How to turn meetings from time wasters into agents of change

I’ve been thinking a lot about meetings; how much time we waste in them and how bad we are at running them. From the small meetings with mentors for advice, to the big meetings we call conferences. We meet to create joint ventures, negotiate deals or simply to get things done. There are a lot of really good reasons to meet, but so few meetings live up to their potential.

Basically, as a whole, we are really bad at meetings. But could we turn them around? Could we take them from time wasters to extraordinary agents of change?

If you ask any executive leading a large organisation they will tell you that huge swaths of their time are taken up in poorly run meetings that suck time and cause extraordinary opportunity loss. In an era when our time is probably one of the top three resources we have, we are squandering it in bad collaborations called meetings. As a result we say, ‘we are not aligned’, ‘they are not engaged’, or ‘we need to work on our team building.’ This may all be true but I reckon we jump to prescribe these bigger issue fixes when maybe, just maybe, all we need to do is better define why we are meeting?

The problem is we call meetings without being clear on why or what we want to achieve and then treat all meetings as equal when they might be served by different structures and procedures. Take for example a meeting to discuss speakers for a conference. There is a degree of brainstorming required but ultimately this meeting needs to reach a decision. Which of the 5 speakers will be engaged and why?


'Getting good at meetings—the primary agent for change—is a big idea.'

Planning a conference requires you to get clear on some key objectives to answer some basic questions: the meta question being, ‘What do you hope to achieve out of this conference?’ and then specifically ‘Is there a gap in our line up of speakers?’ Having run events for several years and then being a speaker for consideration more times than I count, it helps to see this as two meetings: the first one of awareness exploring choices and the second one of decisions closing down choices.

I created this model to explain to conference committees the different goals of events and different types of speakers you can engage to meet those needs.


Al Pittampalli, a graduate of Seth Godin’s Alternative MBA Program, has written a manifesto titled Read This Before Our Next Meeting. You can watch Al make his hypothesis in the video below and you can read a quick summary as well.

In his manifesto he proposes that there are two types of meetings: ‘decision making’ meetings where the only thing done is the discussion on that topic and ‘brainstorming’ meetings where we ideate new solutions. He calls his approach the modern meeting solution. It includes some really good ideas for how we decide whether we need to participate in a meeting or not and, if we do, what are the rules of engagement? Things like ‘don’t attend a meeting if you don't have to’ and ‘don’t turn up late’ and ‘if you have not read the pre meeting notes you can't attend,’ etc.

I liked the simplicity of his hypothesis; ‘There are only two types of meetings’, but I wondered if it was true?

It’s not.

Well it is useful but it’s incomplete. Those two meeting types are helpful but in no way are they collectively exhaustive or practically useful when there are at least four other meeting types.

Have you ever caught up with someone to build a relationship? Have you ever caught up with someone to get their advice? Both are types of meetings but neither fit the ‘decision making’ or ‘brainstorming’ definition of a meeting.

This got me thinking about the different types of meetings we have and the fact that maybe if we got clear on our choices and the operating guidelines for these meetings we might be more effective at having meetings. We all agree that meetings are not working, I reckon we have universal consensus on that. Put simply, meetings don't work as well as they should. But there are way more than two types of meetings to be had.


'In an ideal world your inbox does not run your life, your priorities do. Equally, calendar invites should not plan your day. Project goals should.'

The challenge I think is to consider all types of meetings, what they are trying to achieve and then apply frameworks and guidelines for best practice as they apply to each. In a way it’s like cataloguing personality types in some form of enneagram, both useful and flawed. The minute you define me as personality A I will do something that breaks the definition and you will have to rethink the classification. This is the principle behind statistician George Box’s caution that “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

We need a useful model for meetings that we can adopt as a guideline but not a regulation.

I decided to explore some different models that are available, everything from Hippocrates' four body types to some Ayurvedic frameworks but ended up settling on the ancient Chinese I Ching model. It fits perfectly with the six classic types of meetings and might be useful to think of planning meetings elementally; earth, fire, air and water and metal and space.

