Avoid boring, needless meetings

27 July 2023

I facilitate team strategy days, offsites and team retreats, which are essentially fancy meetings. But what about the millions of meetings happening everyday in every company? That's right, those dreaded time-wasting, soul-sucking, mind-numbing gatherings that drain us of our precious time and energy. But fear not, you can take some simple facilitation tips and tricks to improve meetings and make them work for you.

The Problem with Meetings

First of all, let's be honest with ourselves - most meetings are a waste of time because they're poorly planned and executed. They're either too long, too boring, too irrelevant, or too unproductive. And you know what's worse than a bad meeting? A bad meeting that could have been an email.

It's time to wake up and smell the coffee. We need to stop this madness of scheduling meetings for the sake of scheduling meetings. We need to stop wasting people's time and energy, and start valuing their contributions and insights. We need to rethink the way we approach meetings and make them more effective, efficient, and enjoyable. What we have learnt after the pandemic is that time together is valuable and we need to use it well.

The Evolving Design Way

So, how do we do that? It's all about the Evolving Design way. That's right, the same approach that I use to facilitate strategy days and customer success sprints, like the ones I have delivered for Google, they can also be applied to your meetings.

Let's break it down into five simple steps:

Illustrated character looks bored, staring directly forward during a meeting with other participants behind and surrounding them. He has glasses and a tie tied loosely. There are papers in front of him, next to a coffee cup.

Step 1: What is the purpose of our time together?

The first step to improving meetings is to ask yourself, "Do we really need to have this meeting, or can we achieve the same results through a more efficient means of communication?" To decide this you need to find the purpose of the time you have together. When I have a scoping call with my clients I use a simple technique called “The 5 whys” to find their purpose. It goes like this:

Me: "Why are you thinking about having a team retreat?" Client: "Because I feel like our team needs to bond more and work better together." Me: "Why do you think that is necessary?"

Client: "I feel that our team is not collaborating effectively and that is negatively impacting our productivity." Me: "Why do you think the team is not collaborating effectively?" Client: "I think it's because we don't have clear communication channels and everyone is working in silos." Me: "Why do you think there are communication gaps?" Client: "I believe that we lack a shared understanding of our goals and objectives." Me: "Why do you think that is the case?" Client: "I think we haven't taken the time to align on our goals and objectives, and everyone is working towards their own priorities."

Aha! Now we have a clear purpose, the retreat needs to be focused on the team’s collective goals and objectives… we can add in bonding but that is not the real purpose.

Using this approach with your meetings can mean that sometimes, a quick phone call, email, or chat message can save everyone's time and energy, and still achieve the same goal. We need to be mindful of the purpose and value of each meeting, and only schedule them when necessary.

Step 2: Set a clear purpose and stick to it.

Assuming that you do need to have a meeting, the second step is to set a clear purpose, I don’t mean objective I mean purpose, and be focused on that alone. Understand what the desired outcome is and make sure that is not designed around process. Reviewing the quarterly results is necessary but is the the outcome? No, it is a process. What is the desired outcome of a quarterly review, well it is to align, identify opportunities to improve and plan next steps, to understand where we can do better. Communicating a purpose and desired outcome will help everyone feel more engaged in the meeting, much more than a bullet point agenda that describes the process.

Don't waste people's time by going off on tangents, getting sidetracked, or having endless debates about trivial matters that don’t relate to or add value to the purpose or get you closer to the desired outcome. Be concise, be focused, and be respectful of everyone's time. I use a “parking lot” where new ideas or topics unrelated to the main purpose come up. We park them and make sure they get followed up separately.

The desired outcomes should be communicated well in advance, and everyone should be aware of the purpose of the meeting. This will make sure everyone can prepare and contribute meaningfully. For the introverts and other people who want time to order their thoughts, this can ensure they come ready to share the good stuff and aren’t thrown into thinking about it in the meeting. Traditional meetings expect everyone to be sharp, trust me, nobody is capable of that all the time.

Step 3: Encourage participation and engagement.

The third step is to encourage participation and engagement. Too often, meetings become one-sided lectures or monologues, where only a few people speak and the rest tune out or multitask. This is a recipe for disengagement and disinterest. Instead, make sure that everyone has a chance to speak, ask questions, share ideas, and provide feedback. There are soooo many exercises you can use to facilitate this in your meetings. If you don’t have time to discover them all start with Liberating Structures and the Design Sprint for some easy to learn exercises that get everyone contributing and stops the loudest, highest paid in the room from dominating, you know who you are! Create a culture of collaboration and inclusivity, where everyone feels valued and heard.

A simple 2-4-all (Liberating Structures exercise) format to discussing a topic or challenge makes sure everyone speaks and is heard, sieving the most useful contributions through so everyone hears them.

When you are looking for inspiration from outside the team, look no further than expert interviews and lightning demos from the Design Sprint. They are simple inclusive approaches to gathering expertise from outwith your team and gathering examples from your own and other sectors of how other people have solved the challenge you face.

This will help to generate more diverse and creative ideas, and also increase the sense of ownership and commitment to the decisions and actions.

Step 4: Be creative and innovative.

The fourth step is to be creative and innovative. Don't fall into the trap of doing things the same old way, just because that's how it's always been done. Experiment with new formats, techniques, and technologies that can make meetings more dynamic, interactive, and engaging. If you are using remote platforms like Butter, Miro, Mural or Figma, they all get you working together, wherever you are. Use visuals, videos, games, simulations, or other tools that can stimulate creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking. There is a place for AI tools to support creativity too. A prompt in ChatGPT, Bard, Midjourney or many other tools may be the spark to get you and the team over a hump if you are struggling to make progress in your meeting.

“Create 10 marketing ideas for a facilitation business that provides expert facilitation for teams during offsites, helping them solve sticky challenges they face”

Random example off the top of my head 😉

This will help to break the monotony and boredom of traditional meetings, and also increase the level of excitement and energy.

Step 5: Follow up and follow through.

The final step is to follow up and follow through. Don't let the momentum and energy of the meeting dissipate once it's over. Make sure that you take action on the decisions, ideas, and action items that were discussed. Assign roles and responsibilities, set deadlines and milestones, and communicate progress and results. Show everyone that the meeting was not just a waste of time, but a valuable investment in the success of the organization.

This will help to reinforce the sense of accountability and achievement, and also build trust and confidence in the team. With more meeting AI tools that can transcribe and summarise meetings this should free you to be present and save time making good on the outcomes of the meeting time together.

A diverse team of 8 are standing around a central desk in a light office space with glass walls. Sticky notes on the desk and windows. The team are celebrating and smiling together, trying to high five.


So, there you have it, folks - my tips on how to improve meetings the Evolving Design way. Remember, meetings don't have to be a necessary evil, they can be a powerful tool for communication, collaboration, and innovation.

By applying the Evolving Design way, we can turn meetings from a dreaded chore into an exciting opportunity. We can make meetings more enjoyable, productive, and meaningful. We can unleash the full potential of our teams and organizations.

Just be mindful, be purposeful, and evolving those meetings, enjoy.

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Ben Rouse is the founder and head facilitator at Evolving Design, who help teams collaborate, problem solve and achieve their ambitious goals.

Ben worked as a teacher and trainer before moving into facilitation, bringing his expertise together to facilitate team experiences.