How can we improve status meetings? As one of the most common reasons we gather in an organization, status meetings happen all the time. They typically represent a big investment of time and effort within organizations.
Perhaps the first thing to look at in terms of improving status meetings is something we often ignore: Should this be a meeting?
When we look at the normal should we have a meeting decision tree to help us decide to have a meeting, informational meetings often don’t make the cut.
- We don’t necessarily have a decision to make.
- We don’t necessarily need input from anyone.
- We don’t all need to be part of the discussion.
To be plain, many status meetings don’t need to happen. Instead, many status update meetings could be emails, memos, threads on collaboration platforms like Slack, or quick check-ins between colleagues on their own. Many status meetings happen by tradition: “We always do a Monday morning status meeting.” “Wednesday are for team updates.”
So perhaps the best, easiest way to improve status meetings is to simply not have them.
That isn’t to say that you can’t have status meetings or that they don’t serve a purpose.
- It may be that we’re an organization that really values coming together as a team, in person, and hearing what everyone is up to.
- We may not have a corporate culture where we actually read emails, so putting everyone in a room where they have no choice but to be informed may be more realistic than assuming people will start reading emails.
- And, personally, I’m actually a bit less rigid about bringing people together if it ultimately means a group has more connection and cohesion; a bunch of people productively sending emails from the confines of cubicles doesn’t do much to build culture and camaraderie even if it’s more efficient.
Status meeting best practices – Deciding on a purpose
But, you’re going to have a status meeting, it may be worth walking yourself or your team through a simple exercise that gets to the heart of why. This is especially true if it’s a monthly or weekly status meeting. That repetition means a real investment on the part of the organization.
To help focus the status meeting – or any meeting for that matter – I like something in the vein of Five Whys. (There are a number of similar frameworks with more or less rounds of asking “why” but five seems to be a pretty good number to use.) It’s a pretty simple process to get to the heart of why we’re meeting. You ask a question, then answer it, then ask why, and so on.
- Why are we meeting on Monday morning?
We’ve always done our status update at the beginning of the week.
So the team knows what everyone else is doing that week.
To better collaborate on projects.
To share best practices from our past experiences.
To prevent making mistakes that we’ve already solved.
If our status meeting is really about preventing mistakes, that might lead us to change the agenda, format, what we’re asking people to share, or how we set up our meeting so it’s successful. If, on the other hand, we went through this process and realized that the real reason we’re meeting is teambuilding among our remote employees, that speaks to a different kind of status meeting agenda or format.
Effective status meetings – preparing for updates
Now, assuming we’re still going to have this status meeting, there are a number of ways we might want to improve it. What are the common complaints?
- Our status meetings are too long.
- Our status meetings are not efficient; they are not relevant for everybody in the room.
- We spend too much time preparing for our status meetings.
You may want to change something else about these meetings, but we’ll mostly focus on running effective status meetings with respect to time, efficiency, and engagement.
If we go into this update meeting saying we’re not necessarily trying to get action or make a decision, then our goal is typically to share information.
In this vein, a first, easy step is to have people prepare for status meetings before they get in the room. It may be as simple as emailing everyone and telling them that there’s an expectation they prepare for the meeting. You may think this need not be said, but saying it can go a long way. And then clarify what you want employees to have ready.
Of course, telling someone to “share a bit about your project” is different than asking a colleague to, for example:
- “Provide the group with the three most important updates from the past week”
- “Prepare a 5-minute presentation on the project”
- “Offer two wins you’ve had and two challenges you’re facing.”
Our status meetings may not be what we want because we haven’t actually been clear about what we want. Or maybe there was clarity two years ago when we started these meetings and the team has now changed and the new group hasn’t ever been briefed on what to prepare.
Similarly, these status meetings may be well served if employees send out some of what needs to be conveyed ahead of time. If it’s a bigger group and there are 10 people who are each sending pre-meeting emails, it’s a lot to keep track of. It means more work for someone, but you may get better results if those 10 emails are sent to one person who then collects them into one cohesive document. It’s easier for 10 people to keep track of reading one thing before a meeting versus 10.
In other words, in the original system, all 10 employees send updates to 9 coworkers and receive updates from 9 coworkers. That’s 90 emails to read and keep track of, per meeting.
By contrast, if the person running the status meeting collates the updates from the other 9 people and puts them in one email, the system sees 9 emails to one person plus 1 email back to the other 9. In this case, the team only has to keep track of 9 total emails.
It’s much easier to tell someone to look at one document than to go looking for nine different ones. This still matters if it’s only four people, but really matters if it’s 20 people. The more emails we send to update people for our status meeting, the more likely that some will be misplaced or unopened or not read. That leads to frustration and wasted time.
