Moceanic meetings

Are Meetings Destroying Your Soul? Here’s How to Change That

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That could have been done with an email!

How often have you said that after a tedious, time-wasting meeting?

It’s a helpful question to ask. If you could have gathered the information you need by emailing the people you need to hear from — just email them!

But a good meeting can do things email will never be able to do:

  • Deal with complexity and nuance.
  • Get people into alignment.
  • Strengthen a sense of community.

You need things like that. All the time. In those cases, forget email. It won’t do the job. 

Meetings are necessary. Sometimes even good!

But the painful truth is, meetings are often the “default” way to connect with colleagues, whether it’s the right way or not. That’s why you sit through so many meetings, fuming about the five-minute email question that could have done the job.

Meetings are a plague in the nonprofit world, though I don’t think we’re alone in that. In a recent survey, 67% of respondents said they spend too much time in meetings and it keeps them from fully accomplishing their jobs.

Whose fault is that?

It’s the fault of whoever is running the meeting — or, sometimes, not running the meeting.

If you’re thinking about calling a meeting, before you do anything else, ask yourself two questions:

Question #1: Is a meeting really the most effective way to get what I need?

Maybe an email will do it. Or an informal survey. Or a notice posted in a place people will see. When you look at it through that lens, you are going to end up not calling a meeting a lot of the time. You will attain hero status at your organization!

But, sometimes, you’ll come to the conclusion that a meeting is necessary. Fair enough. It really is sometimes. That’s when you ask the next question:

Question #2: What is this meeting for?

Think very carefully about this. If the answer is “To discuss [topic],” you don’t have it. Go back to the first question again.

You must have a specific goal in mind — possibly more than one. And it must be in writing. Which leads to: 

Have an agenda

Share it ahead of time, or at least hand it out at the beginning of the meeting. It should include:

  • Time and location.
  • A list of people attending.
  • A brief description of the meeting’s objectives.
  • A list of topics to be covered.
  • Who will address each topic?
  • Background information participants need to know about the subject.

Stick to the agenda! If something pops up that’s off the agenda, don’t get sidetracked. Put it aside. After the meeting is over, ask yourself the two questions above to determine if the new topic merits a meeting.

Here are some other ways to keep your meetings lively, useful, and on target:

Keep the meeting small

Really think about who needs to be there. When in doubt, leave them out. Small meetings are faster, more focused, and more effective!

Maybe you’ve heard of Jeff Bezos’ rule for meetings: the Two Pizza Rule. No meeting should have more people than can be fed with two pizzas. Not a bad guideline, even if it’s an online meeting!

Keep it short

Never, never, never have a meeting with an open-ended stop time! Instead, give yourself a bit less time than you think you need. That will keep energy and focus high.

While meetings of 90 minutes or more are sometimes necessary, avoid them as much as possible. Two short meetings is probably better than one long one.

Respect the time

Don’t wait for late arrivals. Start the meeting at the start time. 

If you have chronic late-comers, deal with those people individually. It is a serious performance issue, and displays a lack of respect for other team members. If your organization has a culture of lateness, work on changing it! It is a bigger drag on your productivity than you may realize.

Some groups have found that odd start times (like 10:03 instead of 10 o’clock) can help people pay closer attention to the time.

Stay on task, even if you have to be mean about it

You know that guy who always launches into an unrelated filibuster at your meeting? 

Tell him to shut up!

Okay, sometimes that person is the boss, so you may have to modify the way you shut down the distraction.

You need to be strict about staying on task at the meeting. Bunny trails may be amusing, but they kill your meeting and keep you from accomplishing your task.

You might want to schedule times where people sit around and socialize. My favorite workplaces through the years have had weekly (or more) happy hours with no agenda, just fellowship. That’s important for a group of colleagues.

But it’s not a meeting.

No multitasking 

This one is hard. I know I’m guilty of sneaking a peek at my email or dashing off a text to someone during a meeting. (In my defence, it’s usually during a poorly run meeting that I shouldn’t really be in. But that defence wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny, I’m afraid!)

Multitasking destroys the purpose of your meeting. A recent study cited in the Harvard Business Review found that multitasking leads to a 40% drop in productivity — and a drop of 10 IQ points in those who do it. That’s a steep price to pay for a little convenience. You might as well have a nice roaring money bonfire in the middle of the room.

Set rules about multitasking in the meeting. You might need to set strict rules, keeping laptops, phones, and other communication devices out of the meeting. Some groups only allow paper or electronic note-taking devices. 

It’s also something to handle one-on-one with chronic offenders. It really should be considered an unacceptable work behavior. 

Stand up

No chairs allowed!

This will limit the time people can spend in the meeting. It also improves engagement, collaboration, and focus.

A recent study found that groups in stand-up meetings took 34% less time arriving at decisions, and the quality of their decisions was just as good.

Doing these things probably won’t turn your meetings into blissful tastes of paradise.  But they really will help to limit your time in them, improve productivity, and make them less soul-crushing.

Want to improve your work life as well as your fundraising results? Join The Fundraisingology Lab. You’ll get an amazing array of fundraising courses, cheat-sheets, templates, and other resources. You’ll also have access to our Facebook community where fellow fundraisers like you struggle with meetings and all the other challenges we all face.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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