What We Talk About When We Talk About Meetings

What We Talk About When We Talk About Meetings

What is the mission of LearningLeaders?

To empower everyone to lead, delight, and inspire.

Why do we have meetings?

1) To increase the likelihood we will accomplish our mission. 2) To increase the speed at which we will accomplish our mission. If both reasons one and two are not fulfilled, then there is likely little reason to have the meeting (or keep working on that project, for that matter - toss it in the bin.)

Generally, why do meetings exist? What is the goals of a meeting?

A meeting is just any time when more than one person gets together to talk about something. The way I see it, there are three possible goals of meetings: Decisions,Discussion, and Delivery.

Decision Meetings are designed to help the directly responsible individual (DRI) for a given decision reach the appropriate conclusion more effectively. These meetings are generally analytical and problem-solving in nature.


  • “Do we enter this new market?”
  • “What are the most appropriate debate motions we should use for Introduction to Debate?”
  • “Do we hire this person?”

You could also think of these meetings as more ‘digital’ in nature - specifics like Yes/ Nos and hard numbers/metrics will definitely be present.

You can also think of these meetings as a situation in which the premises are already known, but the conclusion must be solved for.

Discussion Meetings are designed to provide context around future decisions. These are generally more information-gathering or information-disseminating in nature.


  • “Why were we unable to retain these 20 customers?”
  • “How can we improve our recruitment process?”
  • “Why are our annual goals for 2020 the way they are?”

You could also think of these meetings as more ‘analog’ in nature - data is still required though the meeting is not as outcome oriented - a successful meeting does not require a ‘1’ or ‘0’ result.

You can also think of these meetings as a situation in which the premises are unknown and they must be discovered.

Delivery Meetings are designed to share knowledge or know-how and to confirm similar understandings for all members present in the meeting. These are generally more ‘Top-down’ in style and they are often referred to as ‘Trainings.’ But in essence they are still meetings, just of a different variety.


  • “How do you host a great Parent-Coach Conference?”
  • “What were our Top 10 Team Highlights from 2015?”
  • “What is everyone’s progress updates on their projects?”

You can also think of these meetings are a mix of analog/digital, because it will vary greatly depending on the topic delivery.

You can also think of a these meetings as a situation in which both the premises and conclusion are known to some but not necessarily to all present and the purpose of the meeting is to create a shared understanding of both premises and conclusions.

All Meetings should also fall under one of three categories of focus: Strategy, Tactics, and Execution.

Strategy-focused meetings revolve mostly around goals: setting the goals themselves, understanding and aligning on project aims, and assigning DRIs and due dates. These meetings generally come first or early-on in a project cycle. This is why, for instance, there is a disproportionate amount of time spent on goal-setting and Key Results Area (KRA) generation at the start of each project cycle and semester.

These meetings generally answer the question, “WHY will this project help us empower everyone to lead, delight, and inspire (our future expected outcome)?”

Tactical-focused meetings revolve mostly around plans: backwards planning, aligning schedules, accounting for buffers, anticipating future potential problems. These meetings are also more likely to take place earlier on in a project lifecycle.

These meetings generally answer the question, “HOW will we accomplish this future expected outcome in a timely fashion through this plan?”

Execution-focused meetings revolve mostly around actions: project status updates, trouble-shooting a missed deadline, and evaluation of past actions.

These meetings generally answer the question, “WHAT are the successes and challenges of the project so far? Are we on our way to the future expected outcome? If not, WHAT do we need to change?”

This does not mean that WHY questions are unable to be asked in Execution-focused meetings or that HOW questions are never involved in Strategy-focused meetings. However, recognizing what type of meeting you are in will help you focus your questions on the most valuable issues at hand. You will recognize that Tactics are often impossible to discuss without referring back to the original Strategy, for example. The same is true for Execution referring back to Tactics and Strategy. However, Tactics are not necessarily important to discuss at a meeting about Strategy. This is why so many discussions about goals and future desired outcomes take a quick turn for the worse - the plans are being drawn up before the goal has even been solidified!

This also does not mean that every meeting has only one focus. Ideally I think that would be the case, but practically, once everyone is together there is often a mixing of the goal and focus.

With that in mind, we can create a handy-dandy homemade matrix here to look at all possible types of meetings! [These are just a few examples and yes, I understand that some of these are ‘arguable’ which box they might fit in to. Rather than focusing on that, I would like for the key takeaway here to be that not all meetings are equal! There are different objectives and focuses of each meeting and that needs to be clarified by the DRI beforehand.]

