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Transforming Ineffective Meetings: Strategies for Productive Discussions

Transforming Ineffective Meetings: Strategies for Productive Discussions

These “damn meetings” leave people with no escape and no way out:

  • Some meetings, which were supposed to end in 1 hour, seemed to just begin at the 59th minute.
  • In some meetings, the speaker may seem quite ordinary, but they exude such confidence that they believe their presentation can pique others’ interest.
  • In some meetings, sycophants, provocateurs, and drama queens convene, resulting in a raucous gathering where the spotlight is on one person.
  • Some meetings are convened hastily, attendees are recruited on the fly, and participants are clueless about the relevant background, leaving them bewildered.
  • In some meetings, the agreed-upon discussion topic veers off course unnoticed, shifting to a completely different subject.
  • Meetings can devolve into meaningless arguments, discussions that go nowhere, or decisions that are never followed through.
  • In some meetings, the person in charge is eager to make decisions without discussion, leaving others to simply listen.
  • In some meetings, the proposer is unprepared, turning what should be a proposal into a casual chat, leaving others frustrated.

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But meetings are an essential way for top and middle management teams to collaborate, and they can consume anywhere from 50% to over 90% of their work time, often squeezing out personal life.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the ability to conduct efficient and enjoyable meetings not only significantly impacts a company’s decision-making efficiency and task coordination but also greatly affects the work effectiveness and quality of life for middle and senior-level employees.

So, how can we save these “damn meetings”?

Let’s start with three aspects that are relatively easy to address: meeting processes, communication skills, and decision-making mechanisms.

First, we can focus on improving meeting process management.

A typical meeting process generally includes:

  • Pre-meeting: Clarify needs and meeting objectives; identify participants and their roles; create and distribute the agenda in advance; prepare the venue and equipment, etc.
  • During the meeting: Start with introductions and clarify roles; state the objectives and reiterate the agenda; follow the agenda and conduct the meeting; reach conclusions and agree on actions, etc.
  • Post-meeting: Distribute meeting minutes; follow up on action items, etc.

Managing meetings may seem simple, but it’s easy to cut corners when it comes to implementation. With the support of an online meeting management system, you can take a “real” approach to meeting process management. For example:

  • Initiate meeting invitations online and link them with offline critical resources (e.g., booking meeting rooms).
  • Standardize and provide online access to key templates (e.g., meeting notification templates, meeting minutes templates).
  • Allow invited participants to confirm their attendance online (and reject meetings that are not relevant to them), and enable online check-ins.
  • Generate meeting minutes online, allow online co-signing, and facilitate email notifications, and so on.

Secondly, you can focus on improving the communication and discussion abilities of meeting participants.

The communication abilities of meeting participants are often overestimated, as being good at chatting doesn’t necessarily mean one is skilled at participating in productive meetings.

Different people demonstrate varying levels of proficiency when it comes to speaking during meetings. Some provide raw data and information, while others can summarize and categorize data and information. Some are skilled at identifying connections between data points and articulating them, while others can pinpoint key insights and present them effectively. The highest level of proficiency involves explaining complex events and key points in a clear, understandable, and memorable manner.

Additionally, when it comes to mutual discussions, it’s important to remember that meetings are not public speeches. Meeting participants shouldn’t focus solely on promoting their own viewpoints but should also explore the perspectives of others. The following simple dialogue pattern can be helpful:

  • “My viewpoint is…”
  • “The facts or data I’ve observed are…”
  • “I arrived at my viewpoint in this way…”
  • “Do you have opposing facts, data, or different conclusions?”
  • “Let’s explore why our conclusions differ.”

Lastly, you can make improvements in meeting procedures and decision-making mechanisms.

Having some rules and guidelines that everyone follows can contribute to efficient and pleasant meetings. “Robert’s Rules of Order” offers some “basic laws” for conducting meetings, reflecting the spirit of civilized decision-making in modern society. You can consider adopting some of its principles. For example:

  • Equal Opportunity Principle: Before speaking, individuals must signal the chair and receive permission to speak. Those who raise their hands first get priority, but those who have not yet spoken on the current motion should take precedence over those who have. Additionally, the chair should strive to alternate speaking opportunities between opposing viewpoints to maintain balance.
  • Full Opportunity Principle: No one is allowed to interrupt another person while they are speaking.
  • Time and Frequency Limits Principle: There are limits on the time allotted for each person’s speech (e.g., not exceeding 2 minutes), as well as the number of times each person can speak on the same motion (e.g., not exceeding 2 times).
  • One Thing at a Time Principle: Speech should not deviate from the current matter under consideration. Only after one motion has been dealt with can another one be introduced or discussed.

Someone skilled at “summarizing last” in the No. 1 seat makes decision-making for the team easier. Generally speaking, good decisions involve first making a “truth/falsehood judgment” based on factual investigation, followed by a “right/wrong judgment” based on logical reasoning, and finally a “values judgment” based on principles. If the No. 1 seat speaks too early, many participants may have already quickly made a “political judgment” even though they may continue to make “truth/falsehood judgments” and “right/wrong judgments” on the surface during subsequent discussions. You might say that you can set principles like “equality for all,” “speak directly,” “keep it simple and honest,” etc., before the meeting. However, this is more likely to be an “ought to be” and a “wish” rather than a “reality.” Don’t challenge human nature too easily, and don’t test people’s hearts too soon in the No. 1 seat.

