This article originally appeared at Gen-i’

I’d bet that we’ve all been in a meeting which we didn’t really need to attend. Or even a meeting which we’ve left thinking, ‘okay, what was that actually about? and what do I need to do next because of it?’. They can be a bit of a drain on your time, in which you sit about drinking coffee, talking about nothing that concerns you directly, and worrying about the things at your desk that you need to get on with.

Luckily, that reliable guru of productivity and time-management, David Allen, has committed himself to clarifying what makes a good meeting. How do you keep it from running on forever? How do you ensure that people know their roles, responsibilities, and actions subsequent to the meeting? Is it possible to politely not attend?

For Allen, meetings should always be directed by ‘purpose’. You might respond to this with a ‘well, yeah – of course’, but most people don’t really recognise this guiding principle. By bringing it into the forefront of our minds, however, it can make meetings more focused, more productive, and, in the end, more fulfilling.


Meetings, done properly, can be critical to the success and culture of your organisation. Everyone can ensure that they are on the same page, people know where they are heading, and opportunities can be aired.

But this can only really be achieved if everyone is clear on the purpose of this or that meeting. That means being straightforward about what needs to be achieved and how long you want to dedicate to achieving it.

Allen suggests declaring this straight away – or else in a prior email. And he correctly proposes giving someone the responsibility for keeping the meeting in line with that purpose – armed with an agenda, the power to let everyone speak, and the tools to keep track of decisions made.

This prevents the bane of the lives of employees: emails clarifying the points, decisions, and actions clarified in meetings. But it also makes apparent when the meeting has finished.

Balancing meetings with work.

However, being clear about the purpose of a meeting also allows you to be clear about who actually needs to attend. Honestly, there is no point calling a whole team into a meeting when the purpose regards only four or five of them.

Attending meetings that doesn’t concern you makes you bored. And when employees are bored, disengaged, or cannot do what they should be doing, they can get resentful (and this is totally understandable).

So, create the environment in which your staff have the autonomy to decline a meeting if they need to. They should be able to see the meeting’s purpose, assess their role within it, and be able to decide whether this purpose concerns them or if they have something to contribute. As a good leader, you should be able to trust your staff to discern what makes an effective use of their time.

Why have meetings?

So, what actually is a worthwhile purpose for a meeting? Allen outlines five possible aims:

  • Give information.
  • Get information.
  • Develop options.
  • Make decisions.
  • Get to know everyone.

Each of these is a valid reason to get your team together (at least, those of your team that the information or decisions concern). But, again, you should be clear at the beginning which of these purposes are relevant to the meeting at hand. As Allen points out, if one person wants to brainstorm, another wants to make decisions, and someone else is there merely expecting to be told something important, the meeting might not exactly go swimmingly.

Purpose Five: Coming together

In all conversations about efficiency and productivity, however, it is worth insisting on something again maybe a little obvious.

Yes, you and your employees should be able to decide whether the meeting concerns you directly. Yes, everyone should have the autonomy to assess whether they are better placed attending a meeting or finishing what they are doing.

But meetings are often a great place to bring teams together as human beings – rather than just as email addresses. They can be important reminders that people do work in teams, something people forget when completing their own tasks.

This makes Allen’s fifth purpose for a meeting one of the most important, as we all know by now the benefits of workplace culture. So, make sure that this great opportunity of meetings is not missed.


  • Nicola MacPhail

    Change Expert, Author & Facilitator


    A consultant, writer and facilitator. Based in Cumbria I coach clients across the UK and internationally. I write extensively on ‘The HOW Skill Set’ in addition to offering workshops, training and consultancy. Born from a passion to help others ‘Make Change Happen’, I help people make effective implementation plans, be more productive and leverage habits to implement vital changes and thrive in life and work!