Business meetings

Why are business meetings so often awful?

Most people's experience of meetings at work is likely to be a broadly negative one. Even amongst relatively senior people you can have a bit of fun by asking the question 'how many of you frequently attend meetings that are poorly run?' Most people will put their hands up. Now ask 'how many of you yourselves frequently chair meetings that are poorly run?' Far fewer hands will go up! All too often we think other people's meetings are rubbish whilst our are great!

The fact is that many meetings are indeed poor, even those chaired or led by otherwise apparently competent people. So why is that? Normally it's down to one or more of the following reasons:

  • The meeting was unnecessary

  • The meeting was poorly prepared

  • The meeting was badly conducted

  • The participants were inappropriate

  • The agreed actions were not captured or followed up

If we look at each problem and turn it around, we should be able to arrive at a formula for successful meetings.

People misbehaving in a meeting

Copyright: Diego Cervo,

Why hold a meeting?

The question is not as silly as it may sound. If you have organised a four hour meeting with (say) eight participants, and each participant costs the organisation £35,000 per year, you have just committed to spending at least £640 on employment costs alone, and that takes no account of preparation time, travel costs, time lost on travel or any other costs. And if your business is making a return on sales of (say) 6%, you need another £11,000 of sales to justify it! So before committing to a meeting, you need to be very clear on the reasons for it. And if those reasons can be better met by other means, don't have the meeting!  A bad meeting is money down the drain.

A bad meeting is money down the drain

Reasons for a meeting

A meeting should take place to meet one or more of the following objectives:

  • To inform or train

  • To develop ideas and explore issues through discussion and debate

  • To make decisions

  • To inspire, motivate and enthuse

In reality many meetings will have a mix of these objectives according to the item on the agenda; although many would argue that a really effective meeting should have one specific outcome or deliverable that determines the reason for the meeting. Whilst I would agree with the sentiment, in the experience of many the prospect of having a group of people together for an occasional meeting in practice very often results in a multi point agenda.

Copyright: Chris Brignell,

The keys to a successful meeting

The agenda

As with most things, time spent on preparation will be handsomely repaid. The leader, having decided that meeting is the best course of action needs to work out the agenda. A number of points need to be included on the agenda as follows:


  • Start time

  • Finish time

  • Break times

  • Location

  • Any specific arrangements or restrictions regarding travel, access, parking etc

  • Catering arrangements

By agenda point:

  • Item number

  • Subject

  • Objective (what is the deliverable for that item)

  • Format

  • Preparation required

  • Time allowed

That's a lot of detail you might be thinking. Indeed it is. But armed with that knowledge participants are very clear as to what is required and how the topic will be dealt with.

Here is an example of an agenda item:

  • Item number: 3.

  • Subject: Proposed communication policy.

  • Objective: To make a decision on the adoption of the proposed policy. We shall go with the consensus of the meeting.

  • Format: the proposed policy is attached to this agenda. Participants should study it ahead of the meeting and consider its merits. Mary from HR will explain the reasoning behind the policy at the meeting and address any questions or concerns raised. We shall then decide whether to adopt the policy.

  • Preparation required: Study the proposed policy and prepare your thoughts on it together with any questions.

  • Time allowed: 30 minutes.

Consider also the following points regarding the agenda:

  1. Don't have A.O.B. (any other business) on your agenda! It is a good idea to invite participants to propose items for inclusion on the agenda, particularly if it's a recurring meeting. As the leader you can then decide if the meeting is the right place for addressing them. But to include A.O.B. is just inviting people to raise any issue they wish, whether or not it is relevant and worthy of inclusion. It's your meeting and your agenda - don't let others hijack it!

  2. Make sure the agenda is in the hands of participants in plenty of time for them to make arrangements and prepare. Bear in mind that participants will have other demands on their time.

  3. By distributing meeting dates of recurring meetings for the forthcoming 12 months people can free up time in their schedules. And no one will have a problem if a scheduled meeting is cancelled in advance because it proves unnecessary! As an example, public company boards invariably issue the board meeting dates for the year ahead, such is the cost and complexity of getting all members to attend.

  4. It is bad manners and an abuse of power for the boss to ask people to change their diaries for all but the most extreme circumstances because he or she was incapable of thinking through the calendar. Plan!

  5. Be sure to include the times and duration of breaks in the agenda. Breaks need to be frequent and long enough - at least every two hours and a minimum of 15 minutes. If people know when the breaks are they know when they can check emails, make calls etc.

'The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings'.

Thomas Sowell

Cartoon meeting deciding who to blame

Copyright: <a href=''>andrewgenn / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Who should attend the meeting?

Deciding who should be there is often a bit like walking a tight rope. You don't want to offend people if they think they should be there, but you don't want to waste time and money by having people in the room when it is not necessary. I would suggest the following:

  1. Be consistent and explain that you will invite and include people for some sessions, but not others. Explain that this shows respect for people's time and prevents them from being involved in subjects when they don't need to be.

  2. If the meeting needs to debate issues and make decisions, then the number of participants surely needs to be in single figures.

  3. If the meeting is to inform, or to inspire and motivate then the numbers involved are only limited by practical considerations.

Meeting behaviour

The meeting leader is responsible for the success or failure of the meeting. It may be rather extreme to include 'rules' in the agenda, but it is perfectly reasonable to remind people of the etiquette of the meeting at the start.

I would suggest abiding by and committing participants to the following principles:

  1. Start on time, keep the sessions to time, take the breaks on time, re-start on time and finish on time! If people are not in the room when they should be then that's bad manners on their part. But don't compound the problem by keeping those who are on time waiting. To do so rewards bad behaviour and frustrates punctual people. Not good.

  2. Insist that participants keep comments and contributions brief and to the point.

  3. Ensure an equal contribution from participants. Some people may well try and dominate discussions. As the leader it's your job to bring out all the points of view around the table.

  4. Do not tolerate 'side meetings'. Individuals should address the whole meeting or not at all.

  5. Ban the use of phones etc whilst the meeting is going on. The breaks are there so people know when they can check mails, make calls etc. If people use a tablet on which to make notes so be it, but the action points distributed after the meeting should take care of most eventualities.

'Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything'

John Kenneth Galbraith

Meeting minutes or action points

Decide who will keep notes from which the 'minutes' are compiled. It may be the leader, it may be someone else. People's attitudes differ, but for most business meetings it is sufficient to record actions agreed. If however the contributions of participants or the ideas discussed may (legitimately) be interrogated by others, then a competent shorthand or very fast keyboard note taker will be required to record what was said and by whom. This person takes no part in the meeting.

As the meeting leader you should never allow distribution of the notes or minutes without having checked them first.