There are three types of meetings.
I have a system – a survival mechanism, really – for classifying, planning, and executing meetings in a way that helps keep me sane at work. I've shared it with enough folks for whom it was also a survival mechanism that it's now a system, at a URL, for you.
You can't solve meeting problems with other meetings.
Managers generally feel more effective when they're communicating directly with people, which means they tend to be fans of meetings, so they try to solve issues with meetings through other meetings.
You also can't solve meeting problems by removing them.
Individual contributors, however, generally feel more effective when they're plying their trade. They often feel like meetings pull them away from their 'real work', so they try to solve issues with meetings by checking out or not attending.
Not more, not less – just better.
I'll go ahead and tell you this up front: my system isn't necessarily a path to having fewer meetings. After all, everyone's threshold for 'too many meetings' is different based on what helps them feel effective at their role, and every company's need for meetings is dependent upon the work they're trying to accomplish.
I'm hoping this system helps you have better meetings – that the people running the meeting feel like it's worth their time to run them, and that the people in attendance feel like their presence there matters.
There's even a possibility that once you've worked through this system, you end up with more meetings, because you've realized you need to break apart one monstrous, all-encompassing meeting that's trying to do too many things.
Here's the system.
I believe all meetings can either be defined as either Status meetings, Feedback meetings, or Decision meetings.
As I explain each type, I'll talk about them via 4 aspects:
- The goal. Having a clear idea of what each meeting type is trying to accomplish is the first and best way for us to know when it's a Good Meeting. (Yes, meetings can be Good!)
- The scale. All meetings don't work for all audience sizes – having an understanding of scale will help you know who to invite to what.
- The power dynamic. There is always a power dynamic at play in any meeting; you need to understand what it is in order for it to be constructive instead of destructive to the execution of the meeting.
- The risks. As you'll soon see, each of these meeting types can literally devolve into an unproductive version of another type of meeting if it's run poorly. I even whipped up an infographic at the end to illustrate this, if you're patient (or impatient and willing to scroll a lot).
Let's start with what the most common meeting type on most peoples' calendars: the status meeting. Maybe your company has weekly readouts, or daily standups. Maybe there's a quarterly all-hands, or a monthly report. Most meetings, for better or worse, are Status Meetings, even when they shouldn't be (we'll get to that).
Status Meetings: The Goal
The goal of a Status Meeting should be to disseminate information. That's it. If the attendees of the meeting come away with current and relevant information about whatever the hell the meeting was intending to communicate, it's done its job.
Status Meetings: The Scale
The scale of a Status Meeting can essentially be infinite. Hell, the State of the Union address is basically a nationwide Status Meeting. Go nuts, as long as your material is relevant to your audience. If it's not, you're just wasting valuable audience (and presenter) time and energy.
Status Meetings: The Power Dynamic
The power dynamic of a healthy Status Meeting is actually very straightforward:
The presenter has the power.
That's it. In a morning squad standup (the most equitable Status Meeting), the person speaking is the presenter, and has the power. Even if the presenter is presenting to the executive team, they should still have the power in the meeting.
Status Meetings: Devolution
Because the goal of a Status Meeting is so simple – and the scale can be so large – the risks of a lousy Status Meeting can seem relatively benign. After all, the bigger a meeting is, the less often it generally occurs. Nobody's going to be super torn up about the occasional less-than-invigorating daily standup, and even if a quarterly all-hands can be pretty boring, at least it's only boring 4 times a year.
But the erosion of morale from bad Status Meetings doesn't happen because one of them is bad – it happens because many of them are bad. This is the most common meeting type that people attempt to fix with more of them: the quarterly status meeting didn't explain goals well enough? Maybe what teams need is a monthly department status meeting. Maybe your squad also needs a biweekly squad status meeting. Next thing you know, your organization is drowning in status meetings.
Often when people feel like they have 'too many meetings', it's because they're having to navigate too many Status Meetings, specifically: maybe they're in the audience, listening and waiting to get back to their "real work" as it were. Or they're having to prepare and deliver presentations (which can be equally draining) – reading out information, likely over and over, as the audience or the information changes slightly from meeting to meeting.
Status Meetings should be efficient, structured, and read-only.
A Status Meeting that isn't efficient probably just needs to be shorter – even if that means it happens more often. Is your Product Team Monthly a two-hour slog? Maybe it could be a sprightly one-hour slog, with more info in a followup document. Maybe it could be a trim 30 minutes biweekly. Hell, maybe it could be an email.
