My four rules for meetings

My four rules for meetings
Photo by Benjamin Child / Unsplash

It's Spring Break right now for us, and so there's a relative lull in the number of meetings I am attending. (Just two this week.) I've been going to more meetings than usual ever since I started working in the president's office, and this plus the lull is giving me some perspective on meetings and how, in my infinite wisdom, I think they ought to be run.

I say this tongue-in-cheek, but actually I do have some rules for meetings, and it's important to me to abide by those rules if I set up and run one. This hasn't happened often recently, since I am not currently chairing a committee and being a department chair is in the rear-view mirror. But the rules are top of mind nonetheless.

Meetings are awful; meetings are great

My #1 rule about meetings used to be that we shouldn't have them at all. People would get more done if we would just leave each other alone, so whatever it is you think necessitates a meeting, do it with a memo or an email or Slack instead.

This isn't totally untrue (see below). But I've been in enough actually good meetings to believe that meetings fulfill certain essential needs in an organization. Higher education, despite appearances, is inherently social (otherwise, just replace us with a YouTube channel) and social groups need social interaction. In fact, our meetings define who we are as a group. When I meet with my Math Department colleagues, we are the Math Department and not just a collection of nerds. And in those meetings, we build our collective knowledge and memory as a group, and we decide what public commitments we are making as a group.

So meetings are good, insofar as they further these purposes. But when they don't, they are a waste of time. So if I'm running a meeting, I want to make sure that we are doing the former and not the latter.

Rule 1: Be intentional

Meetings can be good, and they fulfill certain essential purposes. But it's still true that a lot of meetings don't need to happen and many people attending meetings don't need to be there. If you're the chair of something, just because you can call a meeting doesn't mean that you should. Ask yourself: What is the purpose of this meeting I am thinking about calling? (If you can't come up with a good answer, don't call the meeting.) Can that purpose be fulfilled more simply, for example with an email or a phone call or a hallway conversation?

And the list of people I am going to ask to attend: Do they all need to be there? Would the purpose of the meeting be better served with a smaller group of people? And, are there people who I should ask to be there who I haven't invited yet whose voice would be actually useful to the meeting? And can I disinvite someone else who doesn't need to be there, to make space for those other people?

Once you are certain that the meeting ought to happen and you've decided on the optimal (not "maximal"!) list of attendees, think about the agenda.

Every meeting should have an agenda, distributed to everyone coming to the meeting at least 2-3 days in advance if not sooner. The agenda should obviously list the items up for discussion. But it should not be just a list. Every agenda item ought to have either some explanation, a "TL;DR" summary of what it's about and why it's on the agenda, as well as the intended action or central question for each item. So, not "Discuss our credit transfer policy"; but

Credit transfer policy: Currently different departments have different ways of deciding whether credits from other institutions will transfer in. This is causing some inconsistencies in what we are allowing. Question: Is it OK that different departments employ different policies, or should there be a college-wide policy that applies to everyone?

That wasn't hard to write, it's informative and compelling, and now everybody getting the agenda knows what's coming and how to think about the agenda item.

The agenda is not just a list, it should be an ordered list. The ordering of agenda items makes a massive difference. Agenda items that require a lot of energy and brainpower, or which are time-sensitive, need to be at the front so you'll be sure to get to them. Put low-effort or relatively minor stuff at the end, so it's easy to punt them to the next meeting if needed. And it should go without saying, but if you have visitors in your meeting, order the agenda around them. Generally, visitors should go first unless they prefer not to. Otherwise you run into the unfortunate situation of a visitor, taking an hour or more out of their schedule to attend your meeting, but earlier items go over on time, and there is no time to include the visitor. It's basic professional courtesy to make sure not to end up there.

Rule 2: Manage the clock

Which gets us to the issue of clock management. Nothing, and I mean nothing, irritates me more than unconstrained and undisciplined use of time in a meeting (especially if I am not sure why the meeting is happening or why I am invited; see Rule 1). It's especially irritating because it's so easy to avoid.

First, if you are the chair, schedule the meeting. I don't mean, put the meeting on people's calendars (although obviously you should do that too). I mean schedule each agenda item into a time slot. Estimate how much time you are willing to devote to discussion on each agenda item before calling the question; then give that time, that amount of time. With the "credit transfer" agenda item above, it might look like

Credit transfer policy (1:10-1:25): Currently different departments have different ways of deciding whether credits from other institutions will transfer in. This is causing some inconsistencies in what we are allowing. Question: Is it OK that different departments employ different policies, or should there be a college-wide policy that applies to everyone?

This the concept of time boxing applied to agendas. Putting each agenda item in a box places a boundary around the discussion, thereby injecting some energy and a sense of purpose.

Warning: This will piss off the people in your group who like to talk. I don't have a lot of sympathy, though. The fact is that people have a finite amount of time and attention, especially in a meeting, and discussions need boundaries if they are actionable. (Rule 1: If an item is not actionable, why is it on the agenda?) There is a time and place for the unconstrained free play of ideas, and it's not in a meeting. If you can't live without unrestricted expression, write a blog.

