Tried-and-true principles, updated with modern tech for the post-pandemic world.
In Ray Dalio's book, Principles: Life and Work, the billionaire investor and founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, breaks down nearly everything he's learned over the course of his career into a set of principles.
Among these principles are a set of meeting rules that contain some tried-and-true methods for improving meetings in the workplace.
The only problem is the book was released in 2018, and a lot has changed in the past four years. That's why I've decided to revisit some of Dalio's meeting principles and update them for the post-pandemic world, with new tools and best practices.
Rule 1: Clarify the meeting's purpose
Dalio says that you should emphasize a meeting's purpose well before it begins. That way, everyone can walk into the meeting prepared and the group can be intentional with their time. He also adds that "Meetings without someone clearly responsible run a high risk of being directionless and unproductive."
In today's world, this should be done with a collaborative agenda, shared in advance, so that everyone can see what's going to be discussed and add their thoughts as needed. There are tools like Fellow App that will create agendas for you, or you can create a cloud-based document and add it to the calendar invite.
But an agenda is only helpful if it's used. Therefore, the second part of Dalio's advice still holds true--assign a moderator who's responsible for sticking to the agenda and keeping the team on track.
Rule 2: Avoid "topic slip"
Topic slip, as defined by Dalio, is the "random drifting from topic to topic without achieving completion on any of them." If you've ever left a meeting feeling more confused than you walked in, topic slip is a likely culprit.
Dalio suggests using a whiteboard to keep people on track. For the remote and hybrid world we now live in, I'd suggest assigning an estimated number of minutes to each agenda item so the moderator can keep track of time and move the conversation from one topic to the next. It's also worth ordering the agenda in terms of priority, so the most important items are sure to be covered.
If you are attached to the whiteboard idea, Miro is a digital whiteboard tool that's great for more visual collaboration. It's a handy tool for remote teams, both in and outside of meetings.
Rule 3: Assign action items
"Too often groups will make a decision to do something without assigning personal responsibilities, so it is not clear who is supposed to follow up by doing what," Dalio writes.
Action items from a meeting should always be assigned in a work management tool like Asana, Clickup, Monday.com, or others. (And if you're not already using a work management tool, you should be.) These should be assigned to people with due dates before the call ends, so nothing slips through the cracks.
But here's the real pro tip: create agendas directly in your work management tool! Each agenda item can live as its own task, and you can either complete them as they're resolved or turn them into action items by assigning them to the relevant person.
Rule 4: Align on decisions
Dalio says "The main purpose of discussion is to achieve completion and get in sync, which leads to decisions and/or actions."
We've already covered action items, but decisions are just as important. If you make a decision to change a company policy in a meeting but don't log it anywhere, it can create confusion down the road. If someone forgets the policy was changed or wasn't in the meeting, they might continue operating according to the old policy, which can cause problems. (I speak from experience--this has caused some major headaches in my business.)
Any time a major decision is made in a meeting, it should be added to a decision log. I recommend that decision logs be stored in a knowledge base tool, like Coda, Notion, or Sharepoint. That way, there's a clear record that anyone can consult if they need the latest information.
Rule 5: Strive for efficiency
This last point is something near and dear to my heart. Dalio says, "while open communication is very important, the challenge is to do it in a time-efficient way." In other words, meetings are only worth scheduling if they're an efficient use of everyone's time.
This one is simple. Right before the meeting ends, create a Zoom poll asking attendees to (anonymously) rate the effectiveness of the meeting on a scale of 1 to 10. This will help you to hone in on recurring meetings that aren't a good use of time or should be improved in some way.