Rework has a chapter called “Meetings are Toxic.”  Like several chapters in the book, this one closed with some punchy advice.  If you must have a meeting they suggest the following:

  • Set a timer.  When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.
  • Invite as few people as possible.
  • Always have a clear agenda.
  • Begin with a specific problem.
  • Meet at the site of the problem instead of a conference room.  Point to real things and suggest real changes.
  • End with a solution and make someone responsible for implementing it.


I like the idea of setting a timer, though in most of my meetings this isn’t a problem–it isn’t unusual for them to end early.  Watching the clock is definitely important and sometimes adding time lengths for each agenda topic helps.

Meetings Are Not An Open House

It goes against the notion of company cultures who place a high value on consensus and open discussion to limit access.  In my experience, if you have a deadline, it is the only way to get things done.  More people do not increase the speed at which decisions are made–the right people do.

For this reason I don’t send out blanket meeting invitations.  When someone asks if they can join or volunteers another person I often ask, “What role would you (or they) be representing that is not already represented at this meeting?”  If one team needs to send five people to cover all the angles for their team, you’ve got bigger problems.  I try to draw the line at two people per team.  The key is inviting people that need to be consulted or have decision making power.

Clear Agendas Reduce Meeting Time By 50%

I made up this statistic, but very few, if any of my meetings run over.  It’s usually because the agenda is tight, well thought out, and seeded with issues that need to be discussed.  Part of the art of creating good agendas is the order of the topics.  Sometimes it is good to start with a couple of soft, easy to solve topics to build momentum and engagement–both important things to have as you move to complicated or controversial topics.  Putting controversial topics at the end of meeting is often good because it limits the duration of the discussion and attendees leave, feeling that they accomplished something through the earlier topics–even if the complex issues must be carried forward to another meeting.  No one likes to attend a meeting for an hour and leave, feeling like nothing was resolved.

No Agenda, No Meeting

I was taken aback a few weeks ago when I double-checked with someone to see if they were coming to a meeting I had schedule.  Instead of saying “yes” or “no” they said, “What is the agenda?”… not “How long will it be?” or “Sorry, I have a conflict.”  Good for them!  I could swear I read it in Rework or maybe it was somewhere else… something along the lines of “refuse to attend any meeting that does not have an agenda.”  While that might be hard to do, it could certainly save a lot of time.

Next Steps Automatically Create The Next Agenda

Ending the discussion of each topic with a documented solution or “next steps” combined with an identified owner is key.  Once the details are recorded in the minutes it makes it really easy to copy and paste into the agenda for the next meeting.  Even if you can’t resolve the issue immediately, setting out the next step or two is the best way to keep making progress.

The best way to capture meeting minutes, and I cannot recommend this enough, is a collaborative text editor–whether it is Google Docs, Etherpad (my current preference), or Gobby–something everyone at the meeting can view and contribute to as the meeting happens in real time.

Not only can attendees correct simple spelling mistakes and add URLs to important documents, they are also witness to the fact that they’ve received an action item or agreed to do something.  It also increases engagement in distributed settings.

Never Leave The Scene of a Meeting Without Finishing the Minutes

Good, widely-distributed meeting minutes are important if you limit access to your meeting.  Using a collaborative text editor, I can usually turn meeting minutes around within 15 minutes of a meeting ending if I take a few extra seconds during the meeting to finish typing the details for a given issue before moving on to the next topic.  This adds four or five minutes to the meeting overall, but it is far better then the 30 or 40 minutes you’ll spend later trying to remember what was decided when there’s finally room in your schedule to finish them.

What are your tips for avoiding toxic meetings?

Image by cpkatie via flickr used under a Creative Commons license.