We also know there’s always a tendency to procrastinate, so if your pre-meeting prep documents come out an hour before the status meeting, it’s unlikely anyone will have read them in advance. Again, more frustration.
Effective status meetings – study hall time
If we surrender to the idea that people are not going to read emails ahead of time, we can build this into a realistic status meeting agenda. We save people from doing homework, but we create a little study hall, in effect, at the beginning of the status meeting. Is this the most efficient use of a meeting? No, but it’s perhaps more realistic. A realistic status meeting agenda can be better than an ideal agenda that doesn’t actually reflect what will happen in the room as much as we hope it will.
The other side to this study hall approach is to face the fact that people may not do a great job of gathering their thoughts before they walk in the room. Everyone else in the room then pays a price for that lack of preparation. If we simply give people a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting to gather their thoughts, it may mean the rest of the status meeting is more cohesive and focused. Even handing out notecards and asking people to write down their top three points can make a big difference versus a team collectively winging their status updates. What could be a concise 3 minutes per person with 3 minutes of prep among a team of 10 – 33 minutes total – may outperform a meeting without thought-gathering time when those 10 people each take 5 minutes for a total of 50 less-focused minutes.
Status meeting best practices – minimizing PowerPoint
Also in terms of improving a status meeting through the lens of pre-meeting prep, I would take a critical look at how people present their information to the team. It’s no surprise to anyone that the slow-beating heart of status meetings is often PowerPoint. But we rarely walk out of PowerPoint meetings thinking they were a good use of time. If people really spend the time organizing their thoughts and drafting an outline and then creating a deck and then rehearsing it, that time cost can be hours for a very short but well conceived presentation. On the other hand, what we see more often is that someone spends some time thinking through a presentation and then basically writes a text-heavy outline in PowerPoint, only to narrate the outline to everyone else, slide by slide. In both cases, the amount of time invested versus the impact of preparing is quite unbalanced.
Here, we should ask a question: Should the culture of our status meetings spring from PowerPoint presentations? The answer might be yes. But there are a lot of status updates that are totally fine as a simple talk or something where people look at a handout or a shared file instead of watching a slide presentation.
If you have five people who each spend two hours preparing a 10-minute PowerPoint to be given during an hour-long meeting, the total team time invested before the meeting is already 10 hours. That’s not necessarily time well spent.
Also, people tend to feel more positive about meetings where they don’t have to invest time that doesn’t feel well spent; a group will usually thank you for eliminating the amount of PowerPoint they sit through.
Status meeting agenda, format and time
The next thing I would think about is the format, specifically the status meeting agenda. (Granted, this will also be connected to the purpose of the meeting we get from the Five Whys exercise.) A good rule of thumb is that old agendas should be looked at critically. A lot of status meetings just roll for months or years. We recycle the same agenda again and again. Eventually it becomes a tradition, but not a functional one. Again, assuming we still want to have this status meeting, should we keep approaching it the same way?
Also, if you think it makes sense to have people really do presentations, think about formats that are structured, efficient, compelling, and engaging. A style like a Pecha Kucha or Ignite may be a good fit. Using 20 slides with a strict 15- or 20-second limit on each and a more visual approach, a presenter has to create a presentation that is short but very focused and digestible. Formats like these prevent us from wandering off on tangents and tend to be fun for an audience.
Another important consideration in improving status or informational meetings is to give people a real time limit. Maybe it’s 3 or 5 or 10 minutes. But really stick to it. Without a time limit, it increases the possibility that a meeting will go longer than it needs to. Make sure that’s clear when you ask people to prepare. And make sure it’s clear when you’re in the room. You may want to use a countdown timer or usher people off with music like they do at awards shows.
With time limits, also think about how long people can go before getting drained. A lot of people have stories of epic all-morning or all-day status meetings that went on for hours. Consider adding breaks at least at the hour mark. They don’t have to be long but powering through may ultimately be more hurtful than taking the time to regroup and refresh.
Status meeting best practices – gallery walk
Yet another format change is to move away from a group of a dozen people sitting around a table doing one-to-many presentations; i.e., one person talks while everyone else listens, then someone else talks and everyone else listens. A “gallery walk” can work well here. In a room, you’d put up large, easel-size sticky sheets or poster boards. Even taping up regular pieces of letter paper could work in a pinch. Everyone who will be updating the group gets a paper or station and writes what’s new or relevant. Then everyone in the group wanders around the room – as if touring an art gallery – and reads what’s there. People also usually have an opportunity to make comments, leave notes, or talk to the station’s owner, again, like meeting an artist in a gallery. This is obviously more engaging and dynamic than silently sitting around a table listening to people talk. But it also helps a group move towards more meaningful and relevant one-to-one interactions as opposed to one-to-many presentations. We know a lot of the waste and frustration in status or informational meetings comes from people asking questions or getting into discussions that only matter to that pair, not the whole room. A different format can help people connect and share among the people who need to connect while keeping innocent bystanders out of irrelevant crossfire.
