have you had it with inefficient meetings email

Ask the Meeting Maven


Email your questions to the Meeting Maven at meetingmaven@gmail.com and she will answer you directly via email. If your questions will help others, she will post it here in the online column.

The Meeting Maven has many years experience leading, analyzing and improving meetings; she's fully techno-savvy and she keeps your identity and your company name private! Everything you need to know about meetings is just an email away!


1. Dear Maven Meeting,
We waste a lot of time in our meetings with some people telling war stories about things that happened in the past that are related, but not really relevant to the current topic. It is our most common tangent. How can we keep people focused on the task at hand?

Dear Weary of Re-hash,
Upon hearing your complaint, you have a habit, or an established norm, with your group that is not serving you. First, your group probably needs to clarify and commit to a format for meeting participation, with members agreeing to keep input topic or process focused and concise. Additionally, every team member should understand that reminding the group of these agreements is a shared responsibility, not something that just the facilitator is responsible for.


2. Dear Meeting Maven,
Our meetings do not start on time and lately it seems to be getting worse. People do not respect the start time.

Some people even come by at the start time, look in the room and see everyone is not there and the meeting has not started so they go back to their desk to do one more thing before coming to the meeting. The leader of the meeting seems to wait for a quorum to show up before he starts the meeting. This seems sloppy and wasting everyone’s time. I am tired of it. How do we break this habit?
-Had it in Chicago

Dear Had It,
You’re absolutely right. Bad habits about start times are sloppy and disrespectful, and yet these are some of the most common meeting problems in large organizations. Although I’ve always had a sort of wicked fantasy of being the only person on time at a meeting and making all the decisions before the others arrive, that won’t really work in your case! Take heart, though: you do have options! First, ask the group to agree that the facilitator or leader of the meeting will start at the scheduled time - period. Decisions made before a person arrives will not be revisited for the convenience of the late arrival. Group agreements about meetings may also address end times – a common suggestion is that meetings end as soon as the goal of the meeting is accomplished; but no later than the end time stated on the agenda. One additional suggestion– to bring it to people’s attention and shift the habitual 10 or 15 minutes of leeway people often give themselves, it’s sometimes helpful to plan for start times that break that habit – try starting at 9:50,or 10:25 instead.

Oddly enough, it’s also useful to look at the other end of the meeting for this problem: sometimes people are late because their previous meeting ran over or they had to stop at the bathroom between meetings, so it’s important that meetings end on time and have short breaks between end and start-times. The domino effect of meetings starting late, ending late, delaying other meetings can have your office feeling like a dentist’s waiting room rather than an efficient place of business. Our experience is that people’s attitudes and habits improve significantly when they know that meetings will start AND end on time.


3.Dear Maven,
In the meetings I attend, some people talk way too much, and we hardly ever hear from some of the quieter people. How can we balance the airtime?
-Tired of hot air

Dear Tired of Hot Air,
Some people do like to hear themselves speak, and others work through an answer out loud rather than thinking it through before starting. More introverted folks, or internal processors, take time to think before speaking. There are several meeting conventions that can help with this dynamic. One is to introduce the topic, giving relevant background, ask for questions only, and then give a minute or so for people to organize their thoughts or make notes before the discussion begins. Then, for a topic that’s controversial or for which everyone’s input is desired, make sure each person has a chance to address the issue before anyone speaks again. Once everyone has had a chance to speak without interruption or cross-talk, then the facilitator can open the floor for discussion by noting trends or differences in perspective, and asking the group to help prioritize next steps based on the outcome you’re seeking. For tips on facilitation of this type of discussion, see our section on meeting and facilitation techniques (make this hyperlinked).

Another perspective on this problem could be that there are underlying power or authority issues – sometimes people feel their input won’t be appreciated, while others feel that their opinions are “more” valid than others. To address these issues, depending on the size of the group, the facilitator can actually simply say, “I’d like to hear a variety of input on this,” or ask individuals what they think, based on their level of involvement with the topic at hand. If small group discussions would help give more people a turn to speak, use a timer and divide the opportunity for speaking evenly among participants. If someone doesn’t have a lot to say, a quiet moment will give everyone time to digest the input they’ve already received, and formulate their response. 

Last, but probably most important, refresh your group’s agreements to include something about listening to balancing air time in meetings. 

