How to run a business meeting people actually want to attend

I had a manager who had strong opinions about how to run a business meeting. In fact, he locked the door to the meeting room at the start time of every meeting. And refused to open it to anyone, for any reason. Early on during his tenure, people were locked out and we heard them knocking. But he did not relent.

Drastic?!

At the time I thought so; I thought it was totally unreasonable (OK, I might have chosen some more colorful words.)

But in retrospect, it was quite brilliant. Meetings always started on time, and once they got started, they kept going. There was never any “Hey John, we were just talking about…” as late-comers ambled in and forced the meeting to restart. 

This guy made sure we were prepared too. He always printed exactly as many meeting agendas as were necessary. He’d also emailed them to each of us 1 day before the meeting began.

So we’d had that day to review and propose a deviation from the agenda. We were prepared and you didn’t often hear “So what’s the agenda?”

A meeting agenda had one goal: make decisions

Meeting agenda items existed only for the purpose of making decisions.

There was no such thing as an “information sharing” agenda item. There was no such thing as a “brainstorming” agenda item.

And for each agenda item, there was one decision-maker. Sometimes the manager, sometimes someone else. Attendees made arguments about what decision to make, and the decision-maker considered the arguments and registered a decision. 

Not only that, but the agenda indicated exactly what contribution was expected each attendee. It did so with links or attachments to whatever material an attendee needed in order to prepare. If there one’s attendance wasn’t necessary, it was no big deal to un-invite oneself.

At the scheduled ending time, the manager would say “excuse me, this meeting is over”. He’d then walk out of the room even if someone was in mid-monologue. (To be fair — he always gave a 5-minute warning.) He taught us brevity in speech.

A semi-autobiographical story

Impressive, right? Unfortunately, this is somewhat fictional. It’s a composite of three things:

  • A real-life manager (who actually did start and end meetings like this!). And actually was a very nice guy, by the way. He wasn’t a bully. 
  • An article I read in HBR a few years ago when I was sick of meetings running off-course.
  • My cat-herding career in project management and consulting.

That article has a wonderful agenda preparation methodology and I highly recommend it. In fact, I’ve been putting its methodology into approach over the past few years and have learned a few things:

  1. It takes a lot of work – up to a 2:1 ratio in prep time to actual meeting time 
  2. It takes getting used to, for the meeting organizer and all others
  3. Don’t try it if you’re not willing to practice utmost tact
  4. It’s incredibly effective, especially for longer-term projects
  5. It makes people actually want to attend meetings — for the right reasons

In short, do try this at home.