If you want to try a format like a gallery walk but it’s an online meeting, it can still work. Instead of physically wandering around, you’d create online stations. It may not be as pretty, but a shared Excel sheet can serve the purpose. A shared Word would fit the bill too. More complicated visual collaboration software can also work, like Mural or Miro, or the easier-to-use Jamboard.
In general, there’s a lot of value in letting people connect and share little points that wouldn’t be relevant to a large group. In a gallery walk setting, someone may touch base with a presenter about part of a project they’re both working on, suggest talking to someone else, or share a learning from another experience. Finally, there’s no rule against asking everyone in the room to report back on the few things that they thought were most helpful for the whole group to know after closing the gallery so to speak.
Standing status meetings
A common question that may be sparked by this idea of walking around a room is whether your status meetings should be held seated or standing. Standing meetings are rather en vogue. The thinking is that, in short, if we sit down, we’ll get comfortable and the meeting will take longer. Standing, whoever, means we’ll be more conscious of the time we’re there and move through the meeting agenda faster. Sure, have a standing status meeting. It may indeed go faster, but it’s unlikely to really address more structural issues about why that meeting isn’t working. For that matter, you could also hold the meeting as you walk around. Plus standing doesn’t mean people will come in more prepared or restrict conversation to what’s relevant to the whole group. Standing and moving and not being rooted in a chair is a good practice. And not being seated is a fine element to use; just remember that sore feet are their own aren’t exactly a silver bullet to fix status meetings.
Status meeting best practices – filtered questions
A format tweak that’s easier than a gallery walk is to use a process to filter questions. Again, the goal here is to promote questions that are relevant and helpful to the group while minimizing the amount of time spent on questions that aren’t relevant to everyone. We want to reduce the amount of time people are patiently sitting in a room listening to a conversation between two colleagues that just isn’t relevant to anyone else. What usually happens is that either attendees ask questions of a presenter as the presentation is happening or we wait until the end and do a string of Q-and-then-A.
Instead, try a process where people write down questions during a presentation and then everyone shares their questions at once in a big, rapid info dump at the end. The presenter or a volunteer recorder writes down those questions. This may take 2 minutes. Then the presenter has a chance to reply to those questions in a way that makes more sense, especially if we put a time constraint on the answer period. Often the first question that’s asked isn’t the most important or even relevant to everyone. It may be the fourth or fifth question that’s really where the group should be spending its time. Getting everything on the table at once allows a presenter to concentrate on what’s important and then minimize what’s not as important and perhaps touch base individually with people who have more niche questions or comments.
Similarly, just breaking up the room into small groups or pairs after a presentation can help winnow out bad questions, add energy and engagement to a status meeting, and bubble up the ideas and topics that are most pressing for the group. Again, this could be 2-4 minutes and may save a lot more time in total. The bigger the group, the more a filtering process makes sense. This is especially true for big presentations or lectures where we often take random questions from the floor when we have a very limited and valuable amount of time for Q&A. As a result, we frequently see such events ask audience members to write out their questions and then submit them; in smaller status meetings, we’re doing something similar but at a smaller scale.
Status meeting best practices – extra collaboration time
Ultimately, one of the reasons we have informational meetings is to have everyone in the same room at the same time to talk through things and touch base at once. This can be an investment of time where we put 10 people in a room for an hour in the hopes that it saves us more time later in the week or the month. If the point is to connect people, it can be helpful and just take the gloves off and allow people to connect and talk in that shared time and space. Here, think about flipping the format so that it’s not 60 minutes of a normal status meeting, i.e., 10 people sitting around a table. Instead, try planning for shorter presentations or updates so the typical meeting only lasts 30 minutes, but then we’ve reserved that time to have the team together and we give people 30 minutes to connect in smaller groups or one-on-one. It’s still an hour-long meeting, but it has a lot of little meetings nested inside it at the end. In this case we know that a lot of the conversations and updates among a big group don’t really concern everyone, but there’s value in lots of little pairings happening where people can touch base and resolve individual issues en masse. If someone doesn’t have a reason to stay and collaborate or ask questions, that person can just leave; you’ve saved him or her half an hour, but you’ve saved the organization that time too.
In the end, status meetings often offer a host of opportunities to improve. If we decide we’re going to do them, there are tons of ways to make them better. Almost across the board, by following some status meeting best practices, they can be shorter, more effective, and more engaging.