How I redesigned our worst, most unproductive meetings

January 11, 2022
by Cameron Carrick

I think our record was 7 weeks of continuous cancelations.

For most of 2020, my calendar showed the same two meetings nearly every week.

On Monday afternoons there was a 30-minute block called “Client Rounding” and on Friday afternoons was a 90-minute block called “Weekly Team Tactical”. Sound familiar?

Both of these standing meetings were meant as opportunities for our small team of four to advance our work forward. But it wasn’t working.

We canceled “Client Rounding” a lot.

A typical week of soon-to-be canceled meetings back in August of 2021.

While we rarely canceled the Weekly Team Tactical meeting, it was hard to see how the meeting served our business objectives. We usually spent the first 45 minutes on prolonged check-ins from everyone on the team. At least one of the four of us usually showed up 30 minutes late.

In October, I shared my concerns with our CEO (my boss). She agreed our meetings weren’t working. She also didn’t have the bandwidth to refine them herself. So I took the lead on revitalizing how we do meetings.

In this post, I’ll share my redesign process.

Our team is entirely remote so this process will work well for virtual meetings.

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If you want to jump right to the step-by-step checklist for redesigning your team’s meetings, click here. If you want to see (or copy) the meeting templates I’ve created for my teams’ needs, click here.

How I redesigned my small-remote team’s meeting system

Assessing our current meeting culture and performance

Any prescription must stem from an accurate diagnosis. I needed to answer one key question, then: what was working and what wasn’t in how we were doing things?

To answer this question and assess our meeting system I interviewed my team, spoke with my boss, and did some personal reflective journaling about what I found lacking and what worked well.

Especially since COVD-19, I’ve come to rely on my team for social connection. We all have. This is why our check-ins were taking up so much time. But that left other important things undone.

To properly assess our meeting performance, I wanted to compare our intended outcomes from each meeting with the actual outcomes we were realizing (or missing).

I came up with the idea of an intention-outcome grid to assess our meeting efficacy.

Here’s what my grid looks like:

Meeting NameIntended OutcomeActual OutcomePitfalls
Client Rounding (weekly)Check-in around what we’re doing for our clients and how each of us can best support them.None. No increases in quality of client work.
The best outcome of this meeting was freeing up more time in our schedules.
None. No increases in quality of client work.
The best outcome of this meeting was freeing up more time in our schedules.
Weekly Team TacticalDiscuss strategic issues or vision
Dialogue & debate current workplace issues
Plan projects and direction
Increased social connection.
More clarity around urgent (as in leaking or bleeding) needs.
No system for tracking projects & goals.
No clear or consistent facilitator.
Unreliable meeting structure.
Inconsistent follow-through.
Click here to access a fillable version of this table.

Filling out this grid gave me some great lessons about what our meetings do well and what they don’t do so well.

What our meetings do well:

  • Create connections amongst team members by prioritizing check-ins and connections at each meeting.
  • Update each other on the work that’s right in front of us by sharing urgent task lists.
  • Insofar as we have very few meetings, we’re able to keep our schedules largely open for getting work done, meeting with clients, or living our lives.

What our meetings don’t do well:

  • Hold us accountable for our goals and vision. We have no process or system to reliably track what we say we want to do against what we’re actually doing.
  • Plan and carry out specific projects. It can feel like we’re always working up against artificial yet urgent deadlines when we could be planning our work out better in advance.
  • Work collaboratively. We don’t reliably share with each other what we’re doing or where we’re stuck each day.

These six points are plenty of information for designing new meeting practices.

Virtual Meetings Can be Fun

The first—and easiest— step in redesigning our meetings was to take the data I’d gathered from our meeting analysis and engineer new meeting formats to fill in the gaps I’d uncovered and double down on what was already working.

In as few meetings as possible, I wanted to meet these needs:

  • Have a reliable system for holding ourselves accountable for our goals.
  • Use that system to plan and carry out meaningful projects.
  • Work collaboratively when we need to and when it serves us.
  • Create and increase connection amongst our team.
  • Update each other regularly on what we need.

Designing new meetings

It was tempting to go straight to the big “why’s” of our organization. I wanted to pack more meaning into our meetings. I wanted our vision and purpose reflected in everything we do.

