Bad meetings destroy good organizations. Bad meetings sap momentum and motivation. Bad meetings cultivate feelings of inefficacy and futility.
Bad meetings are very bad.
Vast quantities of human creativity, motivation, and energy die in corporate meetings every day. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions that is met with defeated shrugs and murmurs of, “Meetings just suck, you know?”
I do not know.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Meetings done right are one of the most powerful tools available to teams trying to do great work. But great meetings don’t just happen by accident. Getting meetings right requires a shift in mindset and some deliberate decisions about how you want to work. There are many different types of meetings your team should know how to execute but this article is about the one we have found to be the most impactful over and over again — the Action Meeting.*
We’ve witnessed the impact of the Action Meeting with teams of senior executives working through enterprise-level topics and frontline teams figuring out how to deliver to the customer — and everywhere in between. If you have a team that has a mission that’s going to take longer than a day or two to accomplish then you have an opportunity to practice and perfect this meeting type.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of how to run an Action Meeting, it’s useful to know the principles that undergird it. Some of these are probably radically different from how your organization normally does things, so take a few minutes to let them sink in before taking action.
Unblock instead of do
One of the pitfalls of most corporate meetings is that they try to be all things to all people. One meeting will lurch between status updates, brainstorming, working sessions, and large strategic discussions with very little rhyme or reason. However, the most effective meetings have a clear purpose and a process designed to achieve that purpose. The Action Meeting’s purpose is to articulate and unblock the work of the team — and that’s why the meeting is designed the way it is. It’s not designed for diving deep on one topic or having a working session.
Its goal is for everyone to walk out of the room feeling clear about the status of the team’s projects, knowing the next actions they have personally committed to, and the next actions their colleagues have committed to.
Respect the phases
An Action Meeting is comprised of distinct phases (which you’ll learn more about below). Each phase of the meeting has a specific purpose and when taken as a whole they allow a team to efficiently prime itself to have a positive meeting, develop the right habits, get up to date on the state of the work within the team, unblock stuck work, and ultimately leave the meeting feeling clear and energized for the week ahead.
Facilitate and scribe
To help the team adhere to these phases every Action Meeting always has a Facilitator and a Scribe. These are roles that team members generally take turns filling. The Facilitator guides the team through the structure of the meeting and redirects conversation and attention when it ventures outside the guardrails of the structure. The Scribe publicly captures decisions and “next actions” (on a whiteboard or in shared software) that are discussed during the meeting. By offloading this responsibility to the Scribe, the other members of the meeting don’t have to worry about capturing action items and there is one shared source of truth about what everyone agreed to do.
Team owns it
If a meeting exists solely because a leader finds it useful then you should be incredibly circumspect about whether that meeting should continue in its current form. Leaders don’t own meetings, teams do, and Action Meetings embody this ethos. That means the meeting always starts on time, regardless of whether the leader is there. It means that the meeting can happen even when there isn’t full attendance (including if the leader is not present). It means the leader of the team isn’t necessarily the facilitator and no one person owns the agenda. Ultimately, whether or not the meeting is useful and successful falls to the entire team and not just the highest paid person in the room.
Publicly capture the work
Meetings are filled with good intentions. Decisions are made (supposedly) and next steps are articulated. In the moment it all feels good and straightforward and simple. How many times, though, have you left a meeting where the post-meeting email listed you as taking on some next steps that you don’t remember agreeing to? Or you go to double check something your colleague said they’d do and you realize what you thought they were agreeing to do was not at all what they thought they were agreeing to do.
The Scribe role is in charge of making sure next actions get captured (whiteboard, text document projected on a wall, shared Trello board, etc.) and that the folks it pertains to agree that it is accurately portrayed. No more walking out of meetings with multiple ideas (or no idea) about who is going to do what. One source of truth!
How to do an Action Meeting
Now that you’ve gotten a sense of the principles of the meeting, let’s talk about how to actually do one.
Checking-in gives you a chance to catch your breath and get your attention centered on the task at hand — this meeting.
Rushing from meeting to meeting all day long? Check-In to help your brain transition from one meeting to another.
Feel like you don’t really know the other people in the room with you? Check-in to get to know each other slowly over time.
We’ve found that something as simple and easy as asking a Check-In question can really change the character or feeling of a meeting. To do it, the Facilitator poses a question and then everyone answers it individually. We like doing it in a round, instead of popcorn style and generally ask the Facilitator to prevent cross-talk.
