Sarah Cooper’s book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smarter in Meetings, makes light of some of the more absurd things you might see in a meeting; the book is truly hilarious. But, it is a sad truth: meetings have earned a bad reputation. That is too bad. I’m a firm believer in “two heads are better than one.” Collaboration brings many benefits, including generally better problem solving, often quicker issue resolution and greater productivity through information dissemination. I believe, with a little planning and organization, you can run, and benefit from, effective meetings. We all fundamentally know what I’m saying here is true. The key is putting it into practice to reap the rewards.
Before the Meeting: Planning and Organization
Before you set a meeting date and time, consider your agenda. And, importantly, if you’re having trouble putting an agenda together, consider if you truly NEED a meeting. There is no sense in meeting for the sake of meeting. It IS ok to cancel a standing meeting if there is no relevant or ready business to discuss. In setting out your agenda, begin with what you want to accomplish, i.e. communicate a new strategy, introduce two or more functional groups to a new project, solve a specific problem, etc. Be realistic in your planning. You’re not going to solve all of the world’s problems in an hour.
Give Thought to the Venue and Format
The actual meeting space should comfortably accommodate the number of attendees expected. It should be clean and free from distractions such as noise and excessive temperatures. In today’s world, we have options for meeting. Not all gatherings require physical presence. Zoom is one of my favorite (and free, up to a certain number of participants) online meeting platforms. Online meetings save commute time and travel costs. Virtual video meetings do not give up the benefits of face-to-face communication. You can read expressions and make strong eye contact on video conference. If you decide to go the virtual route, be prepared. Test your equipment ahead of time. Make certain your participants have the appropriate meeting entrance credentials, and that they understand how to use the technology.
There is a time and place for phone meetings as well. Quick conference calls can be quite effective at bringing all parties up to date on a new development or gathering opinions on a new proposal. If you don’t know how to conference in a party on your mobile or desktop phone, visit Google (or a friend) and get in the know.
During the Meeting: Efficiency and Discipline
As the meeting organizer, you have the responsibility of keeping the meeting on time. You’ll want to have clear visibility to a clock. Do keep in mind that, when seeking open-ended feedback to solve a problem or gather a consensus, it is going to put some limits on your control of time. And, as productive as a discussion might be, there are costs associated with running over time. These costs include frustration from some segment of the meeting population, and a loss of attention span across the board. As a general rule, when planning longer meetings or conferences, breaks should be offered every hour to hour-and-a-half.
Side topics and off-shoots of the main agenda are going to pop up. Table the good discussions for another time. One great way to table good discussions for later is to use a conceptual parking lot. If you’re a visual fan, have the parking lot be a list everyone in the meeting can see as you go along. You can use a flip chart, a white board or an electronic list. Park the topics in a location and format you can easily come back to later.
The last thing you want to have happen with a meeting is for great ideas to have been identified, but action never taken. To this end, throughout your meeting, maintain a list of action items. In some cases, it makes sense to assign the task of capturing the action items. Doing so allows someone to focus on drafting the action outputs while you keep the meeting on track. Action items should include a specific responsibility. In some situations, it will make sense to run through the list of action items at the end of the meeting to assign ownership.
After the Meeting: Information & Accountability
Send out notes after the meeting. Include assigned tasks to increase ownership. Meeting notes should be short and concise, but should contain enough detail to where someone not present, or someone reading the notes after considerable time has passed, can make sense of it. Verbose or haphazard meeting notes will result in no one reading the information
Make sure accountability is clear in your summary. Don’t bury a to-do. When conducting your post-meeting information dissemination, use effective communication strategies, such as keeping the audience in mind as you craft an email and knowing when to pick up the phone and call or walk by a desk to visit. (Hint: it’s always a good idea to make personal contact with someone absent from the meeting who was assigned an area of responsibility coming out of the meeting.)
Meetings Are Our Reality
As long as we have groups of people with ambition and an objective in mind, we’re going to have a need for meetings. As Steve Jobs once said, “Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.” Effective meetings are no unicorn. They ARE possible with some planning and organization.
Sara Genrich is an Organization and Productivity Consultant, an Evernote Certified Consultant and the creator of the Organizing@Work for Success Workshop. She’s committed to providing real-life solutions so her clients have time to focus on the things that really matter.