Tips to Maximize Meeting Effectiveness Part I

Oh No! Not Another Meeting…

Whenever we ask a group of managers to list their three most time-consuming activities, “unproductive meetings” always makes the list. These same managers speculate that about half the time spent in meetings is wasted. The tragedy is, not knowing ahead of time which half of the meeting will be the productive half. If it were known, we could all plan accordingly and better manage our time.

We recently facilitated a meeting of senior level managers. One director began, “This is the third time we’ve met on this issue. We need to make a decision and finalize our plan of attack. Everyone is busy with other projects.” Another member of the management team responded, “This kind of decision takes time. We may not be able to reach agreement today.” We responded, “How much does it cost the organization each time that this team meets?” After some quick calculations, the team estimated it cost them approximately $1,200 each hour and that meeting usually lasted for a half day.

With their eyes opened by the “time is money” factor, the group asked for tips on how to run both efficient and productive meetings. The following eight tips are based on our experience as facilitators for our clients.

  1. Should We or Should We Not Meet?
    All too often we hear this familiar cry, “We need to have a meeting.” But, are you sure you really need to meet? Each time you are tempted to call a meeting, speculate on the cost to the organization and determine if holding a meeting is the best way to obtain the desired outcome.

    Can an initial meeting be avoided by using a quick e-mail request for information? Does everyone need to be involved in the early stages of a project? When contemplating calling a meeting, ask, “Do we really need to meet? Is there another alternative that will accomplish our needs?”

  2. Who Needs to Be There?
    Once you have determined that a meeting is required, determine who needs to attend. Think this through carefully. We often hear people complain about having to attend a meeting that does not pertain to them, just because it is routine to include everyone on the team. Consider the goal of the meeting and make sure you invite qualified experts and include a person with authority to make decisions. Don’t overlook the “front line” when selecting participants. People dealing directly with customers are often best qualified to provide insightful input, and yet sometimes they are overlooked in policy-making meetings.

  3. What Type of Meeting?
    Meetings are called for many reasons. Identify your goal and plan accordingly. Some meetings are held to disseminate information, others to build consensus and reach agreement, and still others are opportunities to brainstorm solutions. Properly determining the kind of meeting helps you better arrange the specifics, such as room size, seating arrangements, and the sequence for agenda topics.

  4. Create an Agenda and Identify Topics for Discussion
    Often people defend not having an agenda by saying, “This will be just a short meeting” or “It’s hard to know what will come up in the meeting.” Some say, “A tight agenda limits spontaneity and creativity.” Based on our experience, we recommend using an agenda for almost all meetings. Our preference is that the group be given the opportunity to provide input to the agenda prior to the meeting. An effective agenda formalizes the need to meet, enhances the group’s ability to focus on identified desired outcomes, and helps ensure that participants have the opportunity to have their concerns addressed during the meeting.

  5. Distribute the Agenda in Advance
    Once the agenda is finalized, e-mail or send a copy to the meeting participants. This allows participants to prepare any necessary documentation and to think about questions or challenges related to agenda topics.

  6. Identify and Honor “Start and End Times”
    Commit to starting meetings on time. Initially, stragglers will come in late. Don’t back up to review what has been covered. This takes time and compromises the time of those who were on time. Over time, people should sense that they need to arrange their priorities so that they can show up to meetings on time. Starting meetings on time reduces wasted time, demonstrates respect for people’s time, and emphasizes the importance of the meeting.

  7. Have a definite end time listed on the agenda. Without an end time, meetings can take on a life of their own. People resent being held captive in meetings that run past scheduled times. Stick to your agenda and focus on achieving your goal within the allotted time.

  8. Start Fast, Be Specific, and Close Decisively
    Start on a positive, upbeat note by welcoming participants. Start with an attention getter: ask a question, make a startling statement, tell a joke, or relate the topic to the attendees. Then, clearly outline the purpose of the meeting and what will be accomplished. When discussion strays from the topic, continually refocus participants to the issue under discussion.

    Before adjourning the meeting, summarize the group’s progress and review decisions that have been made. Specifically, review actions that must be taken before the group meets again, noting who will be responsible, what will happen, and the date it will happen. This five-minute wrap-up activity saves the group hours of wasted time in the future by identifying and clarifying the specific actions to take place before the group meets again.

Just eight steps. It’s easy, right? Well, if just arranging the meeting logistics and creating the agenda were all that made for a great meeting, it would be that easy! We can assure you that following the eight tips will greatly enhance your effectiveness at running meetings. We would be naive, though, if we thought that’s all it takes. For tips on how to facilitate discussion, lead groups to consensus, and deal with difficult participants, be sure to read the next blog entry in this series of blogs, discussing how to lead productive meetings regardless of who is attending.

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