be unafraid of saying when they perceive others to have these emotions.
Moderators must be well-versed with critical frameworks such as Feedback to properly moderate the discussion. Otherwise, prickly topics (like Feedback) can quickly become like a car driving off a cliff, to which escalation to Conflict Resolution is necessary.
What makes a good meeting agenda?
This one is radical: I believe all meetings should be recorded. Therefore, the first meeting agenda item is always this reminder: Make sure this meeting is being recorded.
That way, if anyone needs to access information later on, they can quickly review it. Most companies record AHMs, but I think this should go as far as every department or cross-function team meeting, too. We do this at Mochary Method (down to the recurring 1:1) and use Perfect Recall for it.
Clearly list out roles in the meeting. Who is going to be present? Who is the meeting owner? Moderator? Who is an observer and therefore should never expect to speak during the meeting unless called on?
All topics in the agenda are relevant to the majority of active meeting participants. If not, the meeting owner is effectively wasting the time of anyone who doesn’t need to know about that topic.
All active participants should have the chance to add any topics they want to discuss. If this doesn’t happen, the meeting owner stands to “hijack” the meeting and never hear from their team, resulting in disastrous discussions/decisions and unproductive meetings overall. Give all active meeting participants the chance to add their topics in.
It’s clear whether there’s any prep work before the meeting begins. I personally think it’s best when everyone collectively reads and writes live during the first part of the meeting, but if your entire team agrees to pre-read and pre-write, and there’s someone willing to make sure that gets done, then this is of course more effective use of synchronous time.
I will also note that I’ve almost never seen any successful implementation of an entire team willing to pre-read and pre-write for an entire meeting. If there is any portion to pre-read or pre-write, my suggestion would be to focus efforts around discussions and decisions that require input. We use Threads for this.)
Agenda topics have been listed in order of priority by the meeting owner or moderator. That way, if the meeting ends before everything has been discussed, those remaining topics can be brought up in the next meeting if they’re still relevant.
Topics all have a clear discussion leader and timebox. Usually, discussion leader is whoever proposed the topic. Timebox is the estimated amount of time needed to discuss.
Feedback for the meeting and the meeting owner is collected at the end. I usually save 10 minutes of every meeting for everyone to answer the questions below. Determine which pieces of feedback are more applicable to meeting owner, and which are applicable to meeting participants.
- On a scale from 1-5, how would you rate this meeting’s effectiveness? (3=meeting expectations, 2=below expectations, 4=exceeds expectations.)
- What did you like about this meeting?
- What do you wish was different about this meeting? Try phrasing as an action, e.g.: “I wish that you would have asked John and Terry to take their discussion offline. It didn’t feel relevant to the rest of us.” Action item here: next time, moderator will be better at cutting off unnecessary conversations.
At the beginning of the next meeting, recap the feedback received from last time and what you’re doing to solve it. I pulled a clip from a Mochary Method bootcamp I ran in January that hopefully helps illustrate how we recap feedback accepted from the previous meeting. Please see: Example of recapping feedback during meetings.
What are your thoughts around pre-reading and pre-writing?
I prefer to have everyone read and write live during the meeting.
It’s far more efficient, IMO, to have everyone reading and writing at the same time to ensure that 100% of ideas are captured, than to chance someone not having done the reading and writing ahead of time because they forgot or didn’t have time to, and therefore risk missing out on great ideas.
I used to be for pre-reading and pre-writing, until I realized not everyone is an operationally-minded person. I find that those are the folks that usually have the best ideas... but they’re also the ones who don’t necessarily live, breathe, and die by their calendars.
The only things I’ll encourage pre-reading and pre-writing for are discussion topics. Here’s an example of a company-wide discussion we did asynchronously before a meeting.
Part 6: Takeaways
- Pick a meeting owner. CEOs: empower the rest of your team to lead any discussions that fall into Type 2 Decisions.
- Have no more than six people (owner included) per meeting.
- Agree on what the meeting is for (intended outcome).
- Time box discussions and follow an agenda.
- Cause everyone to be action-oriented. For more on actions, please read Bias towards action.
- Collect feedback at the end and leave time to process it live.
- For Meetings 2 and beyond, decide whether people need to pre-read and pre-write or not. If it’s the first time the group is meeting, don’t require it.
Now, go forth and run a kickass meeting that doesn’t suck.
💡 Further Resources
- Writing versus Talking - decide if you want pre-reading and pre-writing or not.
- Meeting guidance sheet - if you want Ian Tien from Mattermost’s sheet on how they run meetings.
- Agreement Tracker - why you need one to really bolster meetings and their effectiveness.
- Frameworks that moderators need to master:
- On Time - why all meeting owners should start meetings right on time.
- Heard: how to make people feel it - how to make sure people feel like their ideas are heard and understood.
- Feedback - how to give it and take it like a champ.
- Fear and Anger - how to spot it and why moderators need to know it.
- Conflict Resolution - if Feedback escalates past fear or anger, this is necessary.
- Perfect Recall - record your meetings and grab transcripts.
- Threads - send out discussion topics ahead of time.
- Example of Mochary Method team using Threads
- Decision-Making - why CEOs should have everyone else make Type 2 decisions.
- Bias towards action - why we need action-oriented meetings.
- Example of recapping feedback during meetings - this is feedback + heard on steroids.
A special thank-you goes to Lucas Gerbeaux, Sydney Liu, Silvia Li Sam, Nate Forster, and Afraj Gill for reading preliminary drafts of this write-up and suggesting so many great additions to it.