Setting an Example on Meetings

Sometimes change happens by people making small tweaks or adaptations to their own daily processes.  I’m going to try to do better to set an example on meetings.  I’ve noticed an increasing number of meetings that are called but that are the wrong tool for solving whatever the goal is.


I recently received a meeting request from someone on an IT team.  They were asking me to meet for 30 minutes up the street to discuss a “project”.  That’s an hour, including the to and from time.  There was, in fact, no project but rather they were trying to do some information gathering.  I rejected the meeting request because it failed my basic rule:  I had no value I could bring to the meeting.

There should be some discussion prior to a meeting of this sort.  In this case, there was no meeting of the minds about whether we agreed there was some joint project going on that required the participation of the managers from three teams.  If you can’t agree on this basic point, then the meeting is missing its foundation.

Additionally, it was clear to me that there was a nexus between the other two people and, based on conversations I had had with one manager, and which I passed on to the second, they had a potential project to work on.  But I didn’t have any knowledge either about the first (non-technical) manager’s project nor the second (highly technical) manager’s solution – I just was able to translate from the non-technical to the technical.  If they met face to face, they could do that just as easily.  My participation was entirely superfluous.

But wait, you say, you could have continued to be the translation point!  No, the translation was clear.  If there a solution, it was a matter of the IT team coming up with it.  By this point, their answer was “yes” or “no”.  There was no additional discussion to be had other than to convey that to the other team.

More to the point, this issue didn’t rise to the level of having a meeting.  I received an e-mail to my meeting rejection with an explanation for the information that was sought.  The e-mail asked the question in about 20 words.  And I was able to answer it in about the same.  Problem solved.

The meeting was called because that is the default procedure for certain teams when something comes up.  But face to face meetings are not always good ways to do information gathering and, when they are over-inclusive, waste more time than they should.

One last cranky point:  if your default meeting length is anything longer than 15 minutes, reduce it.  If you’re not sure whether you need more than 15 minutes, read on.

No Agenda?  No Meeting

My meeting aversion is geared around whether they are meaningful or not.  As I described, if I can add value to a meeting – even if it’s entirely tangential – I am happy to participate.  But there’s an assessment to be made whether to involve departmental managers in what should be direct communications between line staff or line managers.  Sometimes it helps but mostly it’s a show of force strength and that’s a negative value.  Typically, I can add value to a meeting as a decision maker or as a knowledge resource.

I received another meeting request last week about a project that had been wrapped up nearly 2 months ago and that had, as far as I knew, been working smoothly ever since.  The request had the subject line of The Project’s Name.  Nothing else.  It was likely to require me to act as both decision maker and resource but without more information, it depended.

Your organization may be different but when I get a meeting request like this, it is not to congratulate anyone on success.  It usually means something else:  things aren’t working, we have additional questions, we want to make enhancements, etc.  In this case, it was unclear what the purpose of the meeting would be, although generally it would have to do with the project we’d finished.  Like most teams, though, once a project is done, we close it and move on.  A new project gets put into the prioritization hopper all over again.  To complete the picture, it was sent as an emergency needing my attendance the next morning.

For better or worse, I was out the next two days, the manager for whom the executive assistant was trying to schedule the meeting was out the next, so I tentatively accepted for 4 days away.  But at the same time, I asked for additional information, including an agenda.  From my perspective, there were two reasons to meet about this project:

  1. It’s not working.  But if this is the case, we are less likely to need a meeting so much as we need information about what’s not working so I can put a developer on it to figure out why 2 months after it went live, we’re suddenly having problems.  Technical issues?  training issues?  Whatever, we need some detail and a meeting right away may not be the best solution.
  2. It’s working but we want enhancements.  Not a problem but sometimes a bit of scope can help so that I can do a bit of research on my end, asking a developer or contacting the vendor, to understand the lay of the land.  Otherwise the meeting is just note-taking.

But without an agenda or any kind of details, it was impossible to understand what this one hour commitment was for.  Culturally, I think this is again a default mechanism.  We want to discuss something, we book a meeting and our program defaults it for an hour.

An agenda might have helped to understand whether or not a meeting was needed and how long that meeting should last.  This again my reflect my own warped bias, but I find that meetings that I attend without any foreknowledge of the topic and/or the opportunity to prepare are largely a waste of time.  (Aside:  I don’t believe in “pre-meetings”.  I think those are negative, largely controlling meetings so that “everyone is on the same page” which means that someone in authority wants to micromanage a message.  That’s fine, but then just don’t invite anyone to your meeting so that you can uniformly control your message, rather than waste everyone else’s time by pretending to be inclusive.  If I invite someone to a meeting, it’s for what they have to say or for them to hear something.  Information sharing can and should be done, but doesn’t need a meeting.) Unless it’s a topic on which I am truly an expert (and there aren’t many!), I usually need a deep dive into information as a follow up.  If I can skim the surface before a meeting, that can sometimes help to move the project or discussion forward faster.

Setting an Example

I’m going to start to request an agenda for each meeting I am invited to, if it’s not automatically provided.  Similarly, if I call a meeting, I will make sure I have an agenda in advance and have calculated the time accordingly.  I’m not a big fan of meetings anyway – I’d rather send an e-mail or swing by the desk of someone on one of our teams – but tend to use agendas and move through them pretty rigorously.  Which means what I’m really going to try to do is have others become more mindful of using agendas or at least being clearer about what the scope of their meeting is, whether a meeting is necessary at all and, if it is, how to maximize the minimum amount of time.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.


  1. i just stumbled across your posts starting with the Gladwell review and am hooked. This post has me rethinking my approach to meetings by starting with an agenda rather than creating one once the meeting has been set. Small tweak, but should be beneficial. BTW, no agenda is just unprofessional.

    1. Thanks, Matt, glad you thought it was useful.

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