Make meetings worthwhile

How many meetings have you attended recently? And how many were useful and achieved their purpose?

Do your meetings often not get anywhere or seem like a waste of time? Are there signs of trouble. These might include: Do people not pay attention - stare into their coffee cups or doodle? Look impatient? Take phone calls? Find excuses to come late, leave early or not be there at all? I watched someone responding to email on her laptop the entire time at a recent meeting. But perhaps one reason for that was the meeting itself, which was distinctly ho hum. Leaderless and directionless. Gathering together 12 or so people in a room for an hour, based on what was actually achieved, simply wasteful.  About 95% of it could have been covered simply by sending out an email  announcement, for example.

Here are 9 tips for productive, useful meetings. It assumes formal meetings rather than the quick 'toolbox' meeting or 'what's on today?' type of thing.

1. Make sure you really need a meeting.

Don't use them purely for routine announcements or as a substitute for action. You won't achieve anything if you just expect people to come and listen while they are told stuff; there's very rarely a point to that. It's often better to move routine 'just so everyone knows this' stuff, status reports, etc. elsewhere.  For example, email before the meeting, post on noticeboard/intranet, etc. Keep meetings for issues that really do require discussion.  If there are things to be 'told' to people, this is often the more delicate or complex announcements.

2. For every meeting, have a definite (and preferably written) agenda. And don't have meetings without one.

An 'agenda' just means the content planned for the meeting: the topics or items to to be covered, in the order you expect to deal with them. A clear and agreed agenda gives people time to prepare, and is another means of keeping the meeting on track.

3. Allocate time for each agenda item.

If you don't, how will you know if you're running late? This doesn't mean you have to be rigid about it, but it does push you to think about how long things are likely to take, and try to allow adequate time.  Don't fall into the trap of not managing the time, and then running out of time for important topics.  Or the other trap of extending the time so meetings become more like marathon sessions.

4. Always have the 2 key roles allocated: a Chair and Note-taker. The note-taker records any minutes or actions (and you do have those, don't you?)

At the meeting, make sure these roles are allocated and agreed. The Chair is the person facilitating the meeting, the Note/action-taker records the decisions and actions agreed. Don't try and combine the 2 roles with one person, it almost never works.  

5. Before you begin the meeting itself, take a moment to make the meeting purpose clear.

Review and agree on the agenda to be covered. This helps achieve shared understanding about what the meeting expects to achieve.

6. Stay with the agreed agenda. The Chair's job is to keep the meeting moving forward, and on track. That may include agreeing to 'park' an issue or refer it to someone else.

7. Make sure the key decisions & actions are written down: who will do what, and by when.

If the Note-taker hasn't captured an action or decision coming out of a discussion - even if everyone wants to move on - it's almost a dead certainty that people aren't clear about what was decided.  And won't be later.

I can't over-emphasise how important this is. So important, I have a simple template for meeting actions in my ISO 9001 DIY Pack.  The Note-taker should, if necessary, speak up to ask what decision to record.

8. Don't take silence to signify agreement.

Some people are slower or less inclined to speak up. And the thornier or more difficult the topic is, the more essential it is to get any reservations out in the open and deal with them. The Chair should keep an eye out for this, be explicit, and where necessary, encourage them to speak up, by asking for specific input from people who have not spoken: 'Is there agreement on this point? Fred, are you OK with it? John? Sue?' etc. Much better to have disagreement in the meeting when discussing a thorny topic, than silence, but then have resistance emerge later.

9. Circulate or post the actions list (or minutes) as soon as possible after the meeting, within 3 days at most, so everyone is clear about what was agreed, and what is to happen.