How to Design a Meeting: The Don’ts

How to Design a Meeting: The Don’ts

First of all, if you do the DOs of meeting design, you can probably avoid most of the Don’ts. But sometimes people need a reminder about bad behavior influences design.

The Management by Design methodology explores a number of ways to arrive at rules like this, by applying ideas like simplicity, equitability, forgiveness, flexibility. It suggests that organizations recognize policies and practice, technology, and space as the levers for design. The emphasis on these rules focuses mostly on policy and practice, and technology–they outline negative behaviors that move away from good design, such as considering the rhythm and motion of an organization as metaphors for goals and objectives. Perceptibility proves most important to meeting preparation, however, because it asks people to regularly, and openly share so the organization develops a near realtime understanding of work–who is doing it, where it is taking play, and why.

Poor meetings reflect poor management. Good meeting design reinforces professional management practices. For many, the best meeting is the meeting that doesn’t happen, and these rules account for that. Design calls for elegance, and elegance implies minimalism and efficiency. Do what is necessary well, avoiding the unnecessary.

These DONT’s complement the DOs in this post, both of which originated with an infographic that can be found here.

Download the Infographic


All of these principals apply as much to virtual meetings as they do face-to-face meetings.

Meeting Design Don’ts

Don’t hold the meeting if no one believes it will provide value. Yes, the first design principle is that if you really don’t need a meeting, don’t hold one. Sometimes managers will say, “I’m holding to our time commitment since we block this time for a meeting. Let’s hold it even if we aren’t what’s on the agenda for today.” If you don’t know the agenda, then you don’t need a meeting. Without an agenda, people will arrive and do the design work in the meeting. Perhaps after ten or fifteen minutes, they will conclude that they don’t need the meeting. That’s a waste of everyone’s time.

The “will provide value” clause of this admonition implies that the meeting managers remain in touch with participants and discuss upcoming meetings ahead of the meeting. Rather than assume a meeting because of schedule, consider assuming meetings to be canceled unless otherwise needed. That changes the mindset, so those with agenda items that require a meeting will feel obligated to justify any agenda item they propose.

Don’t assume everybody wants to be at the meeting. An invitation, even the acceptance of an invitation does not mean the attendee wants to be at the meeting. I have been in too many meetings to count where something else I was doing was important to me, and often more important to the collective goals of the organization than the meeting I was about to attend. Give people the option of not going. If content and actions live in a repository, and everything is up-to-date, people can catch up. Collaboration tools allow even non-attendees to add their collective wisdom to answer questions or overcome obstacles. Meetings need to have a purpose for the attendees—and if they don’t, then allow the attendee to opt-out.

Don’t invite people who don’t need to be in the meeting. There is a difference between want and need. Sometimes people who don’t want to be in a meeting require prodding because they are needed in the meeting.

Don’t backchannel. E-mail, side conversations, and other forms of backchanneling keep concerns and negotiations hidden—people don’t feel included, and that may lead to them not wanting to attend a meeting. No influence, no input equals no interest. Meetings can no have perpetual collaboration spaces in the majority of collaboration tools. Use those spaces to elevate all of the work and all of the thinking. When a meeting is required, it will become evident.

Don’t come unprepared. A well-designed meeting functions best with attendees who consider their participation before they arrive. An agenda sent out with sufficient lead-time should result in no surprises.

Don’t ask, “Does anyone has anything else to put on the agenda?” This is a reinforcement for a good agenda. A team co-creates a good agenda. Asking this question implies a disconnect between the members of the meeting. People should be up-to-speed on what is going on, and why the necessity of the meeting. Co-creating the agenda forces people to share ahead of the meeting, ensuring the meeting focuses only on what important topics.

Don’t deviate from the agenda. If teams co-create agendas, then the important items are on the list—the time commitment of the agenda should focus on solving or informing on agenda items.

Don’t e-mail anything to anybody about the meeting. Meetings should have a meeting space. Meeting spaces should automatically remind attendees of a meeting. Keep all content in the meeting space

Don’t load the Meeting Space with duplicate copies of files. Learn the workflow and the tools. If a document includes shared editing features, use those features. Do not download a copy of a file, update it, and then expect others to figure out what you did. This remains an all too common practice even when documents offer shared authorship and annotations. Duplicate copies confuse people, and they create extra work.

Don’t use the Meeting Space to capture discussions about projects or tasks with their own collaboration spaces. If you are working on a shared document that lives in a project space, and that document comes up in the meeting, go to that project space or document directly and place comments and actions there. A meeting may not include all of the stakeholders for a document, or decision, or discussion—by keeping the discussions focused on the object of the discussion, those not in the meeting remain informed about the evolution of the idea or the content.

Don’t take minutes. In a modern workspace, minutes make no sense. Posting tasks, assigning action items, sharing information, and updating content with annotations constitute the new minutes. The work of the meeting is the work itself, not a commentary on agreements about the work. And with AI becoming more available to meetings, teams will be able to take notes and actions through verbal instruction to the AI, eliminating the need to stop and create a task. Eventually, the Ais may assign tasks without being asked by inferring agreements among the participants and automatically documenting those agreements. No information should be shared first in a meeting unless sharing the new information represents the meeting’s design intent.

Don’t confuse a status meeting with a working meeting. Be clear on the agenda if a meeting is about sharing or about solving. Meeting designs unclear about their purpose lead to frustration among attendees.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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