The problem was… well, I’m not our CEO. I don’t have the authority to—nor do I want the responsibility for—create and own broad declarative statements about our company.

Instead, I decided an organic, bottom-up approach would work.

In my life, meaning comes from what I repeatedly do. Nothing articulates our values more than how we do things as a business, so why not try to start there.

My guidelines for creating effective meeting designs and recommendations:

  • Any recommendation must be actionable—something that someone can actually do.
  • New meeting designs should be accessible to everyone so that anyone who needs to can host and facilitate an effective meeting.

These two principles produce a few constraints. Constraint provides clarity.

In order to keep my recommendations actionable, I decided to create a series of meeting templates or SOPs.

To ensure these micro-level artifacts made sense I would fit them into a system—a meeting operating system.

I was inspired by James Clear’s insights about the importance of systems.

A Meeting Operating System – key meeting design principles

If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed?

James Clear, Atomic Habits

We needed a meeting system—a defined, actionable, and reliable series of meetings to achieve our needs.

I decided to call each component of this system a “meeting cluster”. Each cluster would help the business achieve a specific goal.

For example, a large firm might have a “Hiring Cluster” comprised of four or more different meeting types: 1) a managerial meeting to write the job description, 2) an HR team meeting to review the applications, 3) the hiring interviews, and 4) on-boarding meetings to orient new staff.

Meeting clusters are repeatable, so there’s a process ready to pull up any time the company needs to hire. What’s more, each meeting type within a given meeting cluster is a defined process with an easy-to-follow checklist. This ensures it’s easy to train staff to host meetings when necessary.

Meeting systems, meeting clusters, and meeting SOPs all stem from a business’s needs so they’re scalable to any business size or industry.

Because our team is still relatively small (only four), we don’t yet have robust processes for much of what we do. We also don’t have enough staff to warrant more than a handful of regular meetings. Were we to define a Hiring Cluster, we’d only need one or two sessions.

Starting from our needs, here are the meeting clusters and meeting formats I’ve created.

Identifying our meeting clusters

To recap, we have 6 needs. Each of these needs will become its meeting cluster unless one or more needs can be achieved in one meeting. Because we’re a small team, most of these clusters will only have one meeting, but that’s fine. We don’t need anything more.

In as few meetings as possible:

  • Create and increase connections across our team.
  • Update each other regularly on what we need from one another.
  • Work collaboratively when we need to and when it serves us.
  • Meaningfully and consistently plan and carry out our projects.
  • A reliable system to hold ourselves accountable for our goals.

I’ll address each one in turn.

Need 1: Create and increase connection amongst our team.

We do this naturally in all of our meetings. It’s part of how we roll and not something that I want to or even could change.

If you’re looking to make any change, always start with the lowest hanging fruit.

While we are good at maintaining connections, I think we could do better. At present, we get our connection when we can find it, spread out in bits and pieces in our other meetings. We definitely want to keep treating each other as humans, but this tendency towards connection can come at the detriment of the work that needs to be done.

So why not have dedicated time and space for the team to connect?

Voila, we have our first new meeting cluster. I call this cluster “Community of Practice”. It contains all of the meetings we need to practice and maintain our community.

Community of Practice meetings should occur about once per month, as long as that feels right. They can be a little longer—60 to 90 minutes—to accommodate free-flowing meandering. As a remote team, we’ve found that 90 minutes is about the upper end of our tolerance for Zoom.

Anyone can host a Community of Practice meeting. We decide as a team the topic for our next meeting at the end of the current meeting.

Here’s the template my team can use to host a Community of Practice Meeting:

Need 2: Update each-other regularly on what we need from each-other.

This need comes from two main complaints. First, my boss—the owner and CEO of our company—constantly bemoans the fact she doesn’t have enough insight into what the team members are doing each day. Part of this is embedded in how we work. Our CEO is also our primary deliverer, so most of her days are filled with client deliverables in person or traveling. She simply doesn’t have time to act as a hands-on manager. Second, each of us owns very different parts of a project so we don’t have a high need for collaboration in a traditional sense. We do, however, often slip past deadlines we’ve set for ourselves simply because no one is checking in with each other regularly.

