Think back to your last workplace meeting. Was it productive? Chances are it wasn’t. All across America, unnecessary, unplanned, and poorly managed meetings gobble up resources and sap enthusiasm, undermining the work of the people who attend them.
When you add up all the losses—time, energy, productivity, and so on—time-management software provider Doodle estimated they cost the economy nearly $400 billion. That’s enough money to buy every single NFL team—three times.
Though these costs may block our dream of owning every professional football franchise, few companies have dedicated rules of engagement for meetings. Managers just shrug and allow their employees to decide how and when they arrange them.
And that really isn’t a good idea.
Since the 1960s, the amount of time we spend in meetings each week has ballooned, rising from 10 hours to 23 hours today. That’s especially distressing when you consider that eight of those hours are entirely unproductive.
The futility of meetings isn’t some hidden threat, either. People know they’re bad for business. Around 90% of attendees admit they daydream in meetings and 73% say they ignore what’s going on to complete other work.
But don’t think that meetings are entirely useless. Yes, they can be useful tools. They can help a group generate new ideas, coordinate work, and create consensus. Without meetings, a group of people gathered around an oblong table in a glass-walled room would be even more of a disorganized mess than it already is.
In other words, even though some like to advocate for the wholesale abolishment of nearly all meetings, to do this would be a mistake. Instead, to save our workplaces from our meeting malaise, we must meet with purpose. That means thinking about not just the type of meetings we arrange, but also when and why we arrange them.
Better, smarter, and stronger: 5 types of meetings
One reason our workplace calendars are messy is that we don’t think about our meetings. We arrange them whenever we feel like it and hand out invites like they’re candy. It means all our calendars are chock-full of events, most of which are either unnecessary, unproductive—or, in all too many cases, both.
To build healthier calendars, we need to first think about the meetings we’re arranging.
Most people think about meetings in terms of content. Say, you’re a corporate exec at a big multinational. You might have a meeting about opening a store or expanding your product line. But organizational experts tell us this is the wrong way to think about things.
Take one of those meetings—the one about opening a new store. That meeting could have a bunch of different purposes. You might be brainstorming new locations, evaluating different sites, or approving a final plan. Each of those meetings is about opening new stores—but they have radically different goals.
Researchers at McKinsey say we need to stop thinking about meetings in terms of their content and start looking at their goals. When we shift our thinking, meetings start to fall into one of several purpose buckets. When we’ve identified those buckets, we can pick the one that best suits our objectives, rather than arranging a generic meeting on a particular subject.
#1 The Decision Meeting
- Participants: <8
- Goal: Decision
- Facilitated by leader
When you dig right down, meetings should have a single basic function: bring people together and produce a common decision. Think about a marketing team that meets once every few months to set its company’s marketing strategy. Each member of the team will come in with their own ideas and suggestions—but the company can’t use them all. Instead, they’ve got to decide which ideas to run with and which ideas to trash.
While it sounds easy, these sorts of decision meetings are notoriously tricky.
According to Robert Sutton, professor of management science at Stanford University, if you want to keep decision meetings sharp and snappy, you need to limit attendance. Between five and eight attendees is perfect. If you have more, it’s difficult to guide the conversation. If you have fewer, you don’t have enough viewpoints.
Decision meetings also require strong leaders. Although the goal of these meetings is to arrive at a shared decision, conversations will often drift away from the main subject. Leaders have to keep control of the discussion, guiding participants through whatever decision-making framework they have selected and, ultimately, on to a final decision.
#2 The Discussion Meeting
- Participants: <18
- Goal: Dialogue
- Active conversation between attendees
Discussion meetings are for when you don’t have a particular problem to solve or decision to make. They’re basically the opposite of decision meetings as they’re designed to be free-flowing and explore a range of ideas.
There are two main types of discussion meetings: ideation and debate. Let’s take a look at the differences.
First, imagine a brand new startup. Its founders have a business idea but little more than that. To firm up their business identity, they arrange a branding brainstorming session. The goal of this meeting is to find new company names, color ideas, logo concepts, brand voices, and so on. While the founders can chat through the pros and cons of each idea, they don’t have to decide on a single idea to run with. This is an ideation meeting.
Second, consider a big construction company that wants to review a recently completed warehouse project. In this meeting, people are encouraged to dig into what went on, discussing what worked and what didn’t. The goal of this meeting is to explore and evaluate ideas in more detail. This is a debate meeting.
Since you can’t always predict how these meetings are going to go, it doesn’t make sense to have an active facilitator who controls the conversation. Instead, participants should lead the conversation, exploring the alleys and avenues that seem most interesting. That said, it’s helpful to appoint a passive facilitator who’s there to gently direct the discussion should it drift from the original theme or topic.