Need some questions? Our go-to default is, “What has your attention right now?” Other good ones include, “Tell us about the last time you were really excited about something,” and “What’s the best piece of media you’ve consumed in the past week?” The options are endless and it can be fun to rotate the responsibility of bringing a check-in question throughout the team.
2. Try rotating the responsibility of bringing a Check-In question.
3. Try using Check-In questions to prime the type of emotion you want the meeting to have (serious, relaxed, focused, etc.)
Your Checklist Review will help your team build good habits.
Anybody who has set a New Year’s Resolution only to watch it fade away by March knows how hard it is to change habits. The only way to do it is to keep those commitments front and center so as to not forget what you’re trying to do.
It works the same way for teams. Enter the Checklist Review.
Teams should create a handful of questions they want to ask themselves during this phase of the meeting. Often, these are questions that prompt team members to ask themselves whether they’re doing the things they know they should be doing, but likely aren’t. A practical source for good Checklist items are your organization or team’s strategy. What habits does your team need to develop in order to make your strategy come alive?
For example, perhaps your team of senior executives recently decided that it was important for them to become more transparent. That’s a great sentiment… but what sort of action does that need to provoke within the team? The team may decide that one way they want to experiment with being more transparent is by sharing more of their thoughts or work in progress before it is absolutely perfect. The Checklist item may be, “I shared a work-in-progress project with the organization this week.”
Checklist items are not meant to be overly precious and team members should feel comfortable proposing adding new ones or removing ones that no longer serve a purpose.
During this phase of the meeting the Facilitator will ask each person on the team each of the questions on the list and the team members will respond “Yes,” or “No.” This isn’t about being tracked or tracking others. Nobody is writing down who said yes and who said no. This is about identifying how you’re doing as a team and figuring out how you can support each other.
Grounding yourself in the latest data relevant to your team helps you make good decisions.
Every team has certain metrics that will tell them how they are doing. Chances are they aren’t the “official” metrics that get tabulated on a relatively infrequent basis and reported up the ladder. Instead, each team should have a short list of metrics that they look at regularly to gauge whether or not they are headed in the right direction. Ultimately, these are numbers that the team not the leader, should care about tracking and looking at regularly.
During this phase of the meeting the Scribe pulls up a shared spreadsheet or dashboard and the folks who are responsible for updating each metric give a brief description of this week’s number.
1. Fill out metrics in a shared document/repository before the meeting starts.
2. Assign folks to fill out metrics each week. Note, this isn’t to say this person is in charge of this metric, just that they are going to update the number. The team owns all metrics.
3. Don’t get bogged down in arguing about which metrics are worth tracking. If somebody thinks a metric might be worth tracking and it doesn’t take a ton of work to get an updated number regularly, track it and see if it’s useful. You can always stop tracking it later.
Project Updates allow the whole team to get a quick snapshot of what has changed in the past week.
The fundamental unit of work at the team level is the “project.” We use a pretty general definition of a project: any work that is going to take more than one “working session” to complete and is useful for the rest of the team to be aware of. Keeping a complete list of projects ensures that we have a “stake in the ground” so nothing falls through the cracks. We use this part of the meeting for everyone who has insights into a project to give the rest of the team a quick look into what has happened in the past week.
Doing this every week encourages the team to think of their work as seven day sprints. It forces people to break down their projects into smaller steps in order to have something to share each week.
In this phase of the meeting, the Facilitator asks each person who owns a project on the Project list to share with the team, “What has changed in the past week?” This is about people telling each other what they need to know — not “reporting out for the leader.”
At the end of this phase we now have a complete sense of the work that has happened in the past week and people undoubtedly have questions or want to dive deeper into something they just heard someone say during the Project Updates. Hold that thought… because that brings us to the next phase of the meeting.
1. A good facilitator is not going to let someone start talking about what they intend to do or plan to do on their project. This is expressly for telling us what has happened in the past week. If nothing has happened then it is perfectly acceptable to say, “No change.”
2. It’s best to have one person attached to each project. Not because they are working on it alone but because they will be who the Facilitator turns to ask, “What has changed in the past week?” It’s okay for teammates to chime in if they have relevant information but the Facilitator is not going to let a general conversation about the project happen at this time.
