Controlling the Runaway Meeting

It is a common phenomenon. Something happens, usually something bad. Daily meetings are organized. Anyone connected with the event is there—from senior executives to junior staff. There is incredible focus. Then, the triggering issue is resolved. But the meetings continue.

This has happened to all of us. Meetings start with a clear purpose. There is active participation. Issues are resolved. And then, the meetings drift. Principals stop attending and proxies are sent. Attendees stop coming in-person and start calling-in. Call-in participants multi-task and ask, “Can you repeat that?” when asked a question.

Crises take on a life of their own. They generate activity and excitement. People want to be part of the solution. Consequently, it is harder to end meetings than start them.

While interventions are sometimes needed, they come at a high cost. Direct costs are measurable. An hour-long daily meeting with 20 participants can easily cost $15,000 per week. The indirect costs of lost productive capacity and diverted attention are harder to measure.

Here are five recommendations on how to get control of that runaway meeting:

Ask: Why Are We Here?

This may seem obvious—ask, “Why are we here?” This takes courage. It is equivalent to asking the Emperor if he is wearing clothes. But, this is the necessary first step.

Hold a well-facilitated review meeting. Request that executive leaders attend.

First, identify the original objective of the meeting. Use specific, measurable, and time bound statements. For example: the error rate doubled from 5% to 10%, and we need to return to 5% within a month.

Second, decide if the objective was met.

If the objective was met, then end the meeting. Wind down the effort thoughtfully: complete documentation, report and communicate lessons learned, etc. Formally thank all of the participants. Avoid the classic mistake of punishing the innocent and praising the non-participants.

If the objective has not been met and this is still a short-term effort, then evaluate if the meeting is effective. If not, refresh participation and reset the structure.

If achieving the objectives requires a long-term effort, transition the work to an ongoing program. The requirements should be clearly documented and prioritized against other enterprise needs.

Refresh the Participation List

Over time, meetings bog down. Too many people attend. Required participants are not present. Roles and expectations are forgotten. When this happens it’s time to refresh the participant list and reset stakeholder roles:

When refreshing participation, take the following steps:

  • Review and revise the stakeholder list. Ensure the participants have a required role in the process;
  • Assign each stakeholder a role based on a RASCI analysis; and
  • Build a communications plan that maps to the stakeholder’s needs.

A thorough stakeholder analysis will assist in building an effective communications plan. The analysis will determine who needs to be involved, why, and how they should be engaged. Are they part of the decision making process? Do they just need to be informed? Are they a “doer”? The communications plan will help ensure productive participation.

Demonstrate a clear break when the meetings are re-launched. Review the objectives, the roles and expectations of the participants, etc. Watch for hidden agendas and behaviors that are not aligned to current participant roles or overall objectives.

Set the Meeting Structure

Effective meetings don’t happen organically. Well-structured meetings are more productive and result in happier participants. Below are some critical components:

  • Set ground rules and expected behaviors. Ground rules set expectations of normative behaviors and may include: attendance, timeliness, engagement, and meeting format;
  • Establish a decision making process. A good decision making process is documented, transparent, with clearly defined roles. See: Decision Making: 6 Ways to be More Effective.
  • Use a formal meeting agenda. A formal meeting, structured meeting agenda maintains discipline and productivity. For more on effective meeting management see: Manager Tools© Effective Meetings
  • Document risks, actions, issues, and decisions (RAID). Documenting RAID items, maintaining them in an accessible medium, and regularly reviewing them will reduce churn and ensure accountability. Kanban boards are effective and help ensure transparency.

Review the Process

The team should regularly ask two important questions:

  • Are we done? Continue to review whether the objectives have been met;
  • Are we optimizing? Are we optimizing the recurring meeting and its subsidiary meetings? Can we be more effective or productive? Can we meet less frequently, or for shorter durations?

These questions should be evaluated in separate meetings. Both meetings should be conducted in a safe environment where questioning the status quo is encouraged and expected. When reviewing the effectiveness and productivity of the meetings:

  • Calculate the direct cost and lost capacity. Ask if we are still deriving benefit?
  • Review the meetings’ structure and ensure that sound meeting management practices are being followed.
  • Use a facilitated process to determine what is working well and what is not. Identify ways of improving the process.

Shift to Continuous Improvement

High-performing organizations practice continuous improvement. These are methodical, on-going processes to identify and resolve systemic problems. Lean is a widely used method. When problems do occur, structured practices are in place to guide resolution.

When it comes to software applications and technology, continuous improvement efforts may include:

  • Regular review of business capabilities and their supporting process;
  • Maintenance and upgrade of the technical infrastructure and the application technology stack; and
  • Refactoring application code.

There are times when an intervention is required to recover from an operational incident or significant problem. The attention focuses the organization to quickly resolve the problem. However, interventions should be carefully monitored and managed to ensure they remain productive.

© 2017, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC.  To subscribe


“Effective Meetings Part 1.” Manager Tools. N.p., 31 July 2005. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Popik, Barry. “Double-Tongued Word Wrester Dictionary.” Barry Popik. Barry Popik, 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Zucker, Alan. “Decision Making–6 Ways to Be More Effective.” Blog post. LinkedIn. N.p., 30 Apr. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

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