Let’s talk about three less obvious aspects: meeting categorization, meeting roles, and a common language.

First, categorizing and managing meetings based on their purpose and topics is a crucial starting point for efficient and pleasant meetings.

When a company is small and there are not many tasks to handle, meetings can be informal, and the management team is relatively small. Everyone can gather together, discuss various topics, and there may not be a need for categorized meeting management.

As a company grows, the number of participants in meetings may increase, and individual topics may require more time. In such cases, categorizing and managing meetings becomes essential.

Different types of meetings based on their themes, functions, and purposes include:

  • Meetings with varying frequencies: weekly meetings, monthly meetings, quarterly meetings, (semi-)annual meetings, ad-hoc emergency meetings, etc.
  • Involvement of different personnel: Meetings related to business analysis may require mid-level finance personnel, while meetings related to organization and talent may require HR representatives.
  • Different meeting formats: Meetings can serve various purposes, such as information synchronization, discussion and decision-making, or team-building.
  • Meetings may require different emotional states: Strategic planning meetings may require enthusiasm, business and finance meetings may be more serious, and talent evaluation meetings may be emotionally challenging.

Secondly, it’s essential to clarify key roles in meetings.

To ensure that meetings are conducted efficiently and pleasantly, certain key roles need to be clearly defined. Typical roles include:

  • Convener: The initiator and organizer of the meeting.
  • Facilitator/Chairperson: The person responsible for leading the meeting and guiding the discussion.
  • Presenter: The individual who prepares proposals and presents them during the meeting.
  • Recorder: The person responsible for taking meeting minutes and organizing them.

In addition to these roles, there’s another critical yet often overlooked role – the facilitator. This individual helps manage conflicts, moderates the meeting’s atmosphere, and ensures that discussions remain productive.

In many cases, meetings tend to focus on hierarchical job roles, such as CEOs, HR heads, and business leaders, while neglecting these “functional” roles. When you consider only job roles, a team might be able to conduct meetings for reporting progress to superiors or top management (e.g., one-on-one meetings with the CEO). However, they may struggle with other types of meetings if these functional roles are not recognized and filled appropriately.

Thirdly, a common language is the foundation of efficient and enjoyable meetings.

For a group of individuals to work effectively together, they must establish a shared language system to set common goals, interpret and manage shared challenges. When you are with people who share a common language, you feel comfortable. However, if you are with individuals who speak a different language, you may feel uncomfortable, threatened, or even attacked. This is because you cannot understand what each other is doing, and you might misinterpret or misjudge each other’s actions.

For example, in meetings related to business operations and finance, which are typically convened by a COO or CFO, it’s their responsibility to unify the commonly used vocabulary, definitions, and standards in the meeting. Similarly, in strategic review meetings, usually convened by a CSO or CEO, setting a discussion framework in advance (goal clarification, gap analysis, root cause analysis, and consensus on action plans) can ensure productive outcomes from the meeting rather than leaving it open-ended.

A common language is the foundation of meeting effectiveness, and meetings themselves serve as a practice ground for developing this common language. Whether or not participants can use shared terminology, definitions, and standards and follow a common thought framework in discussions reflects the intellectual discipline of the middle and upper management teams.

Having covered these six aspects, let’s finally discuss the most often overlooked but critically important aspect.

Who is concerned about the effectiveness of the company’s meeting system and who can genuinely drive effective actions in meeting management.

Effective and enjoyable meetings are a systemic endeavor. Meeting participants generally care about the effectiveness of individual meetings they attend, but there also needs to be someone who cares about the functionality of the company’s overall meeting system. The meeting system is a company’s “public service system.” This kind of public service system is susceptible to collective irresponsibility and inertia.

In the process of a company’s development, the core leadership and executive team bear the responsibility for the effective operation of the entire company’s meeting management system. On the one hand, only they have the credibility and authority to allocate certain resources, and on the other hand, their lead-by-example adherence to agreements is crucial.


The seven aspects discussed above represent some areas where you can focus on improving and saving “those darn meetings.” Progress in any of these areas can contribute to making middle and upper management meetings more efficient and enjoyable. Combining efforts across multiple aspects can yield even better results.

However, it’s essential to address another critical issue: if meeting participants lack a genuine understanding of the topics being discussed, no matter how well the processes, rules, principles, and roles are set and executed, meetings cannot be efficient.

In other words, if none of the participants truly understands the matters under discussion and lacks the necessary “hard skills” required for making decisions, even if conclusions are reached efficiently, they may not effectively solve problems. In such cases, a middle and upper management team might spend a significant amount of time sharing information, experiences, and viewpoints in the hope of collectively piecing together a solution. However, without quality external input, no matter how much they discuss, they won’t be able to assemble the puzzle. In these situations, the more effective approach is to seek high-quality external input and then complement it with skills related to processes, rules, principles, and roles to achieve the decision-making goal.

Finally, it’s important to emphasize that meeting efficiency is a perception, but the correctness of decisions is even more critical, especially for upper management teams responsible for strategic exploration and adapting to a constantly changing external environment. When it comes to significant matters, effectiveness should take precedence over efficiency.

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