Running Efficient Meetings
Meetings can be an incredible waste of time. See if you can recognize the following in your organization:
- Meetings run over time
- People are unprepared (thus waste time retrieving information or setting up)
- People are distracted by other work (checking emails, replying to texts, answering calls)
- No clear actions are decided during the meeting
- Decisions from previous meetings are not executed
- People grumbling about having to come to a meeting
- No one brings input but the person calling the meeting
- More meetings scheduled to make up for all of the above
And yet meetings are a crucial organization tool, no one can fathom working in an organization without at least some form of live collaborative effort. Meetings are not bad in themselves: like any tool, if used badly, it will produce bad results. Ineffective meetings zap morale, but it is also extremely costly if we calculate the amount of time, and the amount of personnel, that participate on a daily basis. Incredibly, most people have never been formally trained in planning and holding a meeting, assuming that what worked for their seniors and peers, is adequate. Unfortunately this means bad habits carry on through the generations and becomes part of the work culture. To break this cycle you need training. In this blog I will lay out the very basics of what you need to start running efficient meetings and stop wasting time.
The Meeting Agenda
Don’t have a meeting without one. No, seriously, this is the number 1 time waster and the solution solves so many problems. If you are stealing people’s time from them you better have a good reason. If that reason is not important enough to take the time to make a proper agenda, it is not important enough to hold a meeting. It seems logical, yet so many do not do it. Why? Because they don’t know what structure it should take beyond the subject they put in the invite and maybe a list, and if it is just a list, then why write it down? Surely I will remember it! No, you won’t. Here are five things you should think about when making an agenda and why it is important:
This is pretty self explanatory. A few words or a sentence describing what is being brought to the meeting.
What is likely new to you are the other four things you should write next to the topic: the name of the speaker for that topic (not always the meeting caller), the time allotted for that topic, links to materials, and the PURPOSE. I’ll get to why “purpose” is in capitals, but first about the speaker, time and materials.
The leader of the meeting should not always be talking: people will not feel they are asked for their input and their interest in the meeting will be far less than the leaders (grumble grumble). We have specialists and professionals for a reason: use them. If you think a topic should be in the meeting and can’t find someone on your team to run that topic, maybe it’s not as important as you thought. Typically this should not be a problem, because many meeting items are problems your team brought to you: make the person who brought you the problem explain it to the team (it brings buy-in, trust and reduces the chance of you misinterpreting their issue)
Estimate how much time each topic should take. This may feel arbitrary at first but the more often you do this the better you get at it. The speaker will thank you for taking them seriously and when seeing the agenda can give you feedback in case more or less time is needed. Finally, your estimation of the entire duration can then be accurate (instead of the entirely arbitrary 1 hour), and if you have too much you can schedule topics for other meetings. Keep an eye on the time during the meeting, and when the time is up, check your PURPOSE and move on to the next topic, or schedule more time if your purpose is not reached.
You topic may require some documents, either for people to prepare or to work on during the meeting. Make sure that the recipients get everything they need in the meeting invite. If you are going to discuss sales figures, put those sales figures in the meeting beforehand! Read as a group does not improve comprehension and just annoys people. Then you can pull up those figures assuming that most if not all the people have seen them before and get straight to what people actually want to address, if there is anything to address at all. Now for a long time this meant attaching documents. While better than nothing, this is less than ideal. You actually want a link to the document in a shared environment (like SharePoint, an MS Teams channel, OneDrive, etc). This reduces the chance that people are working with different document versions if changes are made before the meeting and makes it accessible during the meeting for real collaboration.
This is such an easy addition to your agenda, you would be crazy not to do it. Just add 1 of these words: Decision, Information, Discussion.
Every topic should have a reason for being there, and if you comb across all the possibilities in the history of meetings since the dawn of civilization, there are only 3 reasons to meet about something: to decide something as a group, to divulge information to a group or to discuss something as a group.
By adding one of these three words to your agenda topic, you show everyone what is the expected outcome. People will come prepared for that and they will be more enthusiastic about showing up. You will also find that you get through the topics faster and more actions will come out of meetings. (If actions do not come out of meetings then you shouldn’t have a meeting!) Finally, creating the agenda like this lets you double check if a meeting is even necessary.
Decision: Is this a decision that needs to be taken with the entire group? Can it be taken by yourself or with a few phone calls to key people? Making a decision by group consensus is not always easy and you may find that lots of people in the meeting may not have an opinion one way or another. If you find that everybody needs to be involved in this decision, then state this as the purpose.