3. Your team’s Project List should be visible to everyone and brought to each meeting. We like storing ours in a Trello board.
Building an agenda in the moment, together, ensures the most urgent topics are discussed and everyone gets what they need to move forward with their work.
I know I just dropped several hundred words prior to getting to this point but trust me when I say this is the actual meat of the meeting. A mature team with a good Facilitator will fly through the Check-In Round, Checklist Review, Metrics Review, and Project Updates, leaving the bulk of the meeting for building and processing the agenda.
Most people think somebody should “own” the agenda to a meeting and share it ahead of time so everyone knows what we will be talking about. That’s okay in some very specific situations, but in general we are much more interested in a team building its agenda together. In a meeting like this where it’s all about identifying and unblocking the work we trust the team to elevate the topics that need to be discussed rather than a leader doing it on their own.
During this phase of the meeting people call out one or two words as “placeholders” for the things they want to talk about. For instance, if I want to have a conversation with the team about a new policy we’re supposed to be using I might say something like, “new policy” to get it added to the agenda. The Scribe’s job is to add items to the agenda for you, so if you aren’t using a shared piece of software or a whiteboard you can just call out your items into the air and the Scribe will make sure they get on the list.
As far as what types of things can go on the agenda… really anything goes! If you need something from a teammate or you need to tell the team something or you want to request that someone do something or you need support or you just want to get some feedback or you want to get some advice or or or. You get the picture. This is all about people getting what they need to move the work forward. Don’t be shy about adding items to the agenda — this is your space to get what you need!
The Facilitator helps the team turn agenda items turn into decisions, conversations, next actions, new projects, etc.
Now that we have an agenda that was built in real-time by the team, the Facilitator facilitates the team through processing it. In whatever order they choose, the Facilitator helps whoever added an item to the agenda get what they need. That language is specific for a reason. Just because an item is on the agenda does not mean that it’s an open invitation to have a wide ranging conversation about things related (or not so related) to that topic. Instead, this is specifically about helping the person who added the item get what they need. Maybe they need a quick conversation to get some reactions. Or maybe they need to setup some 1:1 time with a teammate. Or maybe they need a specific piece of advice. The Facilitator is there to make sure they get what they need as efficiently as possible so that we can move on to the next item.
As agenda items are getting processed quite often they will result in “next actions” for somebody on the team to take. The Scribe’s job is to be listening for these commitments and capturing them publicly. Sometimes an outcome from an agenda item is actually a new project and in that case the Scribe will add a new project to the project list. A key feature of this meeting is making sure all commitments are captured publicly so that there is no confusion about who said they’d do what.
1. If you try to redirect a conversation toward something you need (effectively highjacking somebody else’s agenda item) a good Facilitator is going to cut you off and tell you to add an item to the agenda. Don’t worry — it takes some practice to break old habits! You can add agenda items at any time so just call out a placeholder phrase to the Scribe or add it yourself.
2. Sometimes the outcome of an Action Meeting are a bunch of next actions for people to go have 1:1 meetings with each other. This may feel like we wasted our time together. However, we would argue that a bunch of 1:1 conversations that could theoretically happen concurrently is a much better use of the team’s time than two people having what amounts to a 1:1 conversation while everybody else watches. It’s okay to come out of an Action Meeting with a bunch of other meetings!
3. The Facilitator has complete ownership over the duration and order that items are processed from the Agenda. If the team is running out of time a good Facilitator will try to make sure the most critical items are processed first (and may ask for assistance from the team in identifying those). Otherwise, the Facilitator can jump around and do them in whatever order they want!
Practice makes perfect. Use the Check Out for a quick burst of retrospection and learning.
Action Meetings are not a one-time event. Instead, think of them more as a practice. Because they are done every week (usually) you have many opportunities to get better at them. That’s what the Check-Out round is for. It’s an opportunity for the team to take a second and ask themselves how they did. Typical closing round questions include, “What did you notice?” or “How did we show up?” or “What can we do better next time?” No need to record the answers or spend a lot of time processing them. Just taking a second to think through the question and say your answer out loud is enough to make sure we are learning from each meeting.
1. It can be easy to skip the Check-Out round when you run out of time. It’s okay if this happens occasionally but if your team regularly skips the Check-Out round then you’re missing one of the most important parts of doing this meeting.
