Meetings can be a time suck. Though they're needed, the average meeting results in poor results. I've worked at progressive and mindful organisations where managers still wasted thousands of dollars putting people together for hours.
Nevertheless, I'm invited to meaningless meetings way too often. If you're as tired as I am of useless meetings, here are some ways to prepare for a more effective meeting next time.
1. Prepare Meeting Agenda
Skipping this step is tempting. There is always a feeling that you can just walk into the room and give a speech that will mobilise and engage all participants.
However, it doesn’t work this way.
You need to plan before you act. Conversations tend to derail very quickly. The only way to stick to the point is to have an agenda.
If a meeting is not worth writing an agenda – then it is not important enough to waste time on.
Besides the main topic you need to discuss, there are always some additional points in an agenda.
It is like a scope creep.
You need to identify everything that will be talked about. They will take up time. For example, an introduction of new attendees, voting for the best idea, assigning action items, etc.
2. Set a Time Limit
A meeting should be strictly time-boxed, otherwise, it will take as much time as possible. Always keep in mind the Parkinson’s law: it should start and end at the scheduled time.
I would suggest you never delay the start of a meeting. By delaying a meeting, you support latecomers. On the other hand, those who always come on time are penalised by waiting.
What's the real story?
Keep in mind that some people might have other meetings scheduled. By finishing your meeting later, you can put them into troubles. They will have to either leave your meeting and miss the conclusions, which is the most important part, or they will have to come late for their next meeting.
The worst thing happens when a delay of one meeting creates a cascading delay for all meetings for the day.
3. Set the Purpose For Each Meeting
Each meeting should have a goal, whether it's to brainstorm a list of ideas, make a decision or sync up the status of a project.
The goal should be whatever it is that you need to achieve within allocated time. If you don’t have a purpose clearly defined, then any outcome will suit you. Why waste your time?
When your time is up, and you do not reach the purpose – the meeting is failed. Time is wasted.
4. Choose Participants Wisely
There is a limit of persons for a meeting. Beyond that number, any meeting is a waste of time.
Depending on the purpose of a meeting the number varies. I would say 7-10 people for a meeting is a maximum.
The number may be higher for meetings where you just need to transfer some information. Sure, there may be many stakeholders for your project, but it doesn’t mean that you need to invite them simply because they are on the list.
The main idea is to choose people who can add value to the meeting or decision.
For most of the cases, it is unwise to call management, customer or sponsor for brainstorming meetings, for example.
Sometimes they do want to participate and contribute. But in most cases, they are interested in refined information. You should use their time for decision making based on the options you generated before.
That is why it is so important to define a purpose for a meeting. And it is best when there is only one goal.
5. Define Responsibility and Your Expectation for Each Participant
Have you ever wondered how a person can decline an invitation for a meeting? It is easy when you are a boss and too busy. Then you just do not show up. What about the peers?
You can check it yourself.
Take a look at last ten meetings you were invited to. Hopefully, there is an agenda there. But I can bet that there is at least one meeting you can’t tell why you had to participate.
And definitely, there was uncertainty on your side.
Were you invited just because you are on the email list, or you are a part of the team? Or do they expect some expertise from your side?
Whenever you call someone to your meeting, explicitly state your expectations. What do you want from a person? Why should he join a meeting?
If you are not telling them your expectations you are just bossing. You order them to comply. Without questioning you.
Always give them a choice to quit.
If they decide not to come to your meeting. If they don’t think they can help. If they don’t want to help you. If they don’t want even to try. They will be of no use for you when forced into your meeting.
Buy their support. Let THEM choose to help you.
David Grady has a lot to say on this point.
6. Provide All Relevant Information Before a Meeting
So you want to discuss something important. Or you seek for expertise. In any case, provide any background information beforehand. Give enough time to analyse any documentation, ideas, your meeting agenda and your expectations.
The purpose of a meeting is to sync up, to brainstorm, or to make a decision. Do not waste time on anything that can be done personally. Reading documents out loud during meetings is unprofessional. Everyone can read.
You must state your expectations. You expect them you come prepared for a meeting. You expect to produce solutions not describe a problem.
7. Schedule Meetings Beforehand
How does it feel when someone invites you to an hour-long meeting with a five minutes notice? And you were about to have lunch? Bad.
Don’t do it.
I know there are sometimes “urgent” meetings. But I don’t believe in them. They introduce a lot of stress and rarely deliver any value. These are not effective team meetings.
If you need to mobilize your team set up a short meeting, where you introduce the problem. Then plan consequent meetings to brainstorm the solutions. After people had time to think it through.
8. Come on Time
Does this even have to be a separate point? I’m afraid, it does.
Come on time. Start a meeting on time. Finish a meeting on time. That is a framework of an effective team meeting.
9. Lead the meeting, Stick To Agenda and Timeline
Despite all your previous efforts, it will be a mess unless you lead and control the meeting.
It takes an exceptional level of professionalism, culture and ethics to respect everyone’s time. I don’t think you can demand it. Like anything related to the “respect”, you have to earn it. So do not assume that everyone will behave to your standard. Be ready to lead.
What does it mean?
You need to spend every minute of a meeting purposefully. Take the lead and introduce newcomers. If everyone is familiar with each other, skip it. Give an honest “Thank you for coming” and get to the point.
Respect their time.
Quickly remind the agenda and the purpose of the meeting. State what you expect to be a successful outcome. It should take less than a minute. Otherwise, you planned too much to discuss.
Now keep to the agenda.
Drag the conversation back to the point. Track time you allocated for each point of the agenda.
When you lead a meeting, it takes some courage to keep everyone focused. It is your meeting, your plan. You need to be confident enough to restrain superiors and peers. Just be respectful. If they have some cool idea, propose them to discuss it after the meeting.
Always keep in mind that you need some time at the end of a meeting. It is crucial. See next point.
But what if time runs out. And your have not achieved meeting goals? Finish this one in time and schedule another one. If it happens this way, you underestimated the problem. Or you discover something new and important.
Plan again, then act.
10. Assign Deliverables and Deadlines
Even if the purpose of your meeting is a single decision, there is delivery. It is meeting notes. Someone have to inform others about the decision and log it.
In most cases, your meetings will end up with next steps to keep wheels turning – the action items.
It is best when all action items produce deliverables. Just like everything in project management. You need results.
Therefore, describe deliverables (next meeting, a report, a plan, etc.), assign one responsible person for each one, set and agreed upon the deadlines. Document it in the meeting notes.
If you are leading the meeting, it is OK to delegate writing meeting notes to someone else. State one responsible person who must do that.
Nevertheless, it is your responsibility to deliver the meeting notes.
Always invite others to add or correct your meeting notes. You may miss something. Others may have understood it differently. It is a good way to avoid miscommunication. Just let everyone comfortable to correct you.
I like the idea of a monetary value of a decision made at a meeting.
It is simple.
In fact, it is a timer that shows the cost of a meeting in dollars. Calculations are easy. You need to know hourly rates of all participant and multiply them by the hours you spent to produce a decision. When a meeting is over, you will see how much a decision costs.
Do the exercise several times. You will find that your team meetings are golden. It is to say nothing about demotivation and disengagement effect. I bet you will want to have effective meetings after that.