A Project cycle for an ‘Event’ might go like this:

  • Annual Event Calendar Meeting - Decision/Strategy
  • Event Team Kick-off Meeting - Discussion/Strategy
  • Sponsor Collaboration Meeting - Decision/Tactical
  • Project Plan Meeting - Decision/Tactical
  • Weekly Progress Meetings - Discussion/Execution
  • Training on Event Prep - Delivery/Execution
  • Event Post-Action Meeting - Discussion/Execution

Whoa! That looks like a lot of meetings for just one measly little event. Are you sure we need that many meetings?

You probably don’t! Many of those steps can be handled remotely or individually. If you’re unsure whether or not you need to have a meeting, please refer to this flowchart below:


How should you prepare for a meeting?

There are multiple different roles you can play during a meeting, but generally we can divide into two: 1) DRI/Owner of the meeting, and 2) Participant of the meeting. Other roles include timekeeper, scribe, chairperson (while not being DRI), observer (but not participant), etc.

The DRI/Owner of the meeting should never host a meeting unless the goal behind the meeting is clear. There are multiple ways you can ask yourself that, including, “What is this meeting intended to achieve?” “What would the likely consequence of not holding this meeting be?” Or “When this meeting is over, how will I judge if it is a success or failure?”

Once that is complete, you have a number of other key steps to consider. Consider the following a ‘Meeting Preparation Checklist.’ Before hosting a meeting, have you:

  1. Followed the flow-chart to make sure you really need to have the meeting?
  2. Determined how decisions will be made in the meeting (majority vote, DRI choice, group consensus)?
  3. Developed an agenda?
  4. Selected the right participants and assigned roles (if necessary)?
  5. Decided when and where to hold the meeting?
  6. Confirmed availability of the space?
  7. Sent an invite to all participants?
  8. Sent the preliminary agenda?
  9. Sent any reading, memos, or requests which require advance preparation?
  10. Followed-up with invitees to remind them of the meeting and/or their responsibilities
  11. Identified, prepared, and tested any necessary technical equipment?
  12. Prepared yourself by printing necessary materials, reviewing agenda, etc.?

Note: A meeting is not finished until a clear agreement of WHO is doing WHAT by WHEN, HOW the goals are to be accomplished, WHAT resources are needed to achieve the next milestone, and WHEN and HOW the next review/follow-up will be completed.

As a meeting participant, you also have some work to do before the meeting. And simply because the work is generally less in quantity, does not make it less important for you to complete.

Before attending a meeting, have you:

  1. Confirmed attendance and that you are not double-booked?
  2. Familiarized yourself with agenda and necessary reading or requests for pre-work?
  3. Prepared to show up on time or early?

Note: Your role in the meeting is not complete until you have a clarification and agreement of WHAT YOU are doing, by WHEN, HOW the goals are to be accomplished, WHAT resources you need to achieve the next milestone, and WHEN and HOW the next review/follow-up will be completed.

The Ideal Meeting Size

Based on my experience, as few people as is necessary to achieve the goal that the meeting supports. And in many cases, that means there is no meeting at all! But if you must have a ‘committee’ meeting (for decision or discussion purposes), then I suggest 4-7 people. 10 is my upper limit. If you would like to have a ‘presentation’ meeting or a ‘council’ meeting (for delivery purposes), then I’d say a larger group is fine.

A few ways to reduce the size of meetings to a more manageable size is to: 1) confirm via the agenda whether everyone needs to be present for the whole time (it’s possible one meeting can be divided into two separate back-to-back meetings on related topics with half the attendees), 2) determine if some topics can be discussed in advance by another committee and then have one representative of that group attend the meeting instead of the whole group. The first method here is similar to one-on- ones and the second is similar to Executive Team Meetings.

The Ideal Meeting Length

I think this completely depends on the meeting, but I would venture to say that a meeting that is as short as possible to cover the key agenda items is best for everyone. So how long should you schedule a meeting for? I’d like to (yes, buried in this long write-up) suggest that moving forward at LL we eliminate one-hour long meetings and instead aim for 50 minutes. This allows time for one or two quick follow-ups between that meeting and any next engagement you have (as well as allowing for bathroom time, WeChat checking, etc.). I don’t know where I went wrong, but I was probably the one who started scheduling meetings for 60 min blocks of time. That’s my bad! We can go shorter and prevent back-to-back meeting slippage by aiming for 50 minutes.

How do you know when the meeting is over? I think when any of the following realizations occur: 1) you’ve clearly completed the goals for the meeting and everyone can answer the question: WHO is doing WHAT by WHEN, HOW the goals are to be accomplished, WHAT resources are needed to achieve the next milestone, and WHEN and HOW the next review/follow-up will be completed? 2) two or three people can drive to a resolution outside of the larger meeting, as is sometimes referred to as, “taking it offline.” (A goofy habit of calling it that I picked up at my last company.). 3) when those present need to gather the opinions of others outside the meeting OR gather more facts/information before a decision can be made.