2. You can do a Check-Out popcorn style or in a round. If nobody speaks up during popcorn style, switch over to a round and ask everybody to share an answer.
Tips for getting started
Embrace the structure (even if it feels weird)
Most folks don’t have much experience participating in highly facilitated or structured meetings. Following the structure I just laid out above can feel really counterintuitive at first. Feel that discomfort — and then do it anyway! Think of it as playing a board game for the first time. The first couple times you play you need to keep referring back to the rules to make sure you’re doing it right but pretty soon you get to the point where you stop thinking about the rules and you just play the game. Most teams need two or three attempts at this meeting type before they feel comfortable. Be patient and give yourself the time to understand the structure before you throw it away as overly complex or convoluted.
Having an experienced facilitator certainly helps a team get over that initial discomfort. A dedicated tool like Parabol can also help!
Don’t get hung up on Metrics or Checklist
The first time team’s run this meeting they almost inevitably want to spend most of the time arguing about what their metrics should be. I recommend not talking about metrics at all in your first meeting. Focus on capturing the team’s ongoing work and come back to metrics later. The metrics are meant to be highly specific to the team so sometimes it takes a few weeks to get a sense of what the most meaningful numbers to track might be. Let them emerge over time instead of getting hung up on them early on. The same goes for checklist items. Don’t put the first things that come to mind into your checklist review. See what keeps coming up over the course of couple weeks and let that guide the checklist items you decide to track.
Find your most useful definition of “project”
In general, a project is anything that the team wants to track that is going to take more than one working session to finish. However, teams may adjust which projects they actually add to their dashboard and track during their weekly action meeting based on the nature of their work together. In general, what you don’t want to do is have each person bring their individual list of projects and combine them into one huge list. Instead, the team should be tracking projects that a.) are useful for everyone to have perspective on, b.) require cross-functional collaboration from people on the team, c.) are relevant to the team’s overall purpose. Remember, adding a project to the Project List only commits the team to hearing about it during the Project Update portion of the meeting — which should be tightly facilitated anyway. Over time your team will get a feel for the level of project that is most useful to track in this meeting.
Arrive ready to participate
I’ve seen many corporate meetings where it’s extremely easy to show up unprepared. Teams who adopt the Action Meeting format are actively moving away from a paradigm where only one person needs to think about the meeting (usually the leader) and instead the whole team needs to come ready to play. That means you need to have thought about what items you want to add to the Agenda, that you’re prepared to update the Projects you’re leading, and are generally ready to be a fully engaged member of the team. This meeting structure does not work if nobody wants to be there.
The hidden benefits that will take your team to the next level
I just wrote so many words about the ins-and-outs of how to do this meeting and why it’s so great — but now I’m here to tell you that the reason we love this meeting format so much at The Ready has very little to do with the actual hour or so you may spend each week doing it.
Teams who do regular Action Meetings with each other not only have a better experience meeting but they actually become a more capable team outside the meeting.
Doing an Action Meeting each week gets teams wrestling with other key ideas in their organizational operating system. It’s impossible to use this weekly meeting format for more than a couple weeks without starting to bump up against some larger ideas that are connected to their overall organizational operating system. Topics related to authority, decision making rights, accountability, communication, psychological safety, organizational debt, and team structure inevitably come to the forefront. These topics, and the deliberate decisions teams and organizations make about them, are the backbone of healthy organizational operating systems.
In many ways, doing a weekly Action Meeting is the Trojan Horse in which other important ideas related to organization design show up. Any team benefits from this experience but the effect is particularly pronounced with leadership teams.
Every single time I’ve introduced a leadership team to the Action Meeting format they’ve realized they have been spending too much time in the weeds and they needed to do some work on the operating system in which where the rest of their organization runs. To organization designers like us at The Ready, that’s absolute music to our ears.
So, yes, do an Action Meeting each week because it is an incredibly effective way to get clear on the work that your team needs to be doing and to make sure everyone is unblocked for the week ahead. But also do an Action Meeting each week because it will make your team, and your organization, better by creating a structured space where team members can be heard and important ideas related to adaptive org design can be brought to light.
In other words, come for the better meetings but stay for the ever better organization.
* We owe a significant debt of gratitude to Brian Robertson and HolacracyOne for figuring out and sharing the basic structure of Action Meetings in what they call Tactical Meetings. If you’re curious about the origins of this meeting it’s definitely worth checking out Holacracy.