Like decision meetings, discussion meetings also require us to thread the needle with attendance. A discussion between two people isn’t really a meeting. A discussion between 40 people is absolute chaos. It’s best to aim for more than eight attendees and fewer than 18.
When you have fewer than eight participants, you’ll struggle for unique perspectives and ideas during the discussion. And if you have more than 18, you’ll struggle to keep everyone engaged in one large conversation and things will fall apart quickly.
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#3 The Information-Sharing Meeting
- Participants: 2 to 1,800+
- Goal: Awareness
- One-way communication from speaker
So far, we’ve looked at meetings where everyone plays an equal role. But with information-sharing meetings, things are a little different.
These meetings are usually a one-way dialogue with one person presenting to a large group. Think group briefings, town hall meetings, or all-hands updates. Unlike decision and discussion meetings, there’s not an attendance sweet spot, although you might be limited by meeting space or technology.
Before arranging information-sharing meetings, remember that large meetings are disruptive and pull everyone off their work. If a meeting is purely for information-sharing, you’re likely better off using an alternative communication channel like email or intranet, especially as people read faster than they listen.
Where these meetings come into their own is when you combine information-sharing with culture or team building.
An email might convey information faster than a company-wide meeting—but it rarely builds the same emotional connection or engagement.
If it’s important for your senior executives to speak to their employees directly and cultivate personal interactions, go for an information-sharing meeting. Just don’t overuse them.
#4 The In-the-Moment Meeting
- Participants: <8
- Goal: Decision or Discussion
- Active dialogue by attendees
Impromptu meetings often derail teams because they rarely have a set agenda and can quickly spiral out of control. But, if you’re careful, you can transform them from a distraction into an effective productivity tool.
To see how in-the-moment meetings work, imagine a small design team working on a new product. Since it’s a distributed team, most project communication is done via team chat so there’s always a record of what was said for context. But during a particularly complicated discussion, a team lead can struggle to explain exactly what they mean via text. So it may be smart to invite everyone to a quick in-the-moment meeting.
Knowing impromptu meetings can go off on tangents, the design team time-boxes the meeting to 10 minutes and limits discussion to a single topic. If the discussion thread looks like it’s fraying, the team lead asks people to arrange a follow-up meeting for those topics. With those rules in place, they can quickly jump on a call with colleagues, clarify the complicated points, and let everyone get back to work.
In-the-moment meetings only work if you have the correct technology behind them. Employees need to be able to slip in and out of voice and video calls with a couple of clicks. If each meeting requires 20 minutes of careful setup, they just don’t work.
Ideally, you’ll have a collaboration platform that unifies messaging, video, and phone so everything is in one place and employees can move between each channel effortlessly.
#5 The Check-In
- Participants: <15
- Goal: Awareness
- Active dialogue by attendees
Our final type of meeting comes from organization and management expert, Verne Harnish, who suggests a short time-boxed check-in meeting, covering tactical issues and updates. This type of meeting, known as a “huddle,” has exploded in popularity, especially in tech companies and startups.
“The daily huddle,” Harnish wrote on the Growth Institute, “tracks progress and brings out sticking points that are blocking your execution.”
Huddles allow an entire team to get informed and aligned on the work that needs to be done, which can cut down on coordination work later in the day.
In practice, a check-in meeting usually takes place at the start of the day and runs through a fairly specific agenda. Each participant has just one or two minutes to update their colleagues on what they’re working on and any challenges they’re facing. Attendees have to be careful to avoid rabbit holes and must take any detailed topics or follow-ups offline.
Since the daily huddle is limited to 15 minutes, there’s a practical upper limit of attendees—usually around 15.
Controlling your calendar
It’s easy to create a few new meeting archetypes and be done with it. What’s significantly more difficult is getting people to actually do it—and stick to it.
People need structure and without it, they’ll inevitably slip back into the same bad habits that forced you to rethink your meeting protocol.
The first step to securing your calendar is setting rules on how meetings work in your organization. They should explain what meetings you use, how they work, and when people should use them.
To really cement this knowledge, run a couple of mock meetings for each archetype. This lets your employees experience them first-hand and really see how they work. Once you set the basic ground rules, you can pass the reins over to your employees and trust them to make their own informed meeting decisions.
The second step is to support your meetings with the correct technology. Because people are increasingly working remotely that means making sure your employees have access to messaging, video, and phone within their collaboration platform.
More importantly, it’s important your employees can access these services without jumping through dozens of hoops. Take in-the-moment meetings, for example. To be effective, your employees should be able to transition from team messaging into a video call in a couple of clicks so all the context is fresh in their minds. If it takes 10 minutes to set up the call, that undermines the effectiveness of your meeting archetype.
If you set the ground rules and provide the tools your employees need, your employees’ schedules (and productivity) will reap the benefits. By building meeting archetypes around functions, you ensure that each meeting has a goal and, therefore, gets things done.