Do you look forward to your next meeting?

If your answer is no, this does not surprise me. In over 25 years of managing, I saw many meetings which didn’t work. Either the wrong people were there to make a decision or the right people were there, but the meeting leader was disorganized. Many times, the meeting was unstructured, and, as a result, it went over the time limit with little accomplished. Many times, there was not any agenda, and it wasn’t clear what the desired outcome of the meeting was. Many meetings that I attended didn’t have a process to enable all participants to contribute, and, as a result, people shut down and didn’t participate. I would just calculate the average hourly salary of each person in the room just to estimate how much time and money was wasted. Once I calculated that a meeting with 10 senior managers and human resources to make a decision on which type of coffee to have in the break room cost over three thousand dollars. It turned out that we couldn’t agree and ended up meeting again!

Why many meetings are a waste of time

Many meeting leaders are confused which process to use for their meetings. For example, meetings where you want lots of open feedback and collaboration (mission meetings) are ran in an autocratic way with the only communication from the leader. And opposite, normal staff meetings (where you want rigor and process) are led in an open, unstructured way, with everyone talking at once. No wonder why the staff never looks forward to coming to the meetings. At these organizations, people look at meetings as an interruption to their work!

How to make meetings work

There are simple steps to take in order to make meetings work. It takes discipline. First, decide if you are going to have a mission or a process meeting. Mission meetings are good to have if you need to solve a problem or create a new solution. In mission meetings, you want lots of collaboration, brainstorming, and less control from the leader. Process meetings are better suited for routine business meetings. The best example of a process meeting would be a routine staff meeting or frequent operational meeting. In these meetings, routine information is passed down. In these meetings you want a leader who is rigor and in control. Normally, process meetings don’t require open discussions.

Next, invite the right people to the meetings. Don’t just invite the whole staff as many managers as you can, invite only those people who have content to contribute, who are involved in making a decision, or who have tasks which are due for the meeting. Ensure that each person knows why he or she is invited.

Prepare an agenda. Having stated agenda timeframes is very important. I have observed that when timeframes are listed on the agenda for various topics, the group will work hard to enforce the guidelines. Stay on schedule! The worst habit a meeting leader can have is to start late and finish late. When issuing a task at the meeting, the leader must assign a responsible person and a date on when the task is due. It is good also to review these tasks at the end of the meeting, so everyone in attendance knows what is expected next.

In most meetings there is always one person who seems to bring up topics which have nothing to do with the stated agenda and takes everyone off track. Strong meeting leaders know how to handle this. As soon as the irrelevant topic comes up, the leader makes it clear that this might be an important topic to discuss but at a later date. The leader, however, respectfully takes the topic and writes it down on a flip chart labeled, for example, Parking Lot. The person who brought it up feels better and everyone else in the meeting feels relieved that the meeting can continue on schedule!

Finally, it is important to publish a written record of a meeting. These meeting minutes should be so clear that anyone who reads it even without attending the meeting would understand what was accomplished. The meeting minutes should include who attended, who was absent, and key decisions which were made. Additionally, the meeting minutes should include next steps, the responsible people of key tasks, and when these tasks are due. All this should be reviewed at the start of the next meeting. The meeting minutes should include details of when the next meeting is going to be, where it will be held, and what the related details are. Each meeting agenda should also state upfront the expected outcome. If there is no problem to be solved, no solution to be created, or no information to be passed down and discussed, there should not be a meeting!

The importance of follow up

Following up after each meeting is important and a key responsibility of the meeting leader. The leader should follow up on task progress, open issues which come up during the meeting, and provide guidance and direction as needed. The worst meetings are the ones which are run well but nothing happens after them. As a result, the company loses more time and productivity.

The organizational impact of good meetings

The best manager knows that efficient meetings save money, generate positive teamwork, and most importantly help to get things done. As a result, the organization builds good meeting processes into its culture and doesn’t tolerate meetings which waste time and energy.

Learning summary and next steps

How do people run meetings where you work and what could be improved? What processes are used to organize and run meetings where you work? Are they efficient? Why? Why not? What are three steps you can take to improve the culture of making meetings work in your office?

Craig Nathanson

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