A 10-step guide to more effective discussions

5 people in a meeting room
All images by the author

You may know how to facilitate amazing meetings already, but does the rest of your organization? I wrote this primer for you to share with your team, so you don’t need to write it yourself.

How can we make each meeting a home run? How do we avoid amorphous chats about generalities with expectations of swift progress?

Read on for a visual 10-step guide for what to do before, during, and after the meeting.

1. Ask yourself: What is your intention?

A person kicking off the meeting saying “Today I will tell you verbatim what I wrote in my last two emails”

Is a meeting needed at all?

As a lead product manager, my calendar was painted in overlapping colors, with cross-functional collaborative meetings, status updates, 1:1s, customer calls, and you-name-it-other-meeting. I’d audit each entry and invariably find unnecessary meetings. Invites with provokingly short descriptions could be replaced with email Q&A and 60-minute conversations be replaced with 5-minute hallway chats.

Before you plan a meeting, check if it passes the async test:
“Could my need be solved equally well asynchronously?”

Anthony Jay wrote in Harvard Business Review about four types of valid objectives for meetings:

  • sharing of information which needs context or clarification, or that has important implications for the participants
  • what shall we do discussions, e.g., discuss a product requirements document, a strategy question, or a growth target
  • how shall we do it discussions, figuring out the best ways to accomplish a stated plan or objective
  • introducing or modifying ways of working, e.g., determining who’s responsible and accountable or changing the overall process

State your specific intention and execute accordingly.

2. Determine participants needed for your stated intention

Large meetings are costly and often inefficient.

While your time spent in the meeting stays the same regardless of how many participants you invite, the total cost to the organization increases drastically with more participants.

A diagram illustrating the cost in working hours of a 1-hour meeting increasing with the number of participants

First, the other participants also spend hours in the same meeting. Second, there’s a context-switching cost to participate in the meeting and then return to one’s other work. Paul Graham, co-founder of the accelerator Y Combinator, describes the maker’s schedule:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in

Third, I know anecdotally how meetings can make people feel drained and stressed and therefore lower productivity.

As you’re crafting your invite list, be mindful of:

  • Would the discussion be more effective with fewer participants? Who on the invite list can instead just read the meeting minutes instead of being present?
  • If you’re seeking a decision in the meeting, do you have decision authority amongst the meeting participants? If not, you’ll soon be booking a second meeting.
  • If you’re assigning work, do you have the contributors there? It’s peculiar how we assign work to those who are absent.

And just for fun, try showing the running costs in your next meeting with https://meetingcost.live/.

3. Write a detailed agenda

Don’t just name a topic like “product strategy” — put the topic in context. “What does the recent surge in oil prices imply for our product strategy”?

Within the agenda, specify for each item if the goal is to inform, debate or decide.

Allocate time for each agenda item in a bottom-up fashion. Now, how much time does it add up to? The meeting should not be longer than this time sum.

4. Nail the logistics

Prepare a document for minutes ahead of time, so you don’t spend time on that during the meeting. And for god’s sake, check that your tech setup works ahead of time. The jokes about tech struggles are getting old.

A person struggling to get audio to work for a meeting.

5. Start on time

We adjust to starting times just like kids learn how to delay bedtime and dogs know when it’s time for a walk. You implicitly accept lateness if you start late. Is your boss the one who’s late? Kick it off anyway. When they join, say “We got started to use everyone’s time efficiently. Our goal today is X and now we are covering Y.

Note who’s present and who’s late in the meeting minutes. Highlighting who’s late also helps reinforce punctuality.

6. Stay on track

Meetings derail if they’re not chaperoned.

A comparison of the intended streamlined agenda and the messy reality

While we’re all tempted to digress, we hate when it happens.

Be generous to your attendees by keeping the meeting on track. You have the authority — and the obligation — to set and enforce boundaries.

Kick off the meeting by sharing the purpose and the agenda for the meeting. Stay brief and to the point. If the discussion derails, try saying “I notice that we’re getting off-topic. In the interest of everyone’s time, let’s return to the main topic of discussion.”

7. If you’re making decisions, clarify how the decision is made

This New York Times article highlights the importance of being clear about whether you as a leader are just soliciting input or if you’re deciding by consensus.

If it feels uncomfortable to tell the group that you’re deciding, remember that you do everyone a favor if you do. You clarify the process and relieve others of the decision burden.

If you’re deciding by vote, beware of the organizational politics in public votes. Ever seen others copy whatever the boss says and does?

A meeting where the boss votes ‘yes’ and everyone else also votes ‘yes’ to please the boss

In one of my organizational behavior classes in the Stanford MBA program, we watched clips from the movie 12 Angry Men and discussed how anonymous votes let participants vote honestly.

8. Make sure conclusions are stated

You and your colleagues may have different conclusions in mind if you don’t write them down in plain language.

One person says “Because we don’t remember the conclusion from last time, we will repeat the discussion today”

9. Assign actions and set timelines

If actions are identified, make sure that they are assigned. Who’s doing what? By when?

10. Follow-up

Share the minutes from the meeting with the meeting participants and highlight any actions and deadlines you decided on in the meeting.

Forward the minutes to colleagues who should be informed, but who saved valuable time as you smartly left them off the invite list.

Plan for when and how you’ll follow up on the action items from the item.

And you’re done! You’ve run a meeting that’s better than 90 percent* of meetings out there (* my own made-up statistic which feels totally realistic).

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