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Fixing broken meetings with better communication, collaboration and outcomes

Meetings can be better with a structured, scientific approach. Learn how.

6 min read


Fixing broken meetings with better communication, collaboration and outcomes


It’s 2 p.m., and you’re in the middle of your fourth Zoom call of the day. This time there are eight participants.

You scan the virtual room of faces in their rectangular windows. Half of the group look dazed. (It is, after all, four to eight hours into everyone’s workday.) A few people are multitasking. One person is talking animatedly, but also inaudibly, because they are on mute. It’s happened again: a meeting meltdown on the virtual planet.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most employees despaired of the number of meetings they had to attend. The pandemic has amplified this suffering. A recent Harvard Business School study of digital communications found that office-based workers now attend 13% more meetings since their home-office exile in March 2020.

Countless hours in unproductive meetings are damaging to body, mind and spirit. They are a root cause of lower productivity and job satisfaction. It would seem that more meetings would help people feel more connected. Not true. More meetings just make people more irritable

Better meeting methods can alleviate the madness which wreaks havoc on focus, achievement and well-being.

More meetings, more problems

One root cause of suffering is pretty easy to discern: You may simply have too many unnecessary meetings. Think of your standing weekly or bi-weekly calls. The ostensible purpose of most of these meetings is to get project updates, provide or receive input, or connect and check in on team members.

But there are times when nothing has changed since the last meeting. Use the time wisely by canceling this regular occurrence or hold the meeting with those team-members required for a targeted discussion.

Key takeaway: Don’t have meetings just because one is scheduled. A quick email update, instant message or 10- to 15-minute call will suffice. Be judicious in how you use people’s time.

Seeking to improve outcomes? Sharpen your desired outcome statement

In analyzing data from the 2020 State of Online Meetings Report, we discovered meetings that had a clear meeting agenda usually or always met their intended goals 93% of the time. When a clear meeting agenda was provided only about half the time, the achievement of intended outcomes dropped to 46%. An agenda helps focus and drive the conversation.

A good meeting agenda is a roadmap and includes the purpose, desired outcomes, agenda topics, and clarity around time and resources. Ideally, it’s sent to attendees in advance.

The result should be the “Desired Outcome” statement, which is often the most powerful part of effective meeting preparation. These brief, written statements should answer the question: “What will we leave this meeting with?”

This is a transformation from how most people plan a meeting with a long list of topics. Desired Outcomes reframe the conversation around what we aim to achieve versus what we aim to speak about.

Overall, the 2020 State of Online Meetings Report found that the intended goals of the meeting are achieved 95% of the time when clear desired outcomes were written.

Key takeaway: To drive results, first get clarity on your Desired Outcomes. Are you generating a list? Are you gaining agreement? Perhaps you’re sharing information around a situation and seek a shared understanding among the team. Spend time to craft precise statements.

Eradicate Zoom zombies: Get people involved

Engagement in online meetings can be difficult to manage. In our study, 43% indicated they were often unfocused and unengaged in online meetings. Online meetings make it easier for attendees to get away with sending emails, working on other projects, or reading the day’s headlines. That said, there are steps to help minimize multitasking and drive engagement, including:

1. Assign meeting roles. Meeting leaders can ease the workload of running a meeting and give everyone clarity on how they can contribute by providing a certain level of responsibility and accountability in assigning meeting roles. As the meeting leader, make the ask: “Charlie – would you be willing to serve as scribe for today?”

This graphic outlines other key meeting roles:

2. Review the agenda. People work hard throughout the day and often jump from meeting to meeting. A pause at the beginning to present the roadmap (agenda) then check for understanding is a great way to “go slow” now in order to “go fast” later. It only takes a minute, but this practice helps everyone align, prepare, and regain focus.

3. Follow the road map. Covering an unplanned agenda item can quickly take a meeting off the rails and dissolve any progress made. If the meeting ever begins to veer off, quickly point the group back towards the agenda’s desired outcomes. Ask the group what direction they’d like to take. Should the item be dealt with in the moment or defer it to another time?

Key takeaway: Have meeting participants take an active role, take time to align around the desired outcomes, make a conscious decision on deviations from the agenda.

Keep improving

To continuously improve communication and working together, it’s important to take time to reflect on the meeting outcomes. Did we achieve what we intended? What worked well? What could be done differently in the future?

We call this exercise Plus/Delta. It’s a space for reflection and can help drive cultural improvement over time. The image provides further examples.

Key takeaway: No matter the steps taken in improving meetings, mistakes will be made. That’s OK. Improving a meeting culture takes time and patience. But every bit of improvement will reflect in employee productivity, collaboration, and ultimately outcomes.


Barry Rosen is CEO of Interaction Associates, a pioneer in creative problem-solving, collaborative leadership and group facilitation. As CEO, Rosen’s mission is to empower associates to make decisions and provide services that help clients achieve their goals. He is the designer and developer of much of Interaction Associates’ intellectual content, including leadership, teamwork and facilitation learning programs. He is also tasked with assembling the next generation of IA leaders and practitioners to bring The Interaction Method to companies and communities around the world.

He is also a co-founder of the Interaction Institute for Social Change, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to racial equity and advancing the practice of citizen democracy. Rosen has led engagements at dozens of companies in the US and Europe, including General Electric, Celanese, McKinsey, Progressive Insurance, Charles Schwab and Capital One.

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