A Status Meeting that isn't structured is probably inefficient. Different ceremonies for different types of Status Meetings can really help – make sure you have a running agenda, or a slide deck, or minutes. The most well-loved meeting at my company is something called Design Lightning, where designers all contribute 1-2 slides of current to a deck, which a facilitator then keys through as each designer spends 1-2 minutes explaining their work. Snappy, structured, usually over in under 30 minutes, leaving folks feeling informed and inspired.
A Status Meeting that isn't read-only runs the biggest risk of all, because once interruptions happen and the conversation commences that the presenter/speaker has to navigate on the fly, the power of the speaker is no longer respected, and well, buddy, you're not in a Status Meeting anymore.
Your carefully-constructed status meeting has devolved into a Surprise Feedback Meeting.
(As you'll see, each of these meeting types can devolve into one of the others, which is kind of fun. I'll have a cute graphic at the end here, so you can keep reading, or just cheat and scroll down, I won't mind.)
You might feel like the "read-only" rule I'm pushing for Status Meetings feels unnecessarily restrictive. What if people have things to say? What if you have things to say? Look, I understand. You probably do have things to say. They're probably important and awesome! But as with all awesome and important things, they deserve to matter. Catching a presenter off-guard mid-slide isn't going to be the optimal way for them to receive your challenge, inquiry, or insight. To really set everyone up for productive dialogue, you need a Feedback Meeting.
Feedback Meetings: The Goal
The goal of a Feedback Meeting is for a specific person or group of people to get the information they need about their work. If the person who needs that information gets it, the meeting is a success.
Feedback Meetings: The Scale
Feedback Meetings are very tricky to scale – too few people and you may be excluding important voices in terms of expertise, perspective, or diversity; too many, and people may leave feeling unheard, or the conversation may become unwieldy.
It can be a good idea to scope a Feedback Meeting's invite list to be an entire team – for example, we have a weekly Design Crit to which all designers are invited – or around some other easy-to-grok rationale. Then, once the meeting's rolling, it's imperative that the presenter (or facilitator) is proactively making sure everyone is heard and is given a chance to meaningfully contribute.
Feedback Meetings: The Power Dynamic
If you've scaled your audience properly, everyone involved has expertise, domain knowledge, and input ready to deploy when the moment is right. However, sometimes you're just presenting to management or leadership.
Either way, there is almost always a power imbalance in a feedback meeting.
This could look many ways:
- You have a monthly review with your leadership team. This meeting might even be called a Monthly Status Meeting, but it's likely not a Status Meeting by this system, because you often get feedback in the form of inquiries, approval/disapproval, or simple gut reactions to the work you're presenting. The power is held by the leadership team, not the presenter.
- A designer presents mockups to other designers on their team in a weekly critique call. If one of those colleagues holds more sway due to status, seniority, or even just privilege, the presenter may not hold the power in the room.
- Your department made a structural change and is now hosting a Q&A session about it. In that case, the presenter holds the power over the audience, who is there to provide feedback, but around a decision that is likely already made.
Feedback Meetings: Devolution
Because the power imbalance and the stakes can be fairly high in a feedback meeting, there are many pitfalls to watch out for.
One major risk is that the feedback itself can spin out of control. Entire other articles and columns and books have been written just about how to compose, deliver, and receive contructive feedback; I can't do that topic justice here (this article is long enough as it is). In this context, let's instead focus on the meeting itself and two big risks you need to navigate.
Make and keep strong boundaries as a presenter.
Think again about the goal of the meeting: the presenter needs to collect relevant information so they can step away after the meeting, weigh and consider it, and move forward from there. It's in their best interest to define the playing field for that information as clearly as possible.
For example, instead of a generic 'what do you think?', they could be open about being unsure about their wording choice, their color choice, or whether the overall structure of their work makes sense. Clear boundaries help the audience know what to focus on and understand what's in play for discussion.
Here's the second risk, which I think is the most crucial:
Be extremely careful about decisionmaking.
The moment the presenter stops receiving feedback and starts reacting to it, the meeting dynamic is at risk.
In my world (product design), this looks like a product designer suddenly whipping open Figma and doing a little "how about now?" dance mid-meeting. Even if that designer is awesome and the feedback they're getting is perfect, now everyone else is having to wait their turn as pixels get pushed around – a literal case of design by committee.
