Meetings are the bane of the working world – and yet we can’t get along without them. And the only real development in this space in recent years – the virtual meeting — has made the experience of the meeting worse for most people at the expense of efficiency. I’m currently hard at work on a new book about how to run virtual meetings and virtual communications better. As part of my research, I ran across Do.com, a company that has developed some software to make meetings better. The software codifies good behaviors that we all know we should do, but don’t because of laziness or (bad) habits.

When I got the chance to chat with the Founder and CEO of Do.com, Jason Shah, I jumped at it, in order to better understand the world of virtual meetings and what is being done about them in the entrepreneurial world.

Nick: Thanks for chatting with me. I want to start with a question which gets right to the point of pain for most people when it comes to meetings: What’s the difference between a good meeting and a bad meeting?

Jason: Meetings are plagued by ton of systematic problems that have, unfortunately, become the standard across the board when it comes to running and attending them nowadays. Bad meetings are characterized by people showing up late, an agenda or outline not being prepared as to what will be discussed, a lack of follow up and accountability, the failure to document the assigning of tasks, and overall just a lack of engagement and collaboration with the participants.

Meetings are meant to be a collaborative experience, yet so often this is not the case, because of the way they are run. A good meeting, on the other hand, would entail setting and sharing an agenda beforehand, showing up on time, assigning tasks and ensuring those who they are assigned to are held accountable, and making the distinction between what has been done and what needs to be done.

A great way our product, Do, simplifies this, is through marking followups and outcomes. Moreover, we prompt you to create an agenda and share it with your co-workers before every meeting, so they know exactly what to be prepared for and discuss. We view meetings as a collaborative, efficient experience whereby everyone in the room is engaged, feeling like they are contributing in a meaningful way.

Nick: Cool. Let’s go a little deeper into the problem before we try to solve it. Why, given how much time we spend in meetings, do most of them feel like a massive waste of time?

Jason: Most meetings feel like a waste of time because they are poorly prepared for, and the actual running of them is done extremely inefficiently. By not outlining an agenda of what is to be discussed, both the people running the meeting and the attendees feel completely lost as to what the meeting is actually about. Thus, they come in expecting more of the usual mindless rambling, and as a result they tune out and are completely disengaged.

In addition, the way they are run is largely inefficient. Typically there’s far too many voices trying to talk at once, no proper documentation of ideas and points that are exchanged, and ultimately there’s no direction. By laying out a proper agenda and taking detailed meeting notes, meetings can be run effectively because topics of discussion can easily be moved on from one to the next one.

Otherwise, there’s a ton of mindless back and forth and rambling, and it’s unclear when to move on to the next topic — and more importantly, what was actually agreed upon or accomplished. This leads to meetings going on for hours and hours — executives average 23 hours a week in meetings, which is an insane amount of time.

Nick: Insane indeed! Should meetings be about exchanging information or about making decisions?

Jason: Ultimately, it should be a good balance of both — depending on the nature of the meeting, of course. However, ideally, all the right background and surface-level information should be shared beforehand, through an agenda or perhaps a series of emails and docs pertaining to the subject matter. This helps avoid going into meetings where all the basic background info has to be covered again, and context needs to be provided.

People should walk into every meeting knowing exactly what the subject at hand is, and have all the relevant information to be prepared to discuss it. This then leads to decision making, which is how progress is achieved in meetings.

The problem with a lot of decision making in meetings, however, is that they are often not documented or properly detailed, leading to confusion and disarray after. By properly writing down outcomes that have been decided upon during meetings, meeting attendees should be able to easily go back and check the meeting notes to quickly see what was actually decided upon. Moreover, if further exploration or work is needed on a decision that needs to be made, marking this as a followup to look more into afterwards is equally key — so that this is actually taken care of afterwards by the right person.

Both of these are incorporated into our product using followups and outcomes as part of the meeting notes — enabling users to mark these during meetings, and more importantly, go back and look after meetings to see the key takeaways that require their attention.

Nick: Is there an upper limit to the number of people that should be allowed in a meeting?

Jason: It definitely depends on the nature and type of meeting and what is being discussed. The ideal number for say, a problem-solving or decision-making meeting, seems to hover around seven or eight, or even less. A lot of research and literature has been published by Harvard Business Review on this, in addition to the book 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization. The conclusion drawn is that seven is the optimal number for these types of groups. Going over seven reduces the decision effectiveness of each additional person’s by 10%.

Harvard Business Review, meanwhile, says that “If you have to solve a problem or make a decision, invite no more than 8 people. If you have more participants, you may receive so much conflicting input that it’s difficult to deal with the problem or make the decision at hand.”

Nick: Interesting. What are the differences between physically present meetings and virtual meetings? How can we make virtual meetings better?

Jason: With the advent of new technology and the explosion of collaboration tools in the video conferencing space, virtual meetings have become increasingly popular and common practice for the workplace. Using tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting enable participants to feel fully immersed in a meeting, wherever they are in the world, simply using a webcam and mic.

Using Do, for example, participants can run meetings with virtual participants with our Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting integrations, enabling their meetings to be fully collaborative, with everyone on the same page — literally. That way, by having full access to the entire meeting collateral — agendas, notes, followups, outcomes, files — they won’t be missing out on anything merely due to their physical whereabouts.

This shrinking of time and space is unparalleled, indeed. Virtual meetings can be made better by using such tools, thereby enabling virtual participants to fully be in the loop — even if they aren’t in the room. With regards to differences between the two, in-person meetings have the advantage of not needing to set up any technology whatsoever. As a result, often times those meetings can run more smoothly, and can even be quicker — because there are no potential hiccups with technology.

Nick: Thanks, Jason!

We’ll be doing our best to run a tight meeting when we offer our first open-to-the-public, one-day public speaking workshop in 6 years on April 22nd in Boston. Check out what we’re doing here, and sign up fast — we’re limiting the spaces to keep the workshop interactive.

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