Start on time. End on time.

The only way to ensure that a meeting starts on time is to start the meeting on time. By starting behind schedule you show the ones who are late that there are no negative consequences for being late and you show the ones who are on time that there is no reward for being on time.

Meetings as Feedback

Meetings are superb feedback tools for every participant. During a meeting, there is no better time to see how best you can help make a group successful and how to optimize your actions moving towards group success. Meetings are also a perfect time to gather feedback from those around you as to how you are understood in the group, both by your role and contributions. For example, if you are presenting on a topic in the weekly team meeting and someone asks you a question why this project exists, it’s a super useful piece of implicit feedback that you may need to increase the amount of effort/attention you are placing to communicating the value of your project to the team. Or if someone asks you for a schedule/guide to a certain workflow, you can receive that as feedback that in the future you can consider making your contributions more readily accessible to other partners. Of course, you need to interpret this feedback from other members of the group on you own!

I don’t feel we need to be ‘sizing each other up’ or competing all the time, but in meetings you can also see what type of behavior by others is respected and not respected pretty clearly! We often bang on tables or hoot and holler and applaud when we see something we like and naturally we are less enthusiastic about actions that we don’t like. Learn from both the verbal and non-verbal cues of your colleagues what type of work they think is awesome! Plug this into your own feedback loops.

Committees do not make decisions. An individual person makes a decision.

What this means is that every decision must have ownership behind it. If you are the DRI of the meeting, then you are very likely the one who is ultimately responsible for the decisions made in that meeting. During a meeting, if you are requesting a ‘vote’ from all of the partners present at that meeting, then that is fine because you must have made a conscious choice that your decision is going to be based off of a vote of the people at the meeting. However, if you are holding the meeting and the committee there votes 5-2 in favor of a certain action and you don’t believe the action is correct, then you are still going to be held responsible as the DRI of that meeting for that decision, so there cannot be any ‘well I was outvoted, but I don’t actually support the decision,’ talk going on later. Which brings us to:

Locker room mentality - Disagree and Commit

In the meeting room or during the discussion/debate, there can be great disagreements between everyone there. The meeting may get heated or emotional or frustrating. This is normal. This is okay. What is not normal and what is not okay at LearningLeaders is to walk out of that room with differing commitments to the course of action that is going to be pursued. At Amazon they call this ‘Disagree and Commit,’ which means that in the meeting room you can disagree all you want, but when you prepare to leave that room at the end of the meeting, everyone needs to be aligned in terms of the course of action that needs to be taken. I refer to this as ‘Locker room mentality.’ In team sports, one player may believe strategy X is the best way to win the game and a second player may believe that strategy Y is the best way to win. But when they leave the locker room and head out onto the field or court, they must employ the same strategy if they ever have a hope of winning the game.

Abraham Lincoln probably put it best, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Meetings are human - in an inclusive way.

Believe it or not, meetings fulfill a very human need. Every group, society, or community since the dawn of time has held meetings in some way or another. They are essential for building community and for creating a sense of togetherness. If there are no meetings whatsoever, I predict attachment to the organization, its goals, and its people is likely to small. People will find deeper connections in the bar after work or on a weekend softball team instead and begin to drift away from the organization. I speak from experience. I don’t think there is a necessity for everyone at LearningLeaders to be best friends with each other. But I do think there is a necessity for everyone to feel at least some form of personal connection to their colleagues in order to share their best work. So while meetings might feel like a ‘necessary evil,’ I don’t feel meetings are an evil at all - when held properly, they’re insanely good.

Meetings are human - in an exclusive way.

There is an element of meetings inherent to their formation that is exclusive in nature. Often, you need to be ‘invited’ to the meeting. This naturally creates an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group relative to the participants of the meeting. Humans are naturally concerned about status - there are evolutionary reasons for this. I just want to recognize this here and also that I don’t have a solution for it. I really don’t know any way to solve this besides the meeting set-up at Bridgewater Associates, which is that 99% of meetings are videotaped/recorded and made publicly available to everyone at the company. However, I still don’t think it truly solves the ‘status’ issue because still not everyone is invited to every meeting. So no, I don’t have a solution to this here besides for all of us to remember that every single meeting is inherently both inclusive and exclusive, as it any invitation to dinner or brunch or a date or a party. Or in fact, an invitation to join an organization like LearningLeaders! Groups, by their very definition, are exclusive. The DRI/Owner of the meeting is simply requesting those he/she believes are most likely to support the successful completion of the goal to the meeting. No hard feelings.

