How much do you enjoy going to meetings? In my view meetings can be the second biggest time-waster after email. I’m sure you’ve been in a meeting where it seemed there was no clear point, no end in sight or where no decisions were made. Maybe you’ve got a meeting like that today. Anyway, despite our regular participation in meetings day after day, it amazes me how poorly organized and managed they can often be.
We put up with much and seem to apply little of what we have learned when it comes to our turn to lead a meeting. So here I am sharing a few of my golden rules for meetings in the hope that they inspire some more productive meetings down the track…
1. Compelling Reason – the first and most important thing is to make sure that you really need to have a meeting at all. There are only a handful of good reasons to have a meeting – to give or receive information, to build engagement, to develop options or to make decisions. From this list the first two often have credible alternatives that should really be considered first. Having decided that you do need to hold a meeting, you must ensure that it has a clear purpose [communicated via the agenda] and that the reason for attendance is also clear to the invitees.
2. Simple Structure – all meetings should have a simple linear structure that is published as an agenda and distributed to attendees well in advance. An exception here might be a daily ‘standup’ or ‘tool-box’ meeting where the topics are limited to achievements and plans that are delivered in a fast round-robin format. Generally though, the agenda must include logistical information for the attendees and it must be clear why people are being asked to attend and what will be expected of them. The agenda must identify all attendees and associate them with specific topics so ownership is clear. Each item should have a start-time (not a duration) to act as a way-point and to help ensure the meeting stays on track. Time should be allocated at the start for introductions and clarification of purpose to ensure appropriate focus and contribution during the meeting. This is especially important if there are new members joining the group.
3. Simple Rules – it is important that some basic rules are established up front to ensure the meeting is productive. Some suggestions that work for me are: start and end on time, stick to the agenda, take off-agenda items off-line, only one persons speaks at a time, no side-conversations and phones on silent.
4. Resources – only invite people who are necessary for achieving the objective of the meeting. If there is information to review then this needs to be sent out well in advance with sufficient time to do it justice. Do not review the material in the meeting. Also, do not hold a meeting prematurely – if the material is not ready then the meeting will have to wait. With respect to the meeting itself, if there are likely to be significant numbers of decisions/actions and the meeting leader is required to contribute to the content of the meeting (often the case) you should consider assigning a dedicated facilitator to run the meeting and/or a secretary to scribe the minutes.
5. Timing – meetings should be no longer than necessary and certainly shorter than ninety minutes; after which time people are generally fairly unproductive. Having established a time it is important to stick to it whilst also covering the agenda items of course. To this end there are some simple rules to apply – (a) start on time – do not wait for latecomers, (b) stick to agenda – assign a timekeeper to prompt contributors and ensure that the run-sheet (agenda) timings are followed, (c) reschedule items/issues that cannot be dealt with in the allocated agenda slot (d) finish on time (e) consider extension only as a last recourse and only with prior agreement from the participants. People need to be able to plan their time and this starts with showing it the appropriate level of respect.
6. Engagement – attendees have been invited to add and/or receive value so it important that everyone gets a chance to participate. This means that it is essential to respect the agenda timing, manage grandstanding and encourage contributions from quieter participants. Importantly, you should seek to confirm understanding and establish that everyone is comfortable with the material, decisions and actions.
7. Actions – if the meeting has been called to make decisions and assign actions then it is essential that this be done on the way through by wrapping up each agenda item within its allotted time. Invite those with ownership for a decision or action to echo it back to the other attendees for capture in the minutes. This avoids misunderstandings and engenders a level of public commitment. The essential ingredients of a well-articulated action conform to the generic formula – ‘who is doing what by when?’ The minutes must be published to all attendees as soon as possible after the meeting. It’s worth noting that the minutes should not be a verbatim transcript of the meeting. Instead, they must focus on capturing key decisions and actions arising. For many types of meetings I have been successful with a pre-printed template that is completed by hand during the meeting, photocopied and distributed within 30 minutes of the meeting close.
8. Ideas Pen – don’t get derailed but don’t lose those good ideas or critical issues that emerge during the course of a meeting. The best way to manage this is to have somewhere for them to go and to schedule a slot at the end of the meeting to review and make decisions about how to deal with them. The ‘Ideas Pen’ can be a whiteboard, flip-chart or any other suitable mechanism that keeps the items visible to the attendees without distracting from the main flow of the meeting.
9. Continuous Improvement – from time to time it makes sense to include the meeting process itself as an agenda item to examine what is working and what needs adjustment. Unless you are really struggling this is unlikely to need more than ten minutes.
I am sure that many of you will have other ideas to add to this list or maybe you'd like some clarification wrt the suggestions above. In either case I’d love to see what you have to say – so please feel free to leave a comment below.