Productive meetings – part 1

The dreaded meeting room! Death to productivity!
The dreaded meeting room! Death to productivity!

AIR is a personal productivity system at its heart. A lot of the techniques and the philosophy can be applied to groups and teams though. But no matter how well you and/or your team are rocking along and being both productive and sane, the crunch comes when you have to collaborate with other people, particularly in the form of (dreaded) meetings.

I’ve read some estimates that in certain types of organisation more than half of people’s time is spent “in meetings”. What’s more, I’ve read a lot of stuff suggesting that meetings are regarded as a necessary overhead on real work – a bit like taxes.

You have to pay taxes to make society work and you have to attend meetings to make organisations work.

The thing is though, just like if taxes are spent foolishly and wasted we recent paying them, if meetings are badly run and waste our time we resent attending. That becomes a self-fulling prophecy of:

  1. this meeting will be a waste of time
  2. people arriving with an unhelpful attitude
  3. the meeting is a waste of time
  4. attitudes are therefore “justified”
  5. the next meeting is even worse.

That’s the bad news, and it’s very common. The good news is that it doesn’t have to been like that. If your meetings are productive and useful it’s not toooo hard to turn that attitude around.

So here we go.  I’ve done a lot of reading around meeting efficiency and the stuff below is my current top five things to think about 🙂

The five Ps of productive meetings

There’s more to this… of course there is. You’ll need to figure some of the details you need to think of for yourself but here’s a starting point


This is it – the key one. It’s the big sticking point for productive meetings. The key questions here are:

  1. what is this meeting intended to achieve
  2. Is a meeting the best way to do this?

Yes, I know, I know, put like that they’re boringly obvious questions be we often forget to ask ourselves them and go with our habit or culture instead. Let’s unpack these for a moment.

Firstly, what is the meeting going to achieve? That’s a very different question from the usual ones we ask ourselves such as “What is the meeting about?” Everything else about planning and running the meeting follows from the answer you give to this question. For example, who you should have at the meeting is a dependency. As a rule of thumb you need everyone at the meeting who’s got an ‘action control’ over the things that come out of the meeting but no one who hasn’t.

That last bit is obvious, right?  You don’t want anyone there who’se just taking up a chair, slowing things down and eating the biscuits. But the first bit is a killer. If your meeting decides you need to XYZ then the people who are going to XYZ should have been at the meeting. If not, they’re not invested in XYZ and bad things happen… or more likely, nothing happens at all and the meeting is a waste of time.


Do you have all the people you need for the meeting?  Have you got rid of everyone you don’t need? It’s a direct follow-up from Point. One really powerful (and yet simple) way of making sure you’ve got the right people is to use the Power-vs-Interest matrix we talk about here…


This is a bit of a cheat, I admit. The title should really be ‘logistics’ but calling it Place means I can keep to the Ps. Included in this box are all the mechanical things of making sure the room is booked; that it is laid out appropriately for the exercise we’re going to run; that the chairs are appropriately comfortable; that there are signs for visitors to find it;


This is one of those that’s so obvious that people miss it but it’s hugely important.  If you’re having a meeting at the end of a long, hard week, people are going to be more tired than if you’d had it on a sunny Tuesday morning. Rain gets people down. Being cold stops them being creative. You get the idea. Having a meeting last thing in the afternoon has a very different psychological feel than breakfast meetings.

Go back to the Point of your meeting and see if you can match the time of day to what you’re trying to do. Dan Pink’s latest book “When” suggests that afternoon meetings are generally better suited to creative meetings while mornings are better for logistics etc.

And what about coffee/tea? 😉

… and rooms with natural daylight!


Oh the range this covers! 🙂  I’ve had people tell me this one covers everything from who’s in a relationship with whom; and who used to be in a relationship with whom but now hates… you get the feel, I’m sure….

But there’s more to it than that of course.

Ask yourself questions about how you can make people want to come to the meeting – and to come with a productive frame of mind.  I’m sure you can think of more ideas for yourself but even some simple things I’ve seen work are:

  • when you send the meeting details and agenda out to people, give them an expected time to finish by too – it gives them hope and makes it obvious you’re looking at things in a certain way
  • consider telling them that they’re agenda items will be first so they might finish sooner
  • tell them what refreshments will be available – ask if they need anything else
  • if there are limitations to the room, admit them: “the chairs aren’t comfortable but we’ll be done in 45 minutes at most, I think!”
  • don’t be limited to the traditional 60 minute blocks that most room-booking systems use by default. If you think it’s going to take 40 minutes, say so
  • make a point of telling people why the meeting is happening: “We’ll be deciding on whether to tender for the ABC project and if so, who is going to take it forward”
  • keep the aim focussed enough for people to know you’ll stick to your time limits. For example, don’t tell them you’re going work on the ABC tender at that meeting – this meeting is to decide if there is going to be one and looking at how to do it in detail gives a clear message about the presumed outcome!
  • flag up the expectations and ground rules so that people know you mean business. An example would be “We’ll be looking at how to apply the findings in the attached document, so you’ll need to be familiar with it before we start: it should only take about 10 minutes to get to grips with it”


It’s not hard, is it?!  Well actually, judging from the evidence of how much time is wasted in meetings, yes it is. What it’s not, is complicated!

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