Should I Even Be Here?

No, this is not an existential post. It’s a post about one of the most common thoughts running through people’s heads as they attend workplace meetings. Too many people find themselves not knowing why they bother showing up. 

The quick “fix” companies have found for this problem is either limiting the meeting time (if everyone feels it’s a waste of time, let’s waste less of it) or restricting the number of participants. I’ll talk about the first “solution” in a future post. Today, I want to focus on the latter. 

The “strict limit” approach seems appealing and is rooted in some truth. Too many people can turn a discussion into a racket, not to speak about the accumulated cost of a big meeting. Where this approach falls short is in failing to ask who should really be in the meeting. Having a smaller number of the wrong participants won’t make any meeting more effective. 

In an effective meeting, every person in the room counts. 

We meet to achieve something. Well, not just something, but a goal connected to a grander, overarching mission we have defined before the meeting. We need people other than ourselves to achieve that goal; otherwise, we wouldn’t have needed the meeting in the first place. When these two facts are combined, it is easy to see why we’d better invite the people who can help us achieve our goal. Anyone with something meaningful to contribute is potentially essential to the meeting; anyone else is an audience at best, and we don’t want an audience in a work meeting. The group of genuine contributors might still be too large to run an effective meeting, but asking ourselves who will add value to the conversation is an essential first step. Otherwise, we are left only with arbitrary criteria for reducing the number of participants. 

So, how can we know who is essential for an upcoming discussion? A simple way to ensure that is to write one short sentence for each participant that describes what we expect them to contribute. Let’s say you are a Project Manager and plan a meeting to mitigate the delay in the project. Here’s an example of what you might expect from each potential participant in the discussion: 

  • Project Manager: Analyze overdue tasks and their impact on the project’s targets. 
  • Group Managers responsible for delays in their domains: Share ideas for addressing the gap and their implications. 
  • Project Owner: Approve an action plan based on the Group Managers’ ideas. 

The first thing to note is what (or rather who) is not on that list: People who don’t have anything to contribute to achieving the initiative of the meeting are not on the list and, therefore, are not required in the meeting. Instead of embedding this discussion in a larger project status meeting, we’ll have a focused conversation with the few people who can impact the issue at stake. Other stakeholders might need to know the outcome of the discussion, but they will gladly spare their precious time and settle for a summary of the discussion. If we can’t define the value of a specific person in that particular meeting, there is no reason for them to attend it. 

A subtler implication of defining the expected contribution of each participant is to allow at least some of the material (and sometimes all of it) to be shared before the meeting, thus making the face-to-face discussion even more effective. The Project Manager, for example, can share her analysis of the delay in preparation for the meeting. Instead of surprising the Group Managers with an analysis they see for the first time during the meeting, they can process this input and enter the discussion with their already-formed ideas. This minor change can impact the quality of the discussion and the utilization of precious face-to-face time. 

In some cases, sharing material and insights before the meeting eliminates the need to attend the meeting altogether, reducing the number of participants even further. 

When we take the time to define the expected contribution of each participant and communicate it to all participants, we get a chance to identify the ones who can really affect the discussion and promote its goal. The result is not just a smaller meeting, but better engagement of the people who attend it. No one is an audience; everyone actively contributes to the conversation.

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