Bad meetings are the worst. They’re a waste of time, and they feel like a distraction from real work. Mamie Kanfer Stewart and Tai Tsao, co-authors of the book Momentum, are on a mission to make meetings more effective, meaningful and enjoyable.

Since 2013, they’ve offered coaching, training and even developed mobile apps to help teams support more effective meetings. In this episode, you’re going to get their blueprint for successful meetings, including actionable tips that you can immediately implement with your team.

About Meetor and Momentum

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: About four years ago, I started the company Meeteor, and we actually started not with meetings as our focus but with a strategy tool for project management. If you’re giving yourself a blank stare right now, that’s what I was getting from everybody who I talked to when I said, “I’m building a product and trying to help teams with more effective strategy for their project management.”

In the process of trying to figure out how to sell this tool, I was speaking to some consultants, and one of them said to me, “This is really interesting, and I see how it’s valuable but this little meetings thing that you’re doing, that’s really what people need help with. I couldn’t sell your strategy to all my clients, but I could totally sell them a meetings tool. Their meetings are terrible.”

I had never realized how bad meetings were until I started talking to people about meetings. When I would go to networking events or just kind of in my daily life talking to people about what I was doing, I’d say, “I’m working on tools and trainings to help people have more effective meetings.”

“Instantly, everybody had a story to tell me of a bad meeting they attended at least that week, if not that day.”

It was so clear that this was a problem that needed help with, that people needed a solution for and I felt like, “I know exactly what I’ve got to do here.”

We shifted Meteor to focus 100% on helping people have productive meetings. From that came our blog and eventually our book.

Why are there so many bad meetings?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: For leaders, if you work in bigger companies or small companies, most of your time is spent in back to back meetings. We heard that from a lot of our customers.

People run meetings that are not productive, they’re wasteful. You just invite everyone to the meeting instead of making sure that people who come to the meetings are really the people you want to be there or who are critical to the success of the meeting.

You gather people in the room, but you really don’t know what you want to achieve at the end. Without a purpose, without a clear objective for your meetings, you waste everyone’s time. People feel like meetings are taking them away from real work, so if I spent one hour in meetings, I took away one hour that I could’ve actually focused on my own work.

That’s one of the biggest pain points we heard from our clients.

“We don’t think it’s just the meeting leader’s problem—it’s part of your company culture.”

Tai Tsao: If your company culture is encouraging people to participate in meetings, then as we heard from some of our clients, they think, “If I’m not invited to a meeting, maybe that means I’m not important.”

That fear of missing out, that kind of culture, brings forth this kind of behavior.

Mamie: Many times, we don’t allow ourselves to say no to meetings, or we’re not in a culture in which you can turn down going to a meeting. If you were to say, “I don’t want to go to that meeting because I have something else that’s more important,” that’s just not acceptable.

You have to go to meetings if you’re invited, and if the only way you can be informed or be part of the decision making process is to be in a meeting, then of course you want to be in every single meeting. And you want to invite everybody to every meeting so that people can stay aligned and know what’s going on and you got their input.

That’s a whole part of your culture—that’s not just one meeting leader.

That’s what can change. You don’t actually need to be in meetings to know what’s going on. You don’t need to be in meetings to give input or be part of the decision making process if you take the right steps, create the right culture, and have the right processes and tools to support good communication practices in other ways.

What is the most useful idea from your book Momentum?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: The one thing that we tell people, before you ever go into a meeting, is to know exactly what it is that you want to accomplish. A meeting is not just a planned meeting where you have an agenda (hopefully) beforehand.

“A meeting is any time that two people get together and connect in real time using their voices.”

Not chat or email or texting or things like that. If you walk down the hallway and grab a colleague or you call up a colleague on the phone, that’s a meeting.

Even though it’s an emergent or kind of impromptu meeting, you should know exactly what it is that you want to get out of that before you pick up the phone. Same thing with a meeting.

It’s when you know exactly what it is that you want to accomplish. Do you need advice? And if you do need advice, what advice is it that you need? If you need feedback or you need a decision to be made, whatever it is. Once you know exactly what it is, you can then shape your conversation appropriately, know exactly who you should be talking to.

