How many meetings do you go to every week where you walk out feeling frustrated that in the span of 60 minutes nothing got accomplished, nothing moved forward, and the only apparent outcome is the follow-up meeting that will be making its way to you via an email meeting invite during the next 60 minutes?
How many times have you been the host of that same meeting? Admit it… your meetings probably suck.
Meetings are one of the biggest time wasters in our businesses today. That isn’t because meetings in general are a bad idea, but rather because people don’t take the appropriate time to make their meetings successful. How much time did you take to plan the last meeting you held? When did you send out the agenda (you did have an agenda right)? What happened when the questions in the room started to derail the purpose of the meeting (there was a stated purpose right)?
For all of our best intentions the reality is that the busyness of work often gets in the way of us doing the most important part of the meetings we host… planning.
Here are some of the guidelines I would encourage you to build into your approach to planning meetings:
- What is the purpose of the meeting?
Before you send the invitation you need to determine the purpose of the meeting because your audience will differ for different purposes:
- Information Share
This will likely mean a larger audience of people who would be relevant stakeholders, but the meeting will be structured not as a discussion, but as a presentation of the updates or information with perhaps an open question forum at the end.
- Working Session
This should be a very small group of people who have the specific knowledge needed to work through the issues at hand. Be sure you don’t allow these meetings to grow in size, you need a small group of the key subject matter experts to work through the specific issues. If there are a number of disconnected problems to be worked through, timebox the meeting so you only need specific people at specific times to keep it tight.
- Decision Making
If you need a decision made, invite only the people who are responsible for making the decision. You don’t need the whole working team, folks who don’t really have decision rights, or those people who are just interested in the outcomes there. If you allow this audience to grow beyond the decision makers you will make it difficult to keep the conversation focused on the decisions that are needed.
- Information Share
- Ask yourself – “Do I really need a meeting?”
This gets the very basic purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish. Is this really something that needs to pull 12 busy people into a room for an hour to solve? Can I accomplish the same goals through some individual conversations, via an email status update, or through some other mechanism? If you’re honest with yourself you’ll probably kill about half of your own meetings right off the bat.
- Document your Purpose, Agenda, and Desired Outcomes
Before you send the meeting invite get clear on these three key items:
- What specifically is the purpose of the meeting (should be based on your answer to #1 above)?
- What is the specific time-boxed agenda that I need to follow to support that purpose?
- What are the outcomes I want to get out of the meeting?
- Send your Invite
Your meeting invite shouldn’t just provide time and place, but also the details of the purpose, agenda, desired outcomes, and any supporting material that needs to be discussed. At minimum in the initial meeting request you should have the items from #3 above included and you can add supporting material leading up to the meeting. Always try to make sure that all meeting materials are distributed to your audience at least 24 hours in advance of the actual meeting taking place.
- Prewire your audience
Particularly for decision making meetings you can significantly smooth the meeting by prewiring the deicison makers with the key information they need to be decisive when it comes to the meeting. If you expect them to review the content in the meeting and make a decision on the spot you may be disappointed and have several takeaways – hold some key pre-meetings with the key decision makers so they understand the context of the problems and recommendations and have the time to think through the issues so they are ready to make decisions when they arrive at the meeting.
- Manage to your structure
You structured the meeting for a reason – now it’s up to you as the facilitator to follow it. Keep people on topic, stop side conversations quickly, shut down the disruptive voices in the room quickly, and make sure you call on the quiet people for input where needed. It is your meeting and you’ll be judged on the outcome (by me anyway) so step up and lead it. When facilitating remember these key success drivers:
- Open the meeting on-time with structure
You booked the meeting for a specific time, don’t start late – it just rewards people for poor meeting etiquette. When you call the meeting to order, the first thing you should do is state the purpose of the meeting, walk through your agenda, and they specifically state the outcomes you are looking to get from the meeting. Put everyone on the same page at the outset and you drastically improve your chances of keeping the meeting on track.
- Squash distractions quickly
It isn’t rude to shut down a conversation or discussion which isn’t relevant to the purpose of the meeting. Just because a couple people in the room believe that there are related issues that warrant discussion doesn’t mean that’s why you booked this meeting. Put those items in the parking lot (document them) and commit to dealing with them outside the meeting, but keep the meeting focused on the tasks/agenda at hand.
- Use the Parking Lot
It’s often helpful to have a whiteboard or flipboard handy for those Parking Lot items that might come up so that you can write them visibly in front of people so they know it’s been noted and can have the visual comfort that they can let it go (at least in this meeting).
- Finish with a Review
Before you adjourn the meeting make sure you take the time to refresh people on the purpose that was set out, review all decisions that were made so everyone remembers them, review all next steps along with their assigned owners and due dates, and review any parking lot items and what you’re going to do about them.
- Send Minutes
Even with the end of meeting review it is always helpful to document the outcomes, next steps, etc and distribute them to the meeting attendees. This should essentially be the written version of your review which provides people a physical copy of the commonly agreed outcomes that they can refer to as they work through the next steps.
- Open the meeting on-time with structure
Meetings don’t have to suck. But for us to kill the waste in our meetings we need to consciously work at it. Doing the little bit of work required to execute on the points above with your meetings will actually save you a significant amount of time in the long run. Imagine actually accomplishing all the stated goals in one meeting with no follow-ups required!
I challenge all of you (and myself) to improve our approach to meetings and start to get value out of our meetings rather than just filling time.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.