Product managers tend to spend the vast majority of their time in meetings. After all, most of the time, you have to collaborate with other people to get things done.
Given that, it’s worth paying attention to the efficiency of those meetings. Even minor improvements to how your meetings are managed can make the difference between having a hyper-productive day and wasting a whole workday not achieving anything meaningful.
In this article, I’ll share some of my biggest learnings on what differentiates a great meeting from a mediocre one.
You can have the biggest impact on meeting quality before it actually happens, so let’s spend most of our attention on this part.
Although well-intended, starting meeting planning from an agenda is often quite counterproductive.
Let’s face it, as the meeting evolves and new facts and insights appear, the agenda will become outdated quickly, and you’ll face two options:
Both of these aren’t what you look for from a great meeting.
Instead, focus on setting primary and supporting objectives for the meeting. A primary objective is the main goal of the meeting. The meeting should be planned and facilitated to ensure the objective is reached. This tends to be the primary indicator of whether a meeting was successful.
Supporting objectives are what I would call “should/nice-to-have goals.” If you can achieve them, that’s perfect, but it’s okay to deviate from them in case more pressing talking points arise or if you need more time to reach your primary objective.
In other words, adopt an MVP mindset to your meetings.
Don’t get me wrong, agendas are okay. However, I’d treat them as a guide that helps us:
The goal of the meeting should always be to reach the desired meeting objective, not to follow the agenda to the dot, so don’t overthink it. High-level thematic blocks are enough, such as:
Going into more details rarely makes sense.
Now that you know the goals of the meeting and have developed a high-level plan for the meeting, figure out who to invite.
A common misconception people tend to have is that you can only run a meeting with either a small and productive group, or a bigger one with more expertise. However, you can accomplish more by doing both.
First, identify key stakeholders that should be present for the whole meeting. That’s your working group.
Once you’ve done that, it’s okay to invite additional subject matter experts to some parts of the meeting. The key is to only invite them for part of the meeting.
If you’d like to hear your customer support team’s input during the ideation phase, invite them for that part and let them save some time during later stages.
Don’t fall for the false belief that if you invite someone, you must invite them for the whole meeting. Respect people’s time and your meeting efficiency by having extra people present only when they can genuinely contribute.
While defining the audience, it’s also worth deciding on notetakers beforehand.
With clear objectives, a high-level agenda, and an audience identified, it’s time to plan the timing of the meeting.
Let’s start with length. I have quite a strong opinion here — productive meetings feel too short. Whether it’s the introduction phase, ideation, or next step planning, your audience should always feel that “they could use a few more minutes.”
A sense of scarcity and urgency keeps people energized and focused. In the worst-case scenario, you can plan a follow-up session. Trust me, you’ll achieve way more during two focused one-hour-long sessions than during one two-hour-long meeting.
Keep in mind the cycle of the day. Don’t expect too much energy and engagement if you hold a meeting during the post-lunch slump. Based on my experience, between ten and twelve AM is the best time for demanding meetings.
Also, I’d encourage you to start the meeting five minutes past the thirty-minute increment. So, instead of planning it at 11:30, start at 11:35. Those five minutes will be a lifesaver for people on back-to-back meetings.
If a meeting requires alignment on important information, do it beforehand.
Collect the most important facts and references and send them to attendees so that you can jump straight into collaboration once you start the meeting.
Don’t waste people’s time sharing information that could have been an email.
If you follow all the pre-meeting steps, the actual meeting should be a breeze. Nonetheless, there are still some points you need to remember.
Approaching meetings as if they were fully-fledged workshops helped me improve my meeting efficiency ten-fold.
Many people stray away from strong facilitation out of fear of appearing too dominating. But trust me, if your facilitation helps the meeting become more efficient, no one will be mad.
You shouldn’t put meetings on autopilot.
Every few minutes, ask yourself, “Is the current topic contributing to achieving the meeting goals?”
Whenever it deviates from intended objectives, steer the conversation back on the right track. This occasional sanity check is a game-changer.
Sometimes new facts discovered during the meeting can make the previous objective obsolete. In cases like that, it’s okay to change the objective. Just make sure it’s a conscious decision and not an accidental endeavor.
Whenever new topics not directly related to the objective appear, put them on a dedicated parking list to revisit after the meeting.
Make sure the list is visible for all participants. This serves as an affirmation for everyone that the topic is important and will be revisited later. Otherwise, they might keep the topic at the back of their heads, making it harder to focus on the meeting objective.
Most people become alert whenever they hear their own name during the meeting, as it’s a clear signal that someone is either talking to them or mentioning them.
It’s a simple hack that costs you nothing and will dramatically increase the overall level of attention in the meeting. It’s hard to multitask when you hear your name every minute of the meeting, isn’t it?
There are two main things to take care of after the meeting concludes: ensuring alignment and taking learnings.
While creating and sharing a concise summary with the next steps after the meeting is already common practice (and if you don’t practice it yet, please start), one step is often neglected: getting everyone to sign off.
I always expect my meeting attendees to react with a checkmark reaction on Slack whenever I write a summary to ensure they read it and agree with it, and if someone doesn’t, I follow-up accordingly. As tiring as it may seem, it has already helped me avoid a few misalignments.
If alignment is truly crucial, call out specific people to confirm in writing that they agree on a particular topic and/or agree on next steps and action points.
I know what you might be thinking… “What? Gather feedback after every single meeting I lead? It’s like five times a day!”
Well, that’s one more reason why you should always strive to keep your meeting facilitation game top-notch, isn’t it?
For bigger, recurring meetings (say, refinements, retrospectives, and kickoffs), I have a recurring Google Docs form I send out after the meeting. For less regular meetings, a casual slack message asking for feedback will do.
Those micro-feedback loops add up over time.
Every single meeting is a workshop.
You gather people in one place and strive to achieve a particular goal in a structured manner.
Then why we often don’t treat them with the same respect as fully-fledged workshops?
Although a single meeting is indeed usually less important and impactful than a design sprint, if you zoom out, you’ll notice that you spend significantly more time on those smaller meetings than on bigger workshops.
In the long run, it’s what happens during those small, recurring meetings that truly matter.
Featured image source: IconScout
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