4. Dear maven
Once we have ideas out on the table, we spend a long time trying to come to consensus and decisions. Is there a better way?

Frequently, this problem arises when the facilitator is perhaps inexperienced or doesn’t have the right technique at hand for helping the group move along. Here are a couple of suggestions for you to try.

Multi-voting is a very handy technique. Instead of the old straw-poller “let’s see a show of hands – how many people support this idea?” method, which forces people to pick a “favorite” too early in the process, Multi-Voting takes a different approach. Say you’ve identified 8 possible options, but need to narrow the field. Write the ideas on a flip chart or white board, and pass out removable stickers or markers. Each participant then marks the 3 options that seem best. Once everyone has had a chance to “vote” – step back and see what trends appear. Have a short round of discussion, since, if there’s not one clear winner, there could be suggestions for combining elements of more than one item, or new items identified upon reflection. This also allows for folks with differing opinions to be heard, and their perspectives incorporated. Once you’ve narrowed the field again, you may be able to reach a decision, or have another round of multi-votes. With fewer items to choose from, each person gets fewer votes, though.

If people are having trouble tracking the discussion, (so possible decisions get lost), have someone in the group write ideas on a flip-chart or white board so the group can easily keep them in mind. The facilitator can then decide how to structure the discussion. Sometimes more information is needed before the best decision can be made. In those cases, it’s useful to record that in your DALI log, and put the update and decision on the agenda for the next meeting.

5. Dear maven,
I hate meetings that are just information or data dumps via PowerPoint. We all get herded into a room and someone shows us slides and reads off the slides for 45 minutes while everyone’s eyes glaze over. Then they pass out the slides printed out which we could have just read. This seems like a colossal waste of a lot of people’s time.
-Dying with PowerPoint

Dear Dying with PowerPoint,

Please don’t leave us over this common problem. You are painfully aware that simple information sharing is not a good reason for a meeting. If you could accomplish the same thing with an email or shared documents, why interrupt people’s work and have them go to a meeting? As you said, it’s a waste of time, which ends up being a waste of money. Show people at your workplace how much time and money they could reallocate! Use our meeting cost calculator (hyperlink).

These are good reasons to meet:
Planning or strategizing
Collecting input or ideas
Rolling out a new change
To reallocate work or responsibilities on a team
Problem solving
If you need help planning meetings or writing agenda items that help your group stay on task, check out our tips section “here” (anotherhyperlink)


6. Dear Meeting Maven,
Some people in our team meetings are involved and participate actively, while others sit in the back, are disengaged and make wise cracks to each other. Any ideas?

Dear Lee,
Everyone should be able to sit at the table. Put the number of chairs around the table of expected participants – no extra chairs. No peanut gallery allowed! This can distract the group and pull down the group energy and sense of collaboration and teamwork (collaborative teamwork) If a person does not have something to contribute, think about whether or not they need to be in the room.


7. Dear Meeting Maven,
I read about the Sirius approach and it recommends a number of things to do as part of planning a meeting. Really now, who has the time to do all of that?! If I add up to an hour of planning time to my current meeting time, it seems like it is expanding the time I allocate to meetings. R.

Dear R.

First of all, if you plan well the meetings will be shorter and more productive. You will reduce meeting time for yourself, and you will reduce meeting time for all the people in that meeting. So the ROI of your hour of planning time would be 6 hours for 8 people if you cut an hour and a half meeting down to 45 minutes. As you get used to the method you will be able to cut down the time it takes you to plan. We will teach you some very effective methods for streamlining meetings,and provide coaching and support as you learn to apply these new skills.


8. Dear Maven,

If someone has to miss a meeting when something unexpected comes up suddenly (like an urgent customer meeting), what is the best way to keep that person in the loop as to what they missed at the meeting. Should the meeting leader meet with them later? Or should another team member do it?

Actually, with the Sirius Approach, neither is necessary. At the end of each meeting, the DALI log should be ready to distribute electronically. It contains organized information about the decisions made, action plans and timelines for implementation, and who is responsible for each piece. A summary of key positions emergent from discussion fills out the absentee’s awareness of the meeting’s content. If he or she has questions about specific items, then the contact person for that item is probably the best person to approach, rather than having a mini-meeting with the facilitator.