Second, as the chair, you should manage the meeting using the schedule. Treat it like a conference session. When the time for an agenda item is coming to a close, signal that time is almost up, then call the question or decide on the next actions. Then stop, and move on to the next item. If this means telling the talkers in your group to stop talking, then so be it. It's not like you're silencing them altogether. And if you don't, those people whose voices aren't getting heard because of all the talkers in the group are getting silenced.

Humans are not good at time estimates and so when making the schedule, there's a decent chance you might get the time boxes wrong. If you need a few more minutes to really wrap up an agenda item, go ahead and steal some time from another item. But realize it's a zero-sum game: If you add 5 minutes onto one item, it needs to be taken away from some other item. You don't get to just keep going once the scheduled time for the meeting is over.

But if it looks like you need a lot more time to get to a truly actionable point, don't pretend that five more minutes is going to cut it. Table the discussion immediately until you can schedule the right amount of time.

Rule 3: Respect people

According to Rule 1, a person should be in your meeting only if the meeting itself has a clear purpose and if that person has a clear reason for being there. Once a person is there, respect that person's time and expertise by getting them involved and keeping yourself out of the center.

If you are the chair, then during the meeting your primary job is to enforce Rule 2 and to make sure everyone who has something to say, gets to say it. It does not give you pride of place in the discussion, and there is a real danger in the chair using the meeting as their own bully pulpit. This classic Harvard Business Review article put it best:

It is the chairman’s self-indulgence that is the greatest single barrier to the success of a meeting. His first duty, then, is to be aware of the temptation and of the dangers of yielding to it. The clearest of the danger signals is hearing himself talking a lot during a discussion.

A reasonable rule of thumb would be to take the length of the meeting and divide by the number of people attending, which gives roughly the total amount of time each person should get to talk in the meeting — then divide your time in half again, and that's your portion. (So a one-hour meeting with five people in it would give each person about 12 minutes total to speak, except for you — you get 6.)

If you are serious about inclusion and equity in a meeting, bring a stopwatch with you and keep track of this, as part of Rule 2. Just like in teaching, you need to keep track of who is talking and who isn't, respectfully get the talkers to shut up every now and then, and find ways to gently get non-talkers involved. Keep an eye out especially for people who talk a lot without really saying much.

I need to add a special note here for hybrid meetings. Chairs, I am begging you, don't treat remote participants in a meeting as if they are a separate species from the physically present participants. Sure, there's a different dynamic with remote attendees. But remote folks also need to have the same involvement in the meeting as anybody else. If you're chairing, set up your workspace so you can see the participant list and chat at all times, so you don't fail to see Zoom hands raised or comments in the backchannel. Make sure the audio is clear. Especially, figure out some way of handling voting that doesn't disenfranchise remote participants.  

I could do a whole blog post on this last point. Suffice to say that, in 2023, every meeting should have a remote participation option unless there is some legitimate reason not to (for example, meetings with sensitive or off-the-record discussions taking place) and remote participants should be on equal footing in every respect with in-person participants. This takes forethought and practice to get this right. But I think if you can get a Ph.D., you can figure out how to run a hybrid meeting.

Rule 4: End well

Even if you blow it with Rules 1-3, you can put a happy ending on a meeting with two actions.

First, end on time. If the meeting is scheduled for 2:00-2:50, the ending time is 2:50, not 2:50 plus some nonzero amount. Motions to adjourn should be in play by 2:45; by 2:52 the room should be empty.

But what if we need more time to finish our business? you ask. If I'm just a participant in the meeting, then my response to that is: That's not my problem. If you, as the chair, don't obey Rule 2 then you will end up here every time. When this happens, it's your responsibility. Don't make it the participants' by asking for motions to extend the meeting, or worse, extending the meeting by refusing to adjourn. Finish the meeting on time and then deal with the failure of clock management in some way that doesn't impose a burden on the others. And next time, remember it's Rule 2, not "Suggestion" 2. And failing to follow Rule 2 is really an instance of violating Rule 3.

Second, summarize. I like how our university president does this. When I am in a meeting she runs, she ends with three questions about each agenda item:

  • What did we decide?
  • Who is responsible for what?
  • What are the next actions?

This way, it's clear from my notes what exactly happened and what needs to happen moving forward. If the agenda is structured intentionally (Rule 1) then this should be easy.

If Leo Tolstoy were in academia today, he might say that all good meetings are alike and all crappy meetings are crappy in their own ways. Every good meeting (and again, those exist) seems to follow these four rules. And every meeting I've been in where I'm wondering what is this meeting about, why am I in this meeting, why is that one guy always pontificating, why am I still here when the meeting was supposed to end at 5pm --- it always seems to come back to some particular failure in one of these.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.