You can't run a business without meetings.

But here at Showcase, we at least try to keep meetings to a minimum.

Many of us came from the corporate world, and we know instinctively that getting together just to talk through our work is not the best use of our time.

In fact, our team playbook includes an infographic of our preferred forms of workplace communication, and meetings don’t rate highly on the chart:

I thought I knew a lot about running meetings — that is, until I picked up Mamie Kanfer Stewart’s book, “Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging and Enjoyable Meetings.”

(Full disclosure: I bought the Kindle edition of this book, thinking it would be a light read. Had I known it runs 332 pages, I might have felt daunted at the thought of how much I didn't know about meetings!)

In this post, I'm going to highlight some of the insights that really hit home for me and tell you how we used them to improve the meeting culture over at Showcase.

The Problem With Meetings

Mamie starts her book by cutting right to the chase and offering up some pretty true-to-life observations that people often make about meetings. Does any of this sound familiar?

“I find myself asking why we are even having this meeting.”

“Meetings are a distraction from my real work.”

“My day is run by my calendar.”

“I feel like we meet all the time.”

Boy, did these ring true for me! One of the reasons we’re light on meetings at Showcase is our own experiences of that culture of back-to-back meetings, like it was some kind of badge of honor.

But Mamie goes deeper and dives into the real drivers for that “meeting fatigue” expressed by so many people. They’re all really insightful, but a few really stood out to me.

No One Comes Prepared

How many times have you arrived at a meeting, and things immediately stall because no one took the trouble to prepare properly? They haven’t brought the right data with them, they didn’t review the document in advance like they were supposed to, or they just talk off the top of their heads about something without having thought it through properly. The meeting derails pretty quickly, and everyone ends up just wanting to get out of there … fast!

People Don’t Behave

Meetings can really bring out the worst in people — personal interaction at its worst. Some insist on dominating the conversation and talking over everyone else to make their point. Some refuse to let an issue go, even when it’s clearly time to move on. Some are chronic interrupters. And then there are the people who simply say what’s already been said by someone else, adding nothing of value to the conversation. These dynamics don’t just derail the meeting, they can leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth afterwards.

To make this even more complicated, most people don’t mean to misbehave. The meeting dynamic itself just feeds miscommunication. Here’s a perfect example from the book:

I was once in a meeting with my fellow consultants at a firm where I used to work. We were analyzing the client’s issue, and one team member was dominating the conversation. She kept talking and elaborating on her ideas, leaving no room for other people to jump in.
While I was still processing my thoughts, she suddenly said to me and another colleague, “Are you still with me? You’ve been so quiet, I’m not sure if you understand or agree with me. I can continue explaining if you want.”
At that point, I realized my quietness had fed her assumption that I had reservations about her ideas, and this triggered her to fill the silence. Her non-stop talking also reinforced my assumption that she just wanted to dominate the conversation.
Neither of us came to the meeting intending to be disruptive or make the other person annoyed or uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what happened.

Nothing Changes

This is one of the most dangerous outcomes of a poorly managed meeting: no outcome at all. Even after an energetic team discussion, with consensus on next steps, if no one is taking notes and assigning actions, there’s no accountability. Without any follow-through, the meeting may as well have never happened at all. Not only have you lost momentum, but people start to question the value of getting together as a team at all and retreat back into their silos.

The Magic of Setting Expectations

Fortunately, Mamie has a simple answer for all of these “meeting fails”:

Establish a set of meeting norms.

I don't know if this is already “a thing” in business and I'm the only one who's never heard of it, but having a set of ground rules for meeting etiquette would have saved me a ton of frustration in my old working life.

And it’s so simple. Mamie helpfully lists out a set of meeting norms that she’s compiled over the years through her work in group facilitation. She breaks them out into different categories, for clarity. (While the book includes many meeting norms for each category, I’ve included a few of the specific recommendations that have worked really well for our team.)

Process Norms

These relate to how people are expected to behave in a meeting, and really, a lot are just common courtesy.

  • Don’t be late.
  • Don’t start side conversations.
  • Stay on topic.
  • And one of my personal favorites, “allow yourself to be facilitated.”

Preparation Norms

These apply to expectations for what happens before the meeting.

  • Show up ready to participate, and to make commitments for your area or function.
  • Familiarize yourself with the agenda, and review any necessary material ahead of time.

For the organizer, the expectation is that the meeting material and agenda should be available at least 24 hours before the meeting.

Communication Norms

These are really important, and something that more people should pay attention to.

  • Ask questions to avoid making assumptions.
  • Listen actively without interrupting the speaker.
  • Say what you have to say in the room, don’t raise an issue later.

These are areas where people can easily overstep in the heat of the moment (see People Don’t Behave, above), so making expectations clear can help make everyone more aware of their behavior.

How We Improved Our Meetings at Showcase

After reading Mamie’s book, I was inspired to see how we could improve our own minimalistic meeting culture at Showcase.

As I’ve noted, we don’t overload our team with meetings by any stretch, but when I took a look at the numbers, I realized that we were spending 12 hours every quarter just on team meetings. (In her book, Mamie suggests actually doing the math on that and calculating how much money that time translates into — it’s eye-opening.)

The results? For starters, our Monday meetings have gone from rattling off a to-do list for the week, to a laser-focused planning session. Everyone comes prepared with the main items that they want to achieve for the week.

We’ve also eliminated our Friday meetings altogether, and instead use our Slack channel to record our achievements for the week.

Finally, I’ve gotten better at controlling the flow of our meetings so no one’s time is wasted, and we still make progress on the work.

Meetings Don’t Have to Be Torture

At the heart of it, meetings are about human interaction. And human interaction can be unpredictable — which is why setting clear expectations about how team members should behave and how outcomes will be achieved is so critical.

Notwithstanding what I said about Showcase not being big on meetings, they're still an important part of business culture. Instead of thinking of them as interruptions to your "actual" work, look at them as an opportunity to collaborate with your team.

I recently joined Mamie on her podcast to talk about meetings. Among other things, we talked about our liberal use of the “poop” emoji in the Showcase mission statement and how our playful team playbook contributes to and mirrors our company culture.

>> Listen to the episode here