Detailed agendas are better than vague agendas.

I’ll admit that this is definitely an area of meeting effectiveness and efficiency that I’m working on myself, but I’ve found that the more detailed a meeting agenda is, the more productive it is for everyone (Not always in terms of quantity/size of agenda items, but in terms of how specifically they’ve been thought through before the meeting!) Someone, I think it was Hans, recently said that the problem with meetings is not that there are ‘too many’ of them. No one ever leaves a great meeting feeling like it was a waste of time. Rather, there may be ‘too many bad meetings.’ Sending around a detailed agenda ahead of time is often the fastest way to reduce the chances that your meeting becomes a dreaded one.

If you’re curious about what to put on an agenda, I find the most productive things to list are simply the decisions that need to be made by the end of the meeting! That way,

if you are able to reach those 3 decisions within just 15 minutes, awesome! Send everyone packing on their way and no one is going to be bummed the meeting didn’t go longer. Begin with the end in mind!

How to be a Great Chairperson in the Meeting

Usually, though not always, the DRI/Owner of the meeting will also serve as the chairperson during the meeting, guiding conversation and action flow. The number one mistake I’ve seen chairpersons make at LL meetings is that they feel since they called/held the meeting, they need to do the talking/entertaining. The opposite could not be more true. When you are a guest at a meeting and you are just listening to the lecture/waxing of the chairperson, that is often when you tune out. Rather, a great chairperson should be less inspired to contribute and more inspired to achieve. Work backwards from the goal of the meeting and do whatever it takes to reach those decisions or discussion points. Also (and this is big) - the chairperson does NOT need to be the most senior person in the room or on the team.

In essence, a Lesson Leader in our debate/public speaking practices are just ‘Meeting Chairperson’ training sessions: be prepared, include everyone, keep it brief, ask questions rather than giving answers, encourage healthy dissent and skepticism, and check for understanding before everyone leaves the room.

What to do when people are silent in meetings.

People like to talk, so I think this won’t happen as much as you’ll fear it might. However, it is your role as the chairperson to facilitate this discussion in the wake of both 1) silence as fear/shyness, and 2) silence as hostility/frustration.

It is your responsibility as the chairperson to hear both what people are saying and what they are not saying. Someone may have a vital contribution but feel uncomfortable to bring it up. Particularly when these quieter voices speak up, it is imperative you provide positive encouragement, interest, and gratitude for that sharing.

It is also your responsibility as the chairperson to seek out when there is silence due to disagreement or anger in the room. While this might be more challenging because it can feel like ‘poking the bear,’ if someone is visibly agitated or frustrated, this is a perfect time to ask for their opinion or insights on the topic of discussion.

A final way to encourage contribution in meetings and to discourage silence is to ask for opinions from the more junior people first. It is quite possible that once a more senior member of the team has spoken, junior team members will feel less inclined to share their opinions and insights. To avoid this challenge, directly solicit opinions from more junior team members first and move gradually to more senior team members.

How to start a Meeting Effectively

I think there are multiple ways to do this, but my personal favorite for the time being is to remind everyone of the meeting rules (no phones on table, airplane mode, no eating, etc.) and then ask everyone for a one-word opener. This one-word opener is so that 1) everyone gets the opportunity to feel they are contributing to the meeting from the first few minutes, and 2) so that everyone can see the state/energy level/ emotion of all other participants. If someone shares they are ‘Ready’ versus ‘Sad,’ then perhaps your behavior as a chairperson or participant can be more empathetic towards each other person in the room.

Sample Meeting Agenda

Monthly Lunch Committee Meeting May 3rd, 2018 – 11:00am - 11:50am

Timekeeper: Joe Scribe: Sally


11:00 – 11:05Review Ground Rules / One word opener
11:05 – 11:15
Review Project Progress Red/Yellow/ Green
Everyone share R/Y/G on key Lunch Committee Initiatives and share challenges
11:15 – 11:40
Key Decisions to be Made Hot Dogs or Hamburgers? Types of Dumplings?
• • • • Hot Dogs or Hamburgers – 15 mins Participants please reference SurveyMonkey results sent in Podio chat prior to meeting Types of Dumplings – 10 mins Participants all should bring one recipient of Grandma’s best dumplings for comparison
11:40 – 11:45
Loose Ends / Needs & Leads
11:45 – 11:50
One word close

Next Meeting: June 5, 11:00am Following Meeting: July 8, 11:00am