How to Improve Meetings When You're Not in Charge

What can you do if you have to attend other people's horrible meetings? Even if you can't stand up and take control, you can nudge the meeting in the right direction from where you sit. Now that you're on the edge of your seat, keep reading!

Are you tired of attending endless meetings where the conversation goes in circles and nothing gets done? Even if you can't stand up and take control, you can nudge the meeting in the right direction from where you sit. Here are some strategies for improving the quality of meetings when you're not in charge.

Ask for an Agenda Ahead of Time
When you receive a meeting notice, ask for an agenda. Make your request in the spirit of the best use of everyone's time: "Knowing the agenda will help me come prepared to participate." You can also say, "Knowing the purpose of the meeting will help me determine whether I can contribute."

Sometimes a request for an agenda is unsettling to the meeting convener—probably because he hasn't thought enough to create one. Your request may prompt him to clarify in his own mind why he called the meeting. If you're really lucky, he'll realize he didn't really need a meeting at all (it happens!).

Sometimes though, a meeting convener will insist that you must be there, even though he can't provide an agenda. I'm a little skeptical when the meeting convener assures me that I need to be there but can't articulate agenda items. If you feel like its not political suicide, tell the meeting convener that you can't assess the priority of his request against all your other work without an agenda.

Send Only One Person
Sometimes the person calling the meeting goes overboard to be inclusive. If two or more people from your group are asked to attend a meeting, check to make sure that all perspectives are really required. In many cases, one representative can take care of your group's interests and provided needed information at the meeting. Then he can report to the rest of the group, usually in just a few minutes. Also, fewer attendees makes the meeting easier to manage and end more quickly.

Politely Decline the Invitation
When you don't have relevant knowledge and expertise to contribute or won't be affected by the outcome of the meeting, bow out. Ask to be on the distribution list for meeting notes or other communication.

Offer to Take Notes
Some times when I talk to people after a meeting, its hard to believe we were in the same room. Taking notes can help. As a participant you can offer to help by taking notes. Bring your flip chart paper and a marker and take notes so that all can see. Taking notes in public ensures that every one agrees that what is written is what was said.

Facilitate from Where You Sit
A well-timed question or comment has saved many a meeting. Here's a sampling of tactics that I use to facilitate from the back of the room. One word of caution about facilitating from the back of the room: Do this only if you genuinely want to be helpful. If you're feeling snide, it will come across in your voice.<--pagebreak-->

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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