You might discover that you start a conversation and you realize, “I’m talking to the wrong person about this.” Or “I actually didn’t need to talk to you at all, I just needed to sit and think for a minute and I could figure it out on my own.”

When you know exactly what it is that you want to accomplish, you can figure out, “Is a meeting the right next step? Is this person the right person to be engaging?” And then shape the time you have with them to accomplish that objective as fast as possible.

What if the goal of the meeting is to have fun with their coworkers?

Tai Tsao: Sometimes it’s just whether it’s the right timing and right moment. [Think about it] as a recipient of this kind of interruption. Then think, how could you do differently?

If you’re in a zone, you’re trying to figure out something, you’re deep diving in your work and you don’t want to be interrupted, there are a couple of different ways you can do it. You can signal to them that I’m in the zone, I want to focus, or you just tell them, “Can we pick up the conversation later on? In an hour, or wait for a coffee break,” or something like that, if you feel like your work is being interrupted by other people.

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: In our book, we talk about the six reasons to have a meeting. One of them is to connect. It’s absolutely a legitimate thing to say, “I just want to build relationships with my people, with my team internally or with customers or potential customers externally. I want to have a meeting where we just get together and chat.”

Or, “I want to interrupt somebody and see if they want to walk down the hall with me to refill our coffee cups.” Totally fine to have meetings around connection.

“Make sure that it’s the right time for that kind of interaction so that you’re not interrupting someone else’s important work.”

How many different types of meetings are there?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: There are six reasons to have a meeting, is how we describe them. There are probably lots of different types of meetings that we don’t really get into in the book, but let’s see if I can name them off the top of my head here.

Connecting is really about building relationships with people.

Brainstorming, where you’re coming up with lists or information or ideas and kind of generating content.

Producing, which is more like a working session where you’re actually digging into some material together.

Planning, which could be planning out tasks or work plans or strategies.

Decision making, where you are making a decision and aligning. Trying to make sense of information and get buy in and come together so that everybody leaves on the same page—which, I want to be really clear, is different from presenting.

“Presenting information is not a good reason to have a meeting.”

The only reason you want to have a presenting type of meeting is if the information you’re sharing is really complicated, which gets back to making sure everyone has the same understanding of it. Or you really need buy in from the people.

Make sure that they’re hearing it from you with the energy that you can share that you couldn’t otherwise communicate with, that you’re answering their questions, and you’re really engaging them in that kind of leading format. It’s not just one way, where I could have just sent you an email with this.

Does school technically qualify as presenting meetings?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: This is so interesting. My kids are in a Montessori school. There’s not a whole lot of presenting that happens because I don’t think that a lot of learning, I don’t think presenting is the best way for everyone to learn. For some people, it’s great.

Some people are auditory learners. They need to see what’s on the screen, hear what’s being said, and it totally soaks in. Others need to read the content or experience it firsthand.

The Perfect Meeting

Charlie: Let’s talk about these different types of meetings and what the perfect meeting would be under the Momentum formula that you lay out in the book. Let’s talk about a brainstorming meeting.

Tai Tsao: When you decide you want to hold a brainstorming meeting, mention earlier what do you want to accomplish at the end. If you want to generate a list of potential ideas for a project on specific topic, we call that “desired outcome.”

The desired outcome is tangible, something concrete that you achieve at the end. So you can measure the success, whether you achieve outcome at the end of the meeting. That’s set before you call the meeting.

“A meeting is not a one-time event. It’s a cycle.”

You have before, during, and after activities.

In the before framework, you think about the desired outcome and who should be participating in this meeting. Then, what are the norms that you should follow in this meeting?

Like you said, we want to allow people to generate as much ideas, as possible. That could be different from like – “We only want tangible ideas, actionable ideas.” That will result in really different conversations. Or, “We want to defer judgment,” that would be a norm that we want to encourage people to embrace in this meeting.

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: To pick up what Tai was saying, if you have a brainstorming meeting, you want to make sure that the desired outcome aligns with what success looks like. If people walk into the room thinking this is going to be a decision making meeting because you’re generating ideas, and they think at the end you’re going to decide on one and then you don’t, people will be very frustrated when they leave the meeting.

