Make Meetings Effective and Productive
Have you ever been in a meeting and felt like it was a waste of time and you desperately wished you were somewhere else. Meetings can be of enormous value when they focus a team’s expertise and experience on solving a problem. Tapping the collective wisdom can provide valuable insights and stimulate the thought process of everyone in the room. Or, meetings can be a complete waste of time. Why spend 30, 60, 90 minutes or more in an unproductive meeting? Here are some suggestions to make your meetings more valuable, productive and shorter.
- Leadership: Effective and productive meetings depend on the leader. The leader’s job is to facilitate the accomplishment of the meeting’s purpose in the minimum amount of time. If you are the leader, take time to plan the meeting so the attendee’s time is used productively. The team will follow the example of the leader. If the leader is disorganized and unprepared, the team will probably be the same.
- Agenda: Send out an agenda several days before the meeting. Attendees need to know the purpose and details of the meeting. The agenda should include:
- Start Time
- Topics to be discussed
- Responsibilities – What should attendees be prepared to discuss or present
- Reminder to turn cell phones off
- End time
- Reminder at the end of the meeting to turn cell phones on
- Start on time: Waiting to start of the meeting while people straggle in wastes everyone’s time. Yes, occasionally there are legitimate reasons why someone is late but by waiting on them you are training people that it is OK to be late. Starting promptly on time sends a message that the meeting will commence with or without all the attendees. Some people are chronically late, which is rude and inconsiderate of everyone in attendance. If they aren’t on time, then they demonstrate a lack of commitment to the team. Don’t enable late arrivals by waiting until they arrive.
- Purpose: What is the purpose of the meeting? What problem is the meeting trying to solve? Attendees need to know why they were invited to the meeting so they can start focusing and preparing for key agenda items.
- Understanding: Make sure everyone understands the purpose of the meeting and the issues under discussion. Ask one or more people to restate their understanding of an issue. Just because everything seems clear to you doesn’t mean it is clear to everyone.
- Respect: Differences of opinion will occur which is good. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean that person is right, but it should force you to think. Respect, value, and learn from the perspectives and ideas of other team members.
- Turf Wars: Have you ever attended a meeting where everyone in the room was asked to update the team on their progress but all they did was try to defend their department or themselves? They wouldn’t be in the meeting if they weren’t important to the team. Control this by stating at the beginning of the meeting that everyone attending is important and that we are here to solve problem “X.”
- Preparation: People need to know in advance what they are expected to discuss or present so they can prepare. How would you feel if you were caught completely off-guard? Angry? Defiant? Embarrassed? Don’t kill a team member’s motivation by purposefully putting them on the spot.
- Weeds and War Stories: Often discussions get off track and people start telling war stories or relate irrelevant stories. My friend, Reinhold Gerbsch taught me this technique to keep meetings on track. He used it at a senior management retreat and introduced it as a playful and humorous way to keep the discussion on track. Have everyone take out two pieces of paper and draw a war scene on one and a pasture scene on the other. Instruct attendees to hold up one of the papers whenever someone starts telling war stories or is branching off in the weeds. I was apprehensive about this technique, but everyone had fun with it and it got the message across in a non-threatening way.
- Tangents: Sometimes discussions can get way off topic and can be contrary to not only to the purpose of that meeting but also the purpose and values of the team. How can you tactfully redirect the discussion? Make a large banner made that lists the team’s purpose, values, and operating principles. Whenever the discussion gets away from what is on the banner simply point to the banner and ask “Is this consistent with who we are and what we agreed for this team or do we need to change what is on the banner?” Pointing to the banner and asking this question is non-confrontational and doesn’t challenge anyone’s ego. It will quickly bring the meeting back on topic.
- Input: Have you ever been a meeting where the leader states the problem or objective, tells you his/her solution, and then asked for input? Why waste people’s time if you have already decided on the solution? No one is going to offer ideas if the leader has already decided. The purpose of the meeting is to draw on the collective wisdom of the group to accomplish the meeting’s purpose. The leader should state the problem and then listen, even if he/she already has a preferred solution. The team may have a better solution than the leaders predetermined idea.
- Parking Lot: Sometimes people bring up topics and ideas worthy of discussion which aren’t on the agenda. If people don’t think they have been heard, you may lose their attention for the rest of the meeting. Post their idea on a flip chart for all to see. This “parking lot” is for topics to be discussed at a future meeting.
- Interruptions: Let’s face it, at some point in every meeting people’s minds will wander. No one can focus 100% of the time. If an attendee misses a key point they can’t be an effective participant. The leader needs to minimize interruptions and distractions so the meeting’s purpose can be accomplished on time.
- Close the door – Let people know the meeting should not be interrupted unless there is a real emergency. If the door is open, people may be tempted to drop in.
- Cell phones: At the start of the meeting remind everyone to mute their cell phones and put them out of sight. Yes, there could be an emergency call, but probably 99% of the time the call/email/text can wait an hour. You can’t focus on the issue at hand if you are constantly looking at your phone. Texting during a meeting is rude and disrespectful. The team deserves your full attention to the issues being discussed.
- Meeting times: If possible, schedule meeting at times that are least likely to have interruptions, such as before the workday starts, at the end of the workday, or make it a lunch meeting. Coming in early or staying late is an inconvenience, but the meeting will accomplish more and be shorter if it is uninterrupted and focused.
- Stick to the agenda!: Want to drive people crazy? Add topics to the meeting that they are unprepared to discuss. When the leader adds unannounced topics, it demonstrates that the leader wasn’t prepared and might extend the meeting beyond the exit deadline.
- Action List: The result of every meeting must be an action list assigning tasks and who is responsible for completing those tasks. Without a plan of what comes next, the meeting was a waste of time. Agree on an action list before everyone leaves the meeting.
- Exit Deadline: Set the time the meeting will end and stick to it. People have jobs to do, schedules to keep, and lives to lead. If more discussion is needed, schedule another meeting. If you go over the exit deadline, people may be distracted and not focus on the meeting’s purpose. They will be looking at their watches, trying to figure out how to reschedule the rest of their day, and think about other tasks on their action list, etc. End the meeting on time!
Some of the above may or may not apply depending on the type of meeting, meeting duration, venue, and the leader and groups personality. Pick and choose what works best for you. I would love to hear your suggestions for making meetings more effective and productive.