How to Run Productive Meetings (That Don't Suck Your Time)
You can’t eliminate all product meetings. If you decide a meeting is absolutely necessary, follow these steps to keep it productive.
As a product manager, you probably have a calendar filled with meetings. Every meeting seems like an obstacle in your way that prevents you from focusing on the things that matter: Your customers’ needs and building a quality product.
What’s worse is that as your company grows, takes on more customers, and hires more people, the problem only seems to get worse. Eventually meetings become part of your culture and end up slowing everything down.
Meetings have a serious cost. A weekly one-hour team meeting can cost $17,576 over the course of a year, $5,870.38 of which represents unproductive time.
Furthermore, meetings eat away at personal productivity. Time is a zero-sum game. The time we spend in a meeting is taken from time spent doing something else.
So how do you make meetings more productive?
Your first objective is to decide if a meeting is necessary. In our experience, you can replace most meetings with a quick phone call or email without affecting your performance.
A simple test is to ask yourself what would happen if you never called the meeting. Would the lack of information affect your work? Would you have to communicate another way? Would that other form of communication affect your work?
That said, some meetings are necessary. You can’t eliminate them all, especially when you lead a team of engineers. If you decide a meeting is absolutely necessary, follow these steps to keep it productive.
Free download: Product Manager’s Checklist for Productive and Efficient Meetings
Step 1: Define a Leader/Owner
When there’s no leader, groups of people are susceptible to diffusion of responsibility, a psychological phenomenon that makes us think someone else will manage the meeting. As responsibility becomes diluted, the meeting loses effectiveness.
Each meeting should have a single leader. If that’s not you, assign someone else to take control. The leader’s job is to ensure that the meeting is necessary, productive, and follows the agenda.
Step 2: Establish a Clear Goal
Every meeting needs a goal. The goal doesn’t have to be complex, but it should be clear and easy to understand. The goal is a target the meeting will try to hit.
For instance, your goal might be to…
- Get feedback from the team on the UI mockup.
- Quickly articulate tasks for the day.
- Pass on direction from the executive team.
- Assign resources for a new feature.
Your meeting goals should revolve around high-level decision-making. Status updates and lower-level decisions are best handled by collaboration tools. Underway, for instance, is a simple and effective tool to update your team, leaders, and stakeholders without calling them into the same room. Start your free trial here.
Once you know your goal, craft an agenda that serves it. Again, this doesn’t need to be complex. A short list of bullet points is fine.
Create your agenda by starting with the goal and working backwards. For instance, let's say you want to explore a new feature with the team. First you would discuss the underlying problem the feature is supposed to solve and the proposed solution. Then you might inquire about the resources needed to build it, the timeline to produce the first version, and any challenges that could appear along the way.
Once you work through your agenda and achieve your goal, the meeting is over. Don’t keep everyone around talking, even if you haven’t used all of your scheduled time. (Work tends to fill the allotted time, so be mindful about talking just because there’s time left.)
Additionally, make sure to only invite the people necessary to serve. Don’t invite anyone because they “may want to hear it” or “might be interested.” No guests!
Step 3: Establish Rules of Conduct
It's important to set some rules for your team's behavior so they don't derail your meeting’s productivity. Your rules should help you work through your agenda, meet your goal, and conduct a meeting as quickly as possible.
Here are some common rules that are easy to implement:
- No cell phones, tablets, or laptops unless they’re needed for the meeting’s goal.
- No sidebar conversations between attendees.
- No discussions about topics that are not on the agenda.
- No one is allowed to sit in on the meeting unless they serve the meetings goal.
- Do not make the group wait for you.
- Read the agenda before the meeting, along with any supplementary material provided.
That list certainly isn't exhaustive. Feel free to set your own rules. For instance, you might ask everyone to stand up during a scrum meeting. This prevents everyone from “settling in.” Or you might set a time limit for everyone’s update. Create whatever rules meet your needs.
Step 4: Stick to the Agenda
Once you're in the meeting, your job is to ensure the group adheres to the agenda. Teams have a tendency to fall off track, so it might help to post the agenda somewhere in the meeting space. You will also want to distribute the agenda to the team when you invite them to the meeting. This also helps them come prepared.
If your team begins to discuss topics that don't relate to the agenda, politely but firmly steer them back toward your plans. Let them know that you'll happily discuss those topics another time.
Step 5: Don’t Strive for Consensus
Many product managers extend meetings longer than they need to because they strive to achieve consensus. They don’t break until everyone agrees with the plan (or at least until everyone says they agree with it).
But as a leader, you don’t need consensus. Sure, it would be nice if everyone supported the plan, but that isn’t necessary. As long as everyone has offered feedback and understands their responsibilities and deadlines, you can safely disband the meeting.
Besides, ideas and plans are best validated by the customer, not the product team. Consensus from the team just creates average ideas and average results. David Cancel, CEO of Drift, says it perfectly: “We don’t vote on ideas or decisions. The best idea will never sound like the best idea to everyone, so we let our customers validate our decisions.”
Step 6: Document the Meeting
Some people think meeting notes are unnecessary paperwork, but they’re important tools to stay organized if you lead a lot of meetings. Without them, there’s a good chance you’ll forget what was discussed, what was decided, and who’s responsible for the next steps.
Take notes during your meeting or enlist someone to help. If the meeting is especially short (like a morning stand-up), you may be able to take notes after the discussion. If the meeting is longer than 15 minutes or involves critical information or decision-making, consider recording the audio so you can review it later.
After the meeting, send your notes to the attendees. Separate the action items, owners, and deadlines and place them at the top so they aren’t lost in the text. For instance, you might write…
- Michael will complete UI mockup for new feature by October 12.
- Annie will reach out to 20 customers for feedback by October 18.
- Alex will compile a report on Feature X’s usage by October 7th.
Step 7: Summarize and Assign Action Items
Depending on the length of your meeting, you may discuss a number of topics. By the end of the meeting, there’s a chance your team will forget what you decided or what tasks they were assigned. Use your notes to quickly recap what you discussed and what decisions were made.
This is an important way to keep everyone on the same page. It helps to ask “Did I forget anything?” after your summary in case you missed something.
In many cases, you’ll find that one or several of your attendees drew different conclusions. For instance, one person may think you agreed to hold off on that new project while someone else thinks you expect them to start moving on it. The summary is when you’ll clear up any confusion.
Most importantly, use the final minutes of the meeting to explicitly assign ownership of responsibilities. It’s very easy for no one to act because everyone assumed someone else will. Refer to each team member’s name with their action items and deadline so there is transparency, clarity, and accountability.
Step 8: Update the Attendees
Continue to update the attendees over time as the resulting decisions progress. This is an important way to help your attendees realize you didn't waste their time with a meeting.
But don’t host another meeting!
Instead, use a simple tool to send everyone the appropriate information. Email may not be enough, but you don’t need to invite them all to all another tool with more notifications.
As a product manager, you spend too much time in meetings. Use this checklist to ensure every meeting you host or participate in is fast, efficient, and productive.
Focus on the Things That Matter
As a product manager, your job is to serve your customer. You should spend your time worrying about your customers’ problems and needs, not conducting pointless, unproductive meetings.
If you follow the steps we've outlined above, your meetings will be short and efficient. You’ll clear your calendar so you can focus on the tasks that add the most value to your product.