So we need what I like to call a “Cadence Cluster”. Let me explain this cluster.

I’m a long-time cyclist and ex-racer. One of the primary things a cyclist can control is their cadence, how many times per minute their feet spin the cranks. A faster cadence will shift the load to your cardio system while a slower cadence will require more strength in your legs. The best cyclists use their gears to control their cadence variably.

We need a rhythm to our work together. A cadence that keeps us cycling smoothly when the going gets tough.

My first thought was to host something like a daily stand-up meeting. In a standard daily stand-up meeting, teams get together in one room to answer three basic questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Is there anything blocking your progress?

The team may ask a few questions, and assign someone to help with a block raised during the meeting, but there should be no extended discussion. The ideal outcomes of a standard daily stand-up meeting are to clarify working progress, share information, identify setbacks, and update the direction or scope of a project as needed.

While I loved the format, I knew that meeting every day simply wouldn’t work for my team. One of us is often on the road, two of us are mothers to infants or young children, and I—well, I have two pets and a partner who works shift work—being able to work whenever we can is deeply ingrained in our culture, and not something I want to resist by setting a fixed meeting every day.

This problem genuinely stumped me for a few days. But then I remembered that a tool we already use every day (Slack) has apps—indeed, someone else has solved this problem.

So I found a Slack app (it’s called GeekBot) that hosts a virtual, asynchronous stand-up meeting every day.

It’s pretty simple (and totally free for teams under 10).

Every day at a set time, GeekBot sends everyone a private message with several questions. The default ones are below, but they’re changeable.  After each person answers, GeekBot posts their responses to a shared thread so the whole team can respond and see how people are doing.

So far, it’s working quite well.

Here are the default GeekBot questions:

  • How do you feel today?
  • What did you do since your last check-in?
  • What will you do today?
  • Anything blocking your progress?

We added one question to the default ones:

  • Do you need anything from Moe (CEO)?

Need 3: Meaningfully and consistently plan and carry out our projects.

Overall, there are two critical aspects of this need. The first is to plan goals, ideal outcomes, and key responsibilities for each project. The second is to review our performance regularly. Both of these meeting needs fit into what I call our Project Cluster.

We’ve been practicing the first two implementations for some time now.

Throughout the past two months or so we’ve continued to have the Weekly Team Tactical meeting. Delightfully, that meeting has become more and more valuable. Partly this is because we have some exciting things on the horizon, but mostly I think it’s because we’ve made a habit of assigning one person responsible for creating the agenda, taking notes, and providing some level of follow-up from our weekly meeting.

While this is good, the problem now—and still—comes down to organization. Take our last team meeting as an example.

It was super energizing, we had a huge agenda, and had some amazing conversations and decision-making around critical business objectives. And while those decisions are finally caught in notes, it still leaves us scrambling to sift through notes and lingering with unclear expectations about which projects are most time-sensitive or important.

The impact is that everything feels like it needs to be done now, yet there’s not enough clarity to start anything today.

My best solution is twofold. We need to either:

  • Assign clear project responsibility so that one person owns each project.
  • Meet to outline expected delivery dates for the components of a project and the project itself.

I suggest we have a meeting that looks something like the template below. In particular, we need to outline what we’ll be happy with when the project is done and what needs to get done by when to finish it to our standard. Finally, we need to assign accountability for each component of a given project.

In case it’s not clear, here are some of the projects we have underway now:

  • Refine and deliver final version of [big client]’s deliverable.
  • Review past LPP curriculum to reverse-engineer our new curriculum
  • Working from our curriculum and core principles, refine our LPP Sales Letter, email marketing material, and social strategy.
    • Included in this project is defining timelines for our first LPP Launch in Q1
  • Create an editorial calendar for 2022, in particular a list of each publication type and its publication date for the entire year
    • E.g. blog posts, podcast eps, social, email
  • Plan and execute the graduation materials for LPP
  • Plan and schedule our new DEI program for 2022, including:
    • Design the workshop itself
    • Translate that design into compelling sales copy
  • Plan lead magnets for 2022, in particular:
    • Public events calendar
    • Private (alum) events calendar

Whenever you’re stuck or overwhelmed, with your team or personally, I highly recommend performing a project-list dump like this. Simply write a list of every project you have on the go. 10 to 15 is about right. Any more than that is too many and will lead to overwhelm and fatigue.

