4 Reasons Your Next Meeting Will Be Awful

Here’s a game you can play: The next time you’re in a truly dreadful meeting, decide which of these four reasons is the main cause. To put it another way: If your meeting avoids these four problems, it will probably be a pretty good one.


At the start of Learning Tree’s one day course on facilitating effective meetings, participants are asked to list all the things that can go wrong in a meeting. This exercise always goes well — in the time allotted, many teams not only fill a flip-chart sheet with the terrible things they’ve experienced, but are well on their way to filling the second sheet when they’re cut off (we have to leave some time in the course to talk about how to prevent these problems from happening, after all).

However, underneath all the different things that can go wrong, there are four underlying reasons. This means that the next time you’re in an awful meeting, you can amuse yourself by playing this game: Which of these reasons is causing your current meeting to go off the rails?

1. Is this really a meeting?

If the meeting seems especially pointless then it’s probably not a meeting. A meeting occurs “when two or more people get together to accomplish something that they couldn’t do any other way.”

Unfortunately, many of the times you get together with other people you’re not having a meeting.  If, for example, the members of your department get together every Tuesday morning to share status reports on their various projects, that’s not a meeting. There are two reasons this is not a meeting: First, those status reports could have been shared by email (getting together is not the only way to share the status reports); Second, nothing is accomplished (sharing information is not an “accomplishment”).

I’m not suggesting that sharing status isn’t a good thing. There’s real value in knowing what the rest of your department is doing, for example. But this isn’t a meeting — it’s a team building exercise, a celebration, a networking session or one of many other things that aren’t meetings.

There are a lot of reasons for getting people together but, for it to be a meeting, people must accomplish something that they couldn’t do any other way than by getting together. That “accomplish something” can range from abstract tasks like “developing a plan” to more concrete results like “finalize the design for …”.

With this definition in hand, you can ask two question to determine if you even need to hold (or attend) a meeting:

  • Is there going at least one decision made that will affect what happens outside the meeting?
  • Is there any other way to accomplish the task without requiring everyone to meet?

Only if the answer to both questions is “Yes” do you need to hold or attend the meeting.

2. Are the right people there?

When the wrong people are at the meeting, the meeting will not go well. At the very least, it will be a waste of time for the people who did show up. Because a meeting is “to bring people together to do something they couldn’t do otherwise” then only those people necessary to do something should be there. Alternatively, if you’re in a real meeting but realize that you’re bored to tears it’s probably because you aren’t one of the necessary people.

Regardless of whether you’re the unnecessary person tricked into attending or one of the necessary people attending when other necessary people did not, the meeting will be a waste of your time (and, probably, others).

If you’re invited to a meeting (and if it is an invitation and not a command) then you should be allowed to ask “What will I contribute to this meeting?” If, for example, all you’re going to do is take something away from the meeting, it’s reasonable to ask if that could be sent to you (or if you could drop around to pick it up). Often, all you need is to be sent a copy of the minutes so that you can see what decisions that affect you (if any) were made.

Alternatively, if you’re actively participating in a meeting that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, one of the questions you should be asking is “Are all the necessary people here?” If they’re not, the best option is to wrap up the meeting as quickly as possible and schedule another meeting where all the right people will be present.


3. Is there an agenda?

A corollary of “all the necessary people must be present” is that all the necessary information must be present or available to the people who will need it. If you’re in a meeting with all the right people but keep having to make assumptions or skip topics (or wait while someone finds something) then the people present probably didn’t bring the right stuff to the meeting.

Sometimes the right stuff isn’t there because people made a mistake. More often, the reason that people didn’t bring the right stuff is because they weren’t clear what the meeting was supposed to accomplish. The most usual cause of this problem is that there was no agenda for the meeting or the agenda wasn’t  specific enough so that the people attending could bring what they need.

If you find that the agenda for a meeting is vague, confusing, or missing then you should — at the very least — clarify with the meeting organizers what the meeting is to accomplish. That way you, at least, can bring what’s needed to the meeting.

But specifying the goals of the meeting is only the first role of the agenda. The second role of the agenda is to specify the order of topics to be covered and the time to be spent on each topic. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. In the absence of time limits in an agenda, meeting topics expand until they reach the heat death of the universe. If a topic in the meeting expands past its time, either that topic or some topic later in the agenda must be put off to another meeting (and that must be done before going on to the next topic in the agenda).

Often the threat of another meeting is sufficient to ensure that topics are completed in the time allotted to them.

4. Is there someone in charge?

We often talk about the person running the meeting (the “chair”) as a “facilitator.” Certainly, in terms of making sure that the relevant people are heard and in achieving the goals of the meeting, the person in charge should be regarded as a facilitator.

In every other aspect, the chair should be a ruthless dictator. It is the responsibility of the chair to ruthlessly ensure that all discussions stay on topic, that topics do not exceed their time limit, and that the discussions in the meeting follow the organization’s norms. The key word in those two sentences is “ruthless.” If you’re wondering why the person across the table from you has been discussing some unrelated topic for the last five minutes, it’s because there is no one in charge of your meeting.

If you avoid having these four problems I can’t guarantee you won’t have a great meeting. I will guarantee that it won’t be awful, though. And, now, during the meetings that are awful, you can decide which of these four reasons is the major contributor.

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