Information: Is a meeting the best way to relay this information? Is it perhaps enough that the information is put in an email, bulletin board, teams update or something similar? A frequent complaint at the end of meetings is “this could have been an email¨. When a meeting IS necessary for giving information is when the complexity of the information is high enough that you foresee lots of questions for clarification.
Discussion: Perhaps one of the reasons meetings go over time so often is because discussions continue without end. Why are we having this discussion? Is it to problem solve? Is it to collate knowledge? For this purpose, the way you structure the topic sentence is pretty important to bring to point around.
And the very best part about this is you can check at the end of your topic whether the purpose was fulfilled by asking yourself:
D.I.D. we cover this? That way you will never forget those three important words.
The Meeting Process
Keep to the agenda as strictly as possible, which means actually sticking to the time allotted for a topic. However someone is bound to bring up something outside the agenda. By handling it there you will a) run overtime, b) rush all other topics, c) not do the new topic any justice by dealing with it without preparation. So this is the perfect time to put it on the schedule for the next meeting. That gives everyone time to prepare for that topic or for the relevance of that topic to be brought into perspective (ie, it wasn’t as important as thought in the heat of the moment and likely will take care of itself).
But of course the person bringing up the new topic will say it’s crucial! It’s an emergency! We must discuss it NOW! Really? Let’s say we are having this meeting on Wednesday. This “emergency” that is being brought up is in regards to a thing that happened on Monday. If it was so crucial, why didn’t that person email the meeting leader then to put it on the agenda for the meeting? If it was really that crucial to interrupt the meeting wouldn’t someone have raised the alarm before the meeting?
In the event that it really is an emergency which needs to interrupt the agenda, see who in the meeting is really required to deal with it, then schedule some time with them right after the meeting to deal with the problem. This way you do not disrupt everybody’s time and the other topics do not get kicked aside.
Speaking of everybody’s time, allow people to come in and out of meetings as suits them. This is going to be a cultural change as it may be considered rude, at first. But the point of the agenda and the timed topics is so that those who only need to be there for some specific things can come in when they want and leave when they are no longer needed.
Finally, the meetings notes.
This is a painful part for many organizations. Someone should be taking notes during the meeting (not after!), but who? The person who called the meeting, that is who. That is often the most senior person, and often that person does not want to take the notes, so they pawn the job off on the most junior. I can tell you one thing for certain: giving the notes job to the most junior is the best way to make everyone not care about the notes. You give the signal that it is not an important enough job for you, and if it is not important to you, then why should anyone else consider it important? Additionally, it is likely you will get poor quality notes, as the most junior will not know what is relevant, nor how to turn those notes into actions (ie. assigning agreed actions to others that may be senior). This is a big ask if the person running the meeting is the CEO, but it’s not as big an ask as taking people’s time without doing the work. If the CEO writes the notes, everybody will take it seriously. Since we are on the topic of notes….
The Meeting Follow-up:
Where are those notes? In the old days someone would email a Word document around with notes after the meetings and it would get lost in inboxes or filed away without taking any of the actions or decisions agreed upon into their work process. Are you still doing that? Shame on you!
Your notes have to be in some shared environment, like SharePoint, or an MS Teams channel, or anywhere where everyone can get to at the same time. Like the meeting materials, ideally people can then work on the notes together at the same time for real collaboration. Imagine while you are in the meeting making a list of points necessary to put a plan into action and while that is going on people in the meeting are right clicking on those bullet points as you type and turning them into tasks and assigning those tasks amongst themselves. A personal favourite is OneNote or similar note taking apps. Those can handle a lot of complex info, but if you need something lighter, taking the team meeting notes directly into the wiki portion of a MS Teams channel will do just as well.
This leads us to turning decisions into actions. Actions have to come out of meetings, or there should not be a meeting, and likely every topic will have an action(s) coming out or the meeting leader cna declare that topic closed and no action is needed after asking D.I.D. we cover this? Like any task management routine, think about who is responsible, what are the deadlines, etc. These actions should form input for the next meeting agenda to see if things were completed (or are still relevant).
Now cut 10%!
Finally, when planning the meeting, cut your estimated meeting time by 10%. This will not only make sure people keep to time and topics because now they really are racing the clock, it buys you some buffer time, which you can use to wrap up your notes (as they will need some wrapping up at the end).
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