...Now that was a great meeting
When you look over your work schedule for the week ahead and see a checkerboard of meetings and more meetings, do you…
- Groan over the possibility of tedious hours
- Put your mind to work getting ready for those meetings
All three answers might hit home for a lot of folks.
But the best answer is the last one: Despite their bad rap, meetings are often at the heart of the work we do.
The problem: Too often meetings are called without clear purpose. They last too long, get sidetracked, and don’t involve follow-up.
The good news is: Anyone can plan and conduct effective, efficient and enjoyable meetings.
And that’s important because leadership increasingly means using our interpersonal skills to get things done.
Why are we here anyway?
Whether your group is gathering for a weekly staff meeting, teleconferencing from different corners of the world or coming together for an annual off-site planning session, there are some easy-to-apply practices that can ensure each meeting’s value.
Meetings should be held for two reasons: To solidify the group as a team and to forward a group’s work.
To make sure that happens, the greatest responsibility may rest with the leader who organizes a meeting -- but every one who attends should feel they have a stake in the meeting’s success.
1. Decide if the meeting is necessary before you schedule it: Ask yourself: “What needs to be accomplished?” Will an e-mail, voicemail, note or website posting take care of it? Can you just walk down the hall to visit with someone or pick up the phone?
These are three questions to help you decide:
- Do decisions need the expertise and agreement of different people?
- Do teams need to apply themselves collectively to solve problems?
- Are there individuals whose interests conflict, so issues must be resolved for the greater good of the organization?
People no longer have time to spend in meetings when information-sharing is the sole goal: It's far better to send materials ahead of time, then work together on what to do with the information.
2. Create and use a detailed agenda. It should include the meeting’s purpose, topics to be addressed, the lead person for each topic and the time allotted. Share it with meeting participants ahead of time, along with any necessary supporting information. If an agenda cannot be developed before the meeting, start the meeting defining the agenda. You can provide handouts or project the agenda on a screen to keep it clear in people’s minds.
3. Choose a good meeting space. Make sure everyone can be seated comfortably, and that the room has the right tools — whether it’s white boards, flip charts and markers, adequate space for laptops or iPads. Plan appropriate refreshments and meals.
4. Set clear ground rules. These guidelines, generated by the group, ensure a productive, cooperative climate. If the same group meets regularly, the guidelines can be developed early on and reviewed regularly. Guidelines can cover issues like how to encourage participation, how to manage conflict and how to stay on track. In productive meetings, everyone is part of the discussion and no one person dominates. If you are familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, this means those who tend to be extroverts -- and organize their thoughts by talking -- need to reign themselves in enough to make room for others’ contributions. For those who tend to be introverts -- and organize their thoughts internally -- this frequently means an explicit commitment to speaking up in each meeting. Proof that plenty of people are in the second category: the bestselling book that hit the charts a year ago, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain.
5. Make periodic process checks. The group should periodically pause to check on how the meeting is going. This can be as simple as asking, “What is working?” and “What do we need to do differently?” The most important thing is that the group act on suggestions.
6. Take and distribute action minutes. These do not have to be Robert’s Rules of Order minutes that capture everything that is said. Rather, your teams need minutes that briefly recount decisions made, and most importantly, detail the action items with who is responsible for each item and a completion date. Here’s one template for minutes. If your group’s work is an ongoing process, you can usually develop the agenda for the next meeting from the decisions and actions of the current session.
7. Invoke the 100-Mile Rule to avoid interruptions. In The Team Handbook, the authors propose a way to ensure that participants give you their full attention. They explain the rule this way: “Once a meeting begins, everyone is expected to give it his/her full attention. No one should be called from the meeting unless it is so important that the disruption would occur even if the meeting was 100 miles away from the workplace. The 100-mile rule will need to be communicated to those who take phone messages or who would interrupt the team’s work for other reasons.”
Interruption includes texts and emails. Invoke a “no-electronics zone” to ensure everyone is focused. Then take breaks to enable folks to stay current with other responsibilities.
8. Take special care with teleconferences. When folks can’t see each other, it can be “a special kind of meeting hell” where it’s easier for conversations to drift and for some members of the group to cheat by multi-tasking, said consultant Keith Ferrazzi in a Harvard Business Review blog post last year. His main tip for remote gatherings: Use video to keep people more focused.
9. Always have a facilitator, timekeeper and note-taker. Meetings need these three roles. A facilitator (not necessarily the meeting leader) is responsible for keeping the meeting focused so that the group is listening to each other and working productively. The facilitator also posts ideas on flipcharts or whiteboards as the discussion unfolds so that everyone can see them. The facilitator helps ensure the group follows its ground rules.
The timekeeper makes certain the group follows the agenda, and manages time.
The note-taker -- or scribe -- records key topics, main points raised during discussions, decisions made, action items and items to be discussed at future meetings. Many groups rotate these roles.
10. Begin and end on time. Demonstrate your respect for participants by keeping to the time planned. In a recent New York Times column, “When you have had one meeting too many,” management consultant Carson Tate proposes a “meeting revolution” that features shorter meetings – even meeting standing up.
I do know this: I have never heard anyone complain when a meeting signed off early.
Want to learn more?
Resources abound for improving your meetings.
- The Team Handbook, by Peter R. Scholtes, Brian L. Joiner and Barbara J. Streibel.
- Facilitating with Ease, by Ingrid Bens.
The 3M Company has an extensive website loaded with tips for improving your meetings. For example, in their reading room they have articles covering everything from meeting activities and exercises to brainstorming techniques and running a video conference.
Two other sites that we recommend for planning effective meetings:
Do you have great resources you’ve found? Do you have hard-earned advice about meetings? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Drop me a line.
In the meantime, meet well.