How to Avoid Meaningless Meetings

Originally published
Originally published: 3/1/2013

Gain actionable meeting results with a clear agenda and accountability.

One of my favorite cable news shows is MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” featuring co-anchors Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. At the conclusion of each broadcast, these anchors and the day’s guests, stand up and answer the question, “What have we learned today?” 

Everyone who chairs a business meeting should ask participants this same question at the conclusion of the session. One word of warning: Be prepared for some surprising responses.

Passive participants will tell you they “sort of” understand what the meeting was about. More politically astute attendees might confidently say, “I got it,” while thinking, “I have to find someone who can figure out what we’re supposed to do.” Then there’s the secure realist who mumbles a few unintelligible words, while rolling his or her eyes. Translation: another waste of valuable time.

The difference between success and failure frequently hinges on the clarity of the goals and who has to do what by when. 

Most company goals and objectives are first introduced in a meeting where reasonably intelligent people gather to combine their thoughts and craft a plan. If goals in the meeting are not appropriately communicated, then it’s a very good bet that either what was discussed never gets off the ground or, if it does, the undertaking will crash and burn. 

There are a few basics that can make all of us better communicators, particularly when directing meetings. Of course, everyone knows they need an agenda for the meeting, but few follow their own outline. Out of the blue someone will make a point and then suddenly the meeting moves off-topic. I have fantasized about meetings being conducted standing up. This would force participants to get to the point before their backs begin to ache, knees get wobbly and feet turn numb.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” After preparing an agenda for your meetings, are you spending enough time fleshing out your message and what action you desire? For this to occur, you just can’t throw a topic against the wall hoping it sticks. People need guidance. Another major pitfall is trying to cram too many topics into the meeting schedule. Keep the agenda manageable, covering the most important topics first and stay on track while watching the clock. 

Always appoint an active participant in the meeting rather than an administrative assistant as the scribe. Rotate the responsibility among those who attend reoccurring sessions. It’s amazing how people will stay alert and think before they talk when they know their words may be recorded. Also, the notes from every meeting must be published for all attendees by the next morning.

Finally, assign accountability to the individuals with a due date for each task. After assigning a completion date, the person responsible can say if he or she can’t make the deadline and state the reason why. What they can’t do is ignore the assignment and pretend it never happened. 

At the conclusion of your next meeting, ask those around the table what they’ve learned. If you don’t ask, they won’t tell and, more importantly, you’ll never know. 

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. Feuer’s columns appear courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,, which originally published this column.

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