I Ching is one of the oldest books on the planet. Its literal translation is ‘The Book of Changes’. I love that name. That’s why we meet essentially; we meet to change stuff. We change perceptions, we ex-change information and we change the direction of our pursuits in meetings. Change is the new normal and so getting good at meetings—the primary agent for change—is a big idea.

In short, if we know why we are meeting and what we want to achieve we can make meetings work for us.

Next time you want to call a meeting, consider the six meeting types and apply the guidelines for running them effectively. Often with meetings you will need to mix and combine the six meeting types to achieve your goals but knowing which stage or meeting type you are in is incredibly useful if you wish to make progress through collaboration.

Next time someone asks you to attend a meeting or have a meeting you may want to get clear on the meeting’s intent first. One of my pet peeves is the universal calendar invitation being sent out reflexively without any discussion. The CALinvite is becoming as ubiquitous as email and needs to be defended against as strenuously. In an ideal world your inbox does not run your life, your priorities do. Equally, calendar invites should not plan your day. Project goals should.

The rest of this Talking Point is an attempt at doing exactly that, classifying and optimising meeting types. The I Ching metaphor is a useful way to remember the most common meeting types and how to make the most out of them.


EARTH Decision Making

This is the meeting where things get agreed on. They are seen as rapid fire, one agenda item meetings. Meetings where everyone knows what's being decided and the decision gets made. What are we doing? Who is responsible? When is it happening?

These meetings are quite formal, almost curt in nature and the agenda is adhered to. These meetings are held in meeting rooms. They should be called decision rooms as the only meeting you would ever want to run in one is a DECISION earth based meeting.

Key focus
What decision are we making?

Key tool
Reducing choices

Meeting room - with limited time

FIRE Brainstorming

These creative meetitngs are held to ideate, to come up with more ideas. This is about creativity and expansion. It’s about getting beyond the linear and exploring the intersections of cool ideas.

These meetings need to be fun and non judgemental. They run through stages like IDEATE, COLLABORATE and then AGGREGATE. They’re highly visual and set in comfortable break out environments, generally offsite or off campus.

Key focus
What else can we think of?

Key tool
Building the right environment

Offsite in comfortable, flexible space

WATER Relationship Building

Sometimes you are meeting to extend a relationship, this if often about building a relationship currency with others. These meetings are about opening up paths for conversation and shared understanding. They are a mutual dance of give and take, talk and listen. It’s about balance and connection.

A well run networking event should feel like this, although often they are the next meeting type pretending to be about networking.

Key focus
How can we get to know each other better?

Key tool
Space to share

Social location, bar, cafe or restaurant

AIR Advice Giving

This is the meeting where I pick your brain, shout you a coffee or quite literally ask you for your advice. This might be in a formal commercial coach/mentor relationship or simply implied by my approach.

These are about relevance and expertise and trying to match the two. Advice sessions should be in a quiet environment. Those giving the advice are respected, those taking the advice are asking questions and documenting the answer. Record what the advisor says.

Key focus
What would you do in my situation?

Key tool
Respect and learn

Advisor's favourite place

METAL Management

This type of meeting is one of accountability. It’s about checking in with various parties to make sure they are on track, doing the right thing and have what they need to keep executing.

It’s critical that these meetings happen often enough to have a recurring rhythm about them. When they are sprung on people in response to a situation people will always feel threatened and end up covering their butt instead of making progress.

Key focus
What do you need to get this done?

Key tool
Cadence and frameworks

At the team member’s desk

SPACE Strategy

This is the sixth meeting type but probably the most important. This is the meeting that plans for the future. Small groups of key decision makers plan for what’s next.

These meetings are not called to cover off the day to day or assess whether people are doing their work. These are the ON the business meetings as opposed to the IN the business meetings. This is what boards do (or should).

Key focus
What is the overarching context to all this?

Key tool
Sense making

Uninterrupted boardroom key reports/team members on standby

Once classified, each of these meeting types can have guidelines for optimising them towards their goal. A project update might be served by a 12 minute huddle at 12noon but a key relationship would suffer under the constraints of a forced time limit.

Take back your life. Don't let calendar invites and emails rule your world. Turn your meetings from time wasters into agents of change.


(covers link to Amazon)


Summary of Read this Before Our Next Meeting - from Actionable Books