Dialogue is fine! Conversations are great. Feedback should be received, recorded and followed up on. But once you start deciding things – whether you're moving a mockup around, just tweaking a document, or responding to your reports by re-justifying why an organizational change is already set in stone, you're making decisions on the fly, potentially at the expense of validating other feedback you're receiving. You've now likely devolved your feedback meeting into a Surprise Ad-hoc Decision Meeting. This devolution is often unintentional and tends to be exacerbated by an unrecognized power dynamic.
Note that, like any cleverly reductive taxonomical system, these aren't dogmatic guides. It's not Against The Rules to make decisions in a feedback meeting; if you're showing work to your boss, they may provide on-the-spot direction about where to go next. That kind of decision can be clarifying and empowering! It's just incredibly important that they and you are both clear that they're providing a decision in that moment. If you're moving outside the realm of feedback and into the realm of a decision, everyone involved needs to know that shift is taking place.
Okay, it's time for our last (and rarest) meeting type.
Much like the Status Meeting might feel restrictive to the person looking to have their voice heard in a meeting, the Feedback Meeting might feel like it's limiting your ability to Actually Do Something. So let's talk about Decision Meetings, which exist specifically to fill that need.
Decision Meetings: The Goal
The goal of a decision meeting is to present one or more problems and make a decision about them.
Sounds easy, but it's not, especially since people don't often identify decision meetings very well! In my experience these meetings are the least common for two main reasons:
Decisions often don't get their own meetings.
In their absence, decisions tend to get made through less-healthy means – like somewhere inside a chaotic Feedback Meeting, by someone silently making a call so they can keep moving, or in a 1:1 between two people that are tired of waiting.
Decision Meetings are often misidentified.
Here are some examples of meetings that are actually decision meetings:
- Your team gets together Monday to make sure everyone has work to do that week. This might masquerade as "Monday Sync", but it's not a Status Meeting, because you're deciding together what everyone is working on.
- Your team runs 2-week sprints and has a Session Planning meeting. Yeah, that's a decision meeting. Actually most planning meetings are decision meetings.
- Your team has a monthly backlog grooming session. Yep, that's decision time, baby.
Decision Meetings: The Scale
Decision Meetings should be your smallest type of meeting. Everyone should be a stakeholder and participant in the work being done, and should take an active role in the process of producing said decision(s).
If the meeting is too small, you're risking "why wasn't I consulted"-type messages later. If it's too big, you're risking folks not feeling like their voice is heard, giving them meeting fatigue when they could be doing something else.
Decision Meetings: The Power Dynamic
Decision Meetings are one place where the existing power dynamic is actually a key aspect of the meeting's success rather than something that you need to watch out for.
(To be clear, when I say "power" here, I specifically mean power in terms of professional role definition, not forms of privilege that exhibit as power. The senior representative, manager, or director – not just the loudest person or the one who's been around the longest.)
Someone needs to be accountable for the decision that's being made. In a company dynamic with well-defined roles and responsibilities, that means the most powerful person in the room is responsible – for taking notes, facilitating discussion, including everyone's voice, and producing recorded artifacts of the decision. This could take the form of next steps, action items, or just a record of the decision: the key is that something has been produced that is clear and well-communicated to anyone who needs it.
Decision Meetings: Devolution
Here's your devolution point, which points us right back to our first meeting type: If your decision meeting ends without a decision, congrats, you've just experienced an Unsatisfying Status Meeting.
Decision Meetings may be the rarest type of explicitly defined meetings, but "syncs" or "alignment" meetings (decision meetings) that don't reach a decision point (bad Status Meetings) are probably the most common meeting to glut your calendar, and wear you out.
It's also possible that, while a decision wasn't made, someone gave some feedback that led someone else to go back and adjust something afterward, which means they were just subject to a Stressful Feedback Meeting. But even in this case where the meeting did affect some amount of change, you sure as hell didn't get a decision made together in a way that helps the team feel satisfied, empowered, and focused.
I Promised You An Infographic
Here ya go. It really all boils down to this:
Okay, What Now?
I hope this system is as helpful for you as it has been for me! If you're interested in a more expanded, presentational form of this info, contact me – me at camdaigle dot com – and we can chat.
I would also love to hear any tales of this system working well for you, questions you have about the system, or even ways it backfired on you, so I can keep polishing this page. Email me those too!
And hey, we're here at the bottom of this long page together, so one last thing, between friends, which we now clearly are:
Meetings cost money; better meetings save money. If you found the ideas I've laid out here helpful, and might even use them to appear a More Qualified Professional in a way that profits you or your business, I'd really appreciate if you threw some cash my way: