“This meeting could have been an email.”

Who has not had that thought at least once in their working lives? For many people it is a regular sentiment. A general disdain for business meetings is something everyone understands even if they are lucky enough not to experience it often themselves.

“This could have been an email,” is printed on sassy coffee cups, captions popular internet memes, and is often fodder for business-related blogs like this one.

Rather than linger on the popular distaste for meetings and the longing for the email alternative —well-trodden ground without much new to say— let’s explore why so many organizations struggle to communicate and collaborate internally; what would make meetings more valuable for individuals, for the team, for the team’s leadership, and for the company as a whole?

Broadly speaking, a meeting is about sharing information, and there is often also a component of problem-solving or trying to reach a consensus. A useful tool for framing this kind of exchange is asking the Five Ws, which is also sometimes called 5W1H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? These questions are widely used in journalism, education, scientific inquiry, and even police investigations to ensure thoroughness in coverage of a particular subject matter. None of these questions can be answered by a simple yes or no, and each one helps to focus the others.

Here are those questions spelled out as they could apply to a meeting:

  1. Who needs to attend the meeting?
  2. What is the purpose of the meeting?
  3. Where should the meeting be held?
  4. When should the meeting be held?
  5. Why is the meeting necessary?
  6. How will we tell if the meeting succeeds or fails?

We hope to illustrate that having meaningful answers to these questions will improve your meetings to the point where no one participating would say they are replaceable by email correspondence.

Let’s unpack the questions one by one.

  • Who needs to attend the meeting?

Without giving too many specifics to a broad hypothetical, the correct answer should be, “As few people as possible” or maybe even word it more strongly as, “Only the people who actually need to be there.”

Do you know why people wish meetings were emails? Because they don’t have anything to contribute to the meeting, and their only takeaway from the meeting will be what other people say or decide. That sort of takeaway really can be done faster and more efficiently by an email, so why is anyone with that promised outcome in the meeting in the first place? Spare them, and also let those who are present know they are there for a purpose and are expected to engage and contribute.

  • What is the purpose of the meeting?

Now this seems self-evident, but you might be surprised how many meetings are not held for any specific purpose if you gave it some thought. You have probably participated in them without even thinking about it. How many ‘daily huddles’ or ‘Friday afternoon team get-togethers’ or ‘monthly department meetings’ have you attended where there is no structure, conversation starts with small talk and  meanders from there until people feel enough has been said, and the best possible end result is a broad awareness of what everyone else has been up to lately and who is working on what at the moment?

Now there is nothing wrong with a regularly scheduled ‘touching base update,’ or even a gathering just for the sake of social interaction in small groups, but the people in the meeting need to have clear intent going in of why everyone is coming together, because that informs things like format, duration, and desired outcomes. A meeting for a reason works towards its motivation. A meeting with no direction to go in —especially one happening out of mere habit— is exactly the sort of thing where people wish they were spending their time some other way while commenting that whatever they do get from the experience could be better summarized in a short email.

  • Where should the meeting be held?

There is not a good one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but have a good reason behind whatever answer you do offer. A thought worth pondering after the first two questions? If you are inviting the fewest number of people for a specific purpose, where is the smallest, closest, most convenient, most comfortable place to hold the meeting? The company’s magnificently appointed boardroom is not always the best option just because it happens to be available. People can feel intimidated or unimportant when sitting around a table much too big for their number. The convenience of a virtual meeting —a growing trend for obvious reasons— is also not often the most conducive to an easy back and forth and a free flow of ideas. If the purpose of the meeting is one person speaking to many, maybe an email really would be the better way to do that? If the purpose is group discussion, where is the best place to do that for the group?

  • When should the meeting be held?

Now, again, this is not a question that can always be answered one way, but some of the answers to our previous questions will inform our response here. If it is a regularly held meeting, hold it at the usual time as often as possible. Hold the meeting when the people who have to be there can attend, and when the best place to hold the meeting is available. Hold it at a time when people are going to be alert and attentive enough to participate at the level needed to bring about the best result regarding the meeting’s purpose. The end-of-week meeting is ideal for a team to have some shared personal time and blow off some steam together, but Friday at 4 pm is a bad time to make important and urgent decisions, if you will allow two broad hypotheticals to illustrate how timing can shape people’s contributions to the value of a meeting’s outcome.

  • Why is the meeting necessary?

Maybe this question should be at the very top of the list. We leave it to people who find value in this exercise to arrange the questions as they think best. In the meantime, this is probably the biggest divider between ‘Good Meeting’ and ‘Bad Meeting.’ Again, excluding reoccurring meetings whose purpose is keeping regular lines of communication open, a good guideline would be the fewer meetings you have, the more impactful the ones you do have will be. Making a meeting a special occurrence puts attendees on notice and has them come into the gathering expecting to do something a little different from their normal day-to-day. The team member who knows they will sit around a table for several hours a week just in case the discussion matters to them at some point is not going to be alert, attentive, and ready to contribute the way attendees of a specific meeting for a specific purpose to which their attendance is specifically needed will be.

  • How will we tell if the meeting succeeds or fails?

Here is the real secret sauce of great meetings, and it also applies to just about everything that at first glance seems intangible. How are you going to measure the success or failure of something so you have best practices and lessons learned to apply to future iterations?

Now not everything has qualitative metrics, of course, but there are lots of ways to measure the effectiveness of internal communications and team collaboration. Executive Platforms has had the good fortune of working regularly with Shane Yount of Competitive Solutions, an expert on this subject. Here are a few of our podcast interviews and recorded presentations from him. Now whether his Process Based Leadership® is the right fit for your organization or not is something you can judge for yourselves, but the principal that effective meetings include self-reflection on the benefits and results that actually come out of those meetings is clear no matter what tools you apply to generate and track meaningful data over time.

Another takeaway from Shane’s business practices to consider? When the sense check routinely starts coming back with a successful result to the point where the examination becomes a formality, move the goal posts. Set harder targets. Get a ‘you can do better’ result that motivates people to improve upon what had once been considered good enough. Amazing things can come from that.

Looking at this issue again as a whole, can we agree people do not actually dislike meetings and love emails. If anything, people might have stronger feelings about bad emails than bad meetings! No, the aversity to ‘bad meetings’ comes from people do not like being made to gather for no purpose to receive a takeaway they could have gotten much faster in just a few lines of text. Effective meetings do things that an email never can, but an effective meeting does not happen accidentally. It needs a clear Who-What-Where-Why-When-How that is communicated to the participants ahead of time, and the value and end results of the meeting should be understood such that meetings improve and become even more effective over time.

It sounds easy, but of course it is harder to do than to say. The right way does not fit on a sassy coffee mug. It would make a rambling internet meme. Even as a blog post, exploring the issue is restricted by a lack of specifics. For those of you reading this, we ask that you take a leap of imagination and apply the broad concepts to your own working life’s meetings. Ask the 5W1H, and then compare the answers you come up with against the reality of how your organization communicates internally. Of course there are going to be places where you diverge from this hypothetical thought exercise, but if you do have people on your team who view meetings as a waste of time, hopefully asking some questions of your current meetings will help.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.