When it comes to engagement, motivation, and ultimately outcome of meetings, I find there's two extremely unsatisfying ends of a spectrum.

One end — let's call it Dress to Impress — is the type of meeting where everyone tries to show off to somebody else. I saw that happen when a new manager is in the room to whom everybody wants to demonstrate how great they are, or just whenever too much ego is involved on anyone's part. That type of meeting is characterized by lengthily monologues, or pitches, followed by an awkward silence, followed by another persons monologue. You can easily spot that type of meeting by a lack of conversation: It's just a room full of people talking at each other, not with one another.

At the end of the meeting of course, nobody is all the wiser and nothing meaningful has been achieved. More often the opposite is the case: People get increasingly frustrated that the others "don't get it" (because they didn't immediately flock to their camp after hearing their pitch) and get more and more disengaged. Also, I'm not convinced that managers actually are impressed by hearing such a series of individual pitches, as opposed to seeing their team actually work together.

The other end of the spectrum is what I call The Roundabout. The situation looks like this: The participants (often quite a lot of them) know each other intimately, have worked together countless times before, and now attempt to talk about a topic they've already talked about previously. It's often a hard nut to crack, or a fundamental issue for which all obvious solutions have already been tried. Everyone already knows everyone else's positions, ideas, and contributions before the meeting starts. The conversation follows a circular path: Person A makes his point, followed by person Bs counterpoint, followed by Person Cs interjection, to which A responds with restating his point… You get the picture.

As the point, the counterpoint, the interjection, and everything else being said is already known to everyone prior to the meeting, there's nothing new gained during the conversation. People sometimes come out of those meetings happy that "at least we talked about it", but ultimately, the team is not closer to a solution than they were before.

I'm not saying that all meetings are like one of those two extremes, but most in fact fall somewhere on the spectrum in between. The important thing is that a sweet spot exists somewhere in between at which meetings can actually be productive, engaging, and lead to a useful outcome. In that situation, nobody walks into the meeting with a prepared pitch they're trying to sell, but rather with a couple of loose ideas on the problem. Nobody is so convinced of his ideas that they won't step down from their point when they hear a different point of view. In fact, people actually listen to one another's points of view, think about them, make connections, and come up with a combined, improved and holistic idea that none of the participants would have stumbled upon on his own.

Unfortunately, the latter type of meetings are quite rare. I'm yet to identify the all the factors that produce such successful meetings, but I have a couple of ideas for "ingredients" that may at least help:

  1. Don't presuppose. Walk into the meeting with ideas, but not a full fletched solution you worked out before. If you do however already have a very concrete idea about the problem, be willing to give it up or alter it based on other people's input. Don't be chained to your idea.
  2. Listen. And I mean really listen to other people, don't just wait for your turn to speak. You'd be surprised by how valuable other peoples contributions can be to your idea, if you just give them a fair chance.
  3. Reduce participants. I may be oversimplifying here, but the fewer people in the meeting, the better. I've had great meetings with just two or three people in the room, and horrible ones with 20+ attendees. Try to limit yourself to inviting only those who are willing and able to make good contributions, not everyone who just happens to be available.
  4. Timing: We tend to be more productive when we're under a slight pressure for time, as it forces us to concentrate on the essential. Also, we're not equally productive throughout the day, so in combination, I found the timeslot right before lunch break to be best suited for creative meetings: People are awake and engaged, but the prospect of lunch provides a hard enough deadline to ensure everyone is mindful of time.

The above list is neither complete, nor do the suggestions necessarily work in every setting, every environment, and for every team. Empirically speaking though, I'm happy to say that I had better meetings with greater outcomes by following them, than not.