Ask These Three Questions to Eliminate Bad Meetings

Acadia National Park, Maine; photo by the author

Many have written about how the coronavirus pandemic has not resulted in new trends so much as it has accelerated existing trends. The shift to e-commerce from in-store shopping. Broader acceptance of work from anywhere for the knowledge economy. Valuing more livable spaces (this coming from a born-and-raised Manhattanite!). These trends began before the pandemic but have picked up speed (rapidly, in many cases) over the course of the last five months.

Here’s another trend that the pandemic has accelerated: too many meetings, and in particular, too many bad meetings.

From March 16 through August 14 of this year, I spent an average of 9.5 hours per day in Zoom meetings. Oof. Regardless of quality, that surely is too many meetings. And while my personal Zoom statistics may be extreme, if you’re reading this post you likely agree: the pandemic has pushed us to the breaking point. We’re having too many meetings.

Too many meetings is resulting in fatigue, getting in the way of doing deep work (focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task), and extending the working day.

My executive coach, Doug Langdon, recently introduced me to three questions that meeting organizers can ask of participants to identify and improve upon or eliminate bad meetings.

The questions are:

  • Was this a good use of your time?

I’ve found these questions to be a powerful diagnostic tool, and one that I wish was in my toolkit years ago. Among the realizations I’ve had, after using these questions for the better part of a month:

  • This meeting could have been an email/Slack exchange.

Some combinations of responses at first seem counterintuitive. For example, if a participant says that a meeting was not a good use of his or her time, doesn’t that necessarily mean their answer to the second question (“Are you glad you were here?”) would also be “no?” It turns out this is not the case; participants often are glad to have attended a meeting even if they felt it wasn’t time well spent. Like all diagnostic tools, critical thinking is required to interpret and—importantly—take action based on the results.

I’m still struggling with the third question, “Could we have done a better job?” In my experience, too often it gets the reflexive we can always be doing better response. Perhaps this is the point of the question—to remind everyone that improving meeting quality is a shared and never-ending objective—but I would prefer a question that triggers more thoughtful responses. I would love to hear suggestions from my readers.

Speaking of my readers, I was somewhat shocked to learn that they still exist! In fact, this blog receives almost 1,000 views every month despite my not having published a new article since May of last year. Thank you again for reading. While I can’t promise a return to weekly updates, I will do my best to make them more frequent than annual!

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.