I’ll update this post as I continue to work with my team to refine our planning and review process.

Need 4: A Reliable system to hold ourselves accountable for our goals.

Once we have a clear system for assigning accountability for our key projects’ outcomes, it becomes relatively easy to get in the habit as a team of reviewing our actions.

When we publish a project or consider a project “done”, I suggest we plan a meeting to work through the Project Review template provided below.

Why so many clusters?

You might be wondering why I’d bother with defining these clusters if each cluster only has one meeting in it. Believe it or not, we do plan to grow. Already I can see some gaps and cracks in our Meeting System as I’ve outlined it here. But those cracks are in refinement. For example, while we now have a good planning system, we haven’t yet identified a time and place for brainstorming or working collaboratively. These functions could be well served by adding a new meeting to our Cadence Cluster.

Why create meeting templates?

I want everyone on our team to be able to host each meeting in our system at any moment. To help them, I created a series of templates that anyone can use to host and work through any of our meetings.

All of the templates for each meeting type are linked in the text above and again in a list below.

Our meeting templates are available to you to copy into your Notion workspace.

To access all of our Notion Meeting Templates click here.

Community of Practice Cluster

Link to Community of Practice Meeting Template

Cadence Cluster

Link to Geekbot – automated Daily Standup Meetings in Slack

Planning Cluster

Link to Project Planning Meeting Template

Link to Project Review Meeting Template

How to redesign your team’s meeting system: a checklist

To duplicate this checklist as your own Notion page, click here.

Step 1: Assess your current meeting culture and performance.

Any prescription must stem from an accurate diagnosis. You need to know what’s working and what isn’t.

Start by filling out the intention-outcome grid for each regular meeting you host or attend.

Meeting NameIntended OutcomeActual OutcomePitfalls
How to use this tableTo show you how you might use this table to assess your current meeting performance. Maybe this is helpful perhaps it isn’t. Why is there a discrepancy between the ideal and the intended outcome? Because I have no easy way to gather your feedback about this table.

If you’re looking to assess your own meeting I recommend taking a few minutes to fill out a grid, like this one. If you have written down the intended outcomes from your meetings, plop those guidelines in the second column. If not, think back to why you or someone else scheduled the meeting to derive some intended outcomes.

Then, with open-minded compassion and curiosity, write down the actual outcomes. Feel free to ask other attendees what they get out of each meeting. “I don’t get anything from these meetings” is just as important as positive feedback. We’re gathering data, not judging meeting leaders or organizers, or attendees.

  1. Fill out an intention-outcome grid for each of your recurring meetings.
  2. Make a list of what your current meeting system does well that you’d like to keep.
  3. Make a list of what your current meeting system doesn’t do that you need.
  4. Compare these lists to create a concise list of new intentions.

Step 2: Reimagine new meetings to meet your current needs

  1. Using your list of needs from Step 1, create as few meetings as possible to achieve those needs.

Step 3: Create meeting templates and train staff or team.

Design each meeting of each cluster. Use what you know of your team to create meetings that will be successful in your organization.

One excellent resource is the Lucid Meeting blog. Lucid Meeting makes online meeting software and courses for teaching organizations to host better meetings. I’ve never bought a product from them, but I have learned from their extensive free resources.

Step 4. Have great meetings.

Put them in the calendar and start. A few tips:

  • Make sure each meeting has clearly defined roles. A few examples include: Meeting host to greet attendees and keeping the meeting on schedule and following the predetermined agenda items.
  • An assigned note-taker is also responsible for sending a helpful follow-up after the meeting is finished. This is essential for effective meetings.
  • I highly recommend you move away from having repeated meetings under the same generic title. Make sure your calendar invitations specify why a meeting is important so that people know it will be useful even before they show up.

Step 5. Recognize that great meetings aren’t one-and-done.

As you go about your business, you’ll continue to grow and change. As will your needs. Continue to track your meeting performance and update your team’s Meeting System and facilitation goals.