You want them to know the outcome of this meeting is just to have that list of ideas. Maybe even put a number on it. “We want at least 20 ideas.” That’s different than, “We want three good ideas.” Because now you actually are having a decision making meeting at the end where you’re narrowing down your list of generated ideas to three that are going to move forward to the next stage.

“Being super clear about outcome is the first thing.”

Then to pick up again on norms, which are just guidelines for the conversation, it’s about setting people’s expectations. If you want to create a safe space for “all ideas are good ideas,” you need to say that. So write it down.

Have those things listed out where it says:

  1. All ideas are good ideas
  2. No judgment.
  3. Think big and think small.
  4. Think without resource constraints.

Super different than if you’re telling people, “Our norms are – we only want ideas that are within our budget. We only want ideas that are within our existing capacity to accomplish.”

If you don’t give people those guidelines, you can end up with spaces of judgment where some people who are naturally more big picture, wild ideas people are frustrated by those who are thinking really small, and you have the people who are thinking like that idea is impossible, we could never do that.

Give those parameters so that people have expectations over what’s appropriate. You can not only have a successful meeting, but everybody will walk away feeling good about the conversation that they had.

Do you give the same guidelines for every type of meeting?

Tai Tsao: It’s not like you just set it, send it in an email, and just run the meeting with those guidelines and helpful resources. [You have to] reinforce those behaviors in the meeting.

Those desired outcomes and your meeting norms will help you to design what activities you need in the meeting, to maximize engagement, to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and to make sure that no matter if you’re an extrovert or introvert, you can thrive in this meeting and contribute your ideas.

And then after the meeting, when you have that list of five ideas or ten ideas, what’s next? Who’s going to do what after a certain period of time, and what’s the next step for this conversation?

How do you confirm whether the meeting has been successful or not?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: First off, it doesn’t actually have to be the leader of the meeting. Anyone can do that in the meeting.

In the first couple of chapters in Momemtum, we center around the problems with meetings and the unintended consequences of having really bad meetings, and then the next set of chapters are all meeting practices. For example, desired outcome is one chapter. Norms is one chapter.

In each chapter, we talk about what you can do before, during and after the meeting related to that subject and how to do it if you’re the meeting leader or if you’re a meeting participant, because we believe that everyone has a responsibility to make the meeting successful.

“You can’t just rely on the meeting leader.”

So when it comes to what we call the wrap up or using the last couple of minutes of your meeting to make sure that everyone actually is aligned on the next steps, you’re not [saying], “Okay great. We’re all in agreement,” when nobody actually knows what’s decided or who’s doing the next step. We should really follow up on that.

Anyone at the end of the meeting can say, “All right, as we’re wrapping up, can we just do a quick recap of what the next steps are?” If someone says, “Okay, so we’re going to follow up,” ask who’s going to follow up and when that should happen.

Be really, really specific. It’s great if the leader does it, but it doesn’t have to be.

Resources to Supplement Momentum

Charlie: Do meeting organizers and organizations bring your book to use during the meeting, or do they write them all of these steps on a note card so they remember?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: You can do a couple of things. So one, you can plan your thoughtful agenda. We have meeting agenda templates that you can use.

We also have a software that you can use to help you plan your agenda that includes all of these components, like norms and pre-work and such, and it helps you take notes and clarify those notes into tasks, decisions, and learnings.

[The software is] on our website, meeteor.com.

You can also use a template. You can create your own or you can use one of ours. That is, an agenda template or a note-taking template that you use as a reminder. We always tell meeting facilitators to write down on the top some notes for themselves in the meeting.

And we also have postcards. They are little cheat-cheat postcards to remind you of some of these things. So we’ll put those up on our website if you want to get them.

We also have a physical notebook that marks the note, task, decision, or learning, because a lot of people told us they still like handwritten notes. So if you want to write handwritten notes, you can write on the notebook and categorize them.

“You don’t need to hold all the information in your head. You just want to focus on the content of the meeting.”

You don’t have to do everything.

Meetings are big events. There are a lot of different pieces. Just pick the thing that you think is going to be the most helpful to your meeting.

