I have something to admit: I love a good meeting. Getting people face-to-face can bring out some great ideas and create new ways to address problems in a collaborative environment. Meetings can inspire and invigorate you. But nothing is worse than a pointless meeting. Unfortunately, I attend a lot of those too.
Meetings serve a specific function and should be used strategically to help you meet your goals. For instance, meetings offer an opportunity for people to get together to exchange information in a non-electronic format. The reality of our workplace is multiple channels are necessary – not everyone reads an email the same way. Plus, with people in the room, you are able to understand reactions and offer opportunity for immediate feedback. Meetings can also be a great means for bringing together people that don’t usually interact – this enables you to look at topics from various perspectives. I like “working meetings” when it is more than just a discussion – something is actually accomplished by the end of the scheduled time.
Many people default to setting up a meeting when it is not really necessary to move forward. I know you’ve been part of a few of these (and be honest, you have even called a few as well). These meetings all look the same. There’s always the one participant who can’t stay awake. Half of the participants spend more time looking at their smartphones, checking email, rather than actively participating. It’s a waste of time and can be a real impediment to creating future meetings that are productive.
In thinking about this, I have proposed this list of five ways to create effective meetings:
- Set a very clear goal for the meeting so attendees know how to prepare and what to expect. This is more than just an agenda – although a useful tool, the agenda really outlines what steps you will take to reach your goal by outlining the key topics of conversation. Define specifically what you hope to accomplish within the time limits of the meeting. Keep it practical by looking at what can be realistically accomplished. Once you know your purpose, build your agenda and share in advance with meeting attendees. If you have a recurring meeting and new attendees joining you, spend some time in advance catching them up to avoid rehashing too much history with the entire group.
- Link the goals of the meeting to the goals of your organization. I worked for a company where our senior leadership would start every meeting by revisiting one of the organization’s core values. Some would even tell a personal story or share an update as it related to a core value. This practice helps reinforce the “why” we are here but also set a more positive tone at the beginning of even the toughest meetings.
- Start and conclude the meeting on time. If you let this slip, your attendees will too. Value the time of others by being respectful of the time you’ve requested from them. This also means you should be mindful of scheduling the appropriate amount of time and consider what it takes. A wise man once told me it takes twice as much time to prepare for a meeting as its duration – but also think about those who will be attending. Is the meeting in person or a conference call? Is travel required to participate? I find it is really easy to get a half-hour on almost anyone’s calendar but it does not allow for a lot of discussion. Big picture meetings – requiring time for participants to provide feedback – often need more than hour. Routine meetings can be shorter. Consider what you hope to accomplish, the attention span of your participants, and stick to the time you’ve schedule.
- Capture the ideas that come up that are off-topic while moving the conversation forward. There are some people that always seem to derail the topic of conversation. Do they do this on purpose? Or, perhaps, they just read an email on their smartphone that inspired a new idea… that has nothing to do with what you are trying to accomplish in your meeting. Some people use a “parking lot” which is a great tool – a running list of future conversation topics – but it is important to revisit this list from time to time. Sometimes, I find items on this list can be addressed with a one-on-one conversation or follow-up email. Otherwise, set another meeting to address the parking lot but keep the conversation focused on your goals.
- Follow-up on the meeting. If you don’t take action quickly following the meeting, you run the risk of having the same meeting again. Email the action items, with assignments, and set the next time to regroup. You may not even need another meeting to resolve any outstanding issues so at least thank your participants. I find a personal thank you for an extraordinary effort by a participant during a meeting goes a long way to inspire future participation – if someone helped make a great meeting, let her know!
Let’s get away from “meeting just to meet.” Do that over lunch or coffee and leave your meetings for work.