We suggest that would be the desired outcome if you are getting started, or the wrap up if you are already pretty good about knowing what your meetings are going to accomplish. But start with one, and then move to the next one, and then move to the next one. Over time, they’ll become like second nature to you and it won’t be a thing that you have to think about anymore.

It will just be a thing you do.

You always enter meetings with a wrap up. You always start your meetings with a check in. You always write a desired outcome before you get together with people.

How have your clients used Momentum in their meetings?

Tai Tsao: One of our workshop participants, when we teach these practices, told us that she goes to weekly staff meeting every week where people are just spending time there. She doesn’t really know what to do there but this meeting is on her calendar. So she goes there every week.

But if she knows that we talk about the six different purposes of meetings, and she understands that the purpose of my alignment weekly team meeting is to connect—how do we design this differently? Not just presenting what we are doing each week with no interaction in between.

If we like to connect, we can design different activities to connect with each other. To know more about each other’s lives, each other’s preferences, and what they learn. So that was a transformational personal revelation moment for her.

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: She shared with us a couple of weeks afterwards that she talked to her boss about this and he was so excited because he was struggling with making these meetings helpful.

“It’s not something people typically think can be any different.”

If anybody knew that their meetings could be so much better, they would do something about them. But most people don’t. They’re like, “Oh, meetings are just a necessary evil”.

That is, until you got exposed to the idea that you can do this differently. There are things that you can change. You don’t have to have a typical weekly team check-in meeting that’s super boring, where everyone just rattles off what they did last week or what’s coming up next.

They are now experimenting with different kinds of meetings and different activities in those meetings so that they can really focus on building relationships.

One of our very early customers is a stone masonry company. Which I think is so cool because it’s guys outside working with their hands mostly, doing stone masonry and landscape architecture,

“None of them wanted to sit through meetings in a conference room.”

They were really struggling with their team meetings and keeping their projects organized across their different team leaders. They started using our software and just totally changed their meetings.

And one of the practices that they started using was norms. They weren’t sure about this norms/ground rules thing, but after a couple of weeks, they said it really transformed how they engaged with each other.

Their meetings are so much more efficient. Everyone feels really empowered to redirect the meeting if somebody goes off topic. Their meetings are shorter and they are just loving their meetings now.

Charlie: What would you say is one thing you want to emphasize from your book that someone should do if they are a part of a meeting this week?

Mamie Kanfer Stewart: The last part of our book is all about creating the change in your organization or in yourself or in your team.

So the challenge that we decided on ahead of time was not a challenge to do something different this week in your meetings but to take time to reflect on your meeting practices and really assess what are we doing well, what are the biggest pain points, what do I want my meetings to be like or what could they be like?

“What would be different if we were using our time together in really productive engaging ways?”

Our book includes a whole bunch of information about how to do that reflection and how to have that conversation with your colleagues.

We also have a bunch of resources available for people who have our books. So they are at the end of the book, they are also on our website. If you buy the book on Amazon you can get access to that space on our website.

Tai Tsao: We have a survey assessment for you to think about what’s going well, you can think with your team and assess your meeting, current meeting, culture, and then answer a list of questions.

If you want to introduce new meeting practices to your organization, what are the things you need to consider and reflect? And we also have a list of norms that you can just pick and choose. You don’t need to reinvent a lot of norms, you can just use the ones we gather. There’s more about how to write a thoughtful pre-work so people can actually prepare for the conversation and different type of pre work.

Mamie: This week, our challenge to you is to take ten minutes and think about your meetings. What could be done differently? What would be better?

How can our listeners connect with and follow you two?

We already mentioned our software, which is available, but we also do a coaching program where we’ll work with your entire team to improve your meetings and your collaboration practices. So we have a couple of different variations with the coaching.

We run trainings that can happen online or in person.

We also speak, so if you’re a company leader and you’re looking for a speaker to come and talk to your company or annual retreat, or if you’re a conference organizer and you want to bring effective meeting practices into your conference and you want to have a presentation.

We do a lot of different stuff that’s more around behavior change and building awareness and supporting people to take action.