7 Elements of Efficient, Productive Meetings
Business is ramping up, and big projects that were paused are getting the green light. Zoom gatherings will be forever part of our work lives, but in-person meetings are starting back up too. Either way, I thought it would be a good time to think back and make some notes to myself about making the most of what too many roll their eyes at its mere mention: the meeting.
According to a 2019 survey by Korn Ferry, 67% of workers feel they spend too much time in meetings, and 34% estimate that 2-5 hours each week are wasted on unproductive meetings. That’s a big company spend with very little return.
But when well-positioned, well-planned, and well-executed, meetings are vital to moving forward and finding solutions. When poorly planned and rudderless, they suck time and morale. I make sure I “respect the meeting” – it costs valuable time, after all. Here are some points I try to adhere to in order to make sure it’s a worthy endeavor.
The Seven Habits of Highly Successful Meetings
Is it even necessary? First, do you even need to meet? Often I am in a meeting and, while agreeing it’s an important topic, I’m sitting there thinking that this could have been done with a pair of phone calls or a short email thread between three people. So first decide if it’s even necessary.
Rock-solid (but flexible) agenda. Spend some time preparing a well-planned agenda. Commit to sticking to the bare-minimum mission-critical points and organize it so that it flows in a logical manner – ideally most important first. Send it out to those attending in advance. When the meeting starts, make sure everyone has a copy of the agenda and/or have it displayed in the room. But meetings are fluid, so if an important topic pops up, or if a seemingly short conversation turns into a longer one, be aware that you may need to be flexible (see Stay Focused below).
Get to it. Skip the “let’s go around the room and see how people are doing” start. Save that kind of chit-chat for hovering around the coffee machine. If you do need a report from the people at the table on, say, the progress of a project, be clear that brevity on the specific topic is appreciated. However, if your company is virtual, if there is no proverbial coffee machine, or no other opportunity for people to catch up outside of meetings, it might be a nice morale-booster to start with an informal greet. But plan ahead for this – assume the first five minutes will be focused on hellos, and then your schedule won’t be derailed.
Rules of Engagement. Be the benign dictator and take charge of the meeting. Establish rules, state them, and follow them. “Everyone is busy, so we’re going to move through these topics and get out in 45 minutes.”
Stay Focused. Yet inevitably, someone will stray off the topic. Your job is to decide on the fly if that straying could be pertinent to the goal, and to how much of a rope you’re going to allow that person to have (hint: not enough to hang themselves). If it is pertinent, then you need to make a decision. Do you accommodate the longer discussion and bump something else off the agenda? Is this tangent something that can be handled in a smaller group, or in an email? Be flexible and adapt to the situation so that your agenda doesn’t run away from you, and everyone walks away with a clear accomplishment. And if you do need to cut someone off, be supportive and respectful: “That’s an important issue I hadn’t thought of, and I want to follow up on that after this meeting.” Then make a note to follow up as you move back to the agenda.
Know When to Say When. Sometimes you must run away to live and fight another day. Maybe the problem is too big. Maybe there’s too many or too few in the meeting to come to a solution. But I have found that on occasion it is better to wave a temporary white flag and let everyone go back to stew on the issues privately than to have the meeting go on endlessly. Assign tasks for information gathering and set a time to meet and continue to conversation before adjourning.
Follow Through. Throughout the meeting, I make an action list of specific tasks needed to be done by specific team members. When wrapping up the meeting, I quickly run through that list and make sure I didn’t miss anything, and that everyone agrees and is clear on it. Then I provide an email summary of the meeting with that action list.
These approaches should yield the best results and make everyone involved feel it was time well-spent. But there are other exceptions that can sometimes challenge your meeting’s goals. For example…
The Chatter Box. There are those who just love the sound of their voice. And you know who they are. You want their input, but in small doses. Keeping these types on track requires one eye on the clock and another eye on an opening of how to delicately cut them off. Make sure you validate any good ideas, but be assertive in moving on.
The Tall, Silent Types. Okay, they aren’t always tall, but there are those who for whatever reason tend to sit stoically and silently in meetings. It is important to morale and productivity to make sure no one leaves a meeting without giving their input. One trick you can use is to cut off the Chatter Box by engaging the Silent Type. “Robin, let’s pause right there as that’s an interesting direction you’re going in. Chris what do you think about that, or anything else we’ve said so far?”
The Brain-Storming Session
Most of the meetings I’m in tend to be goal-oriented, as in it’s clear on where we need to go, and now it’s a matter of how best to get there in terms of budget, personnel, and technology. But there is another type of meeting where some of these guidelines don’t apply: The brain-storming session. There’s an excellent article on this here on wework.com. I especially like the point it makes on “brain netting” – conducting a meeting online while jotting down ideas in a shared document like Google Docs as ideas come up. But while this type of session may require a different type of leadership to make it effective, many of the principles remain. You still want to draw out
the Silent Types, and while brainstorms are about free-thinking, if the conversation starts to go way out there, gently pull it back in and focus on the topic at hand. A few reminders on time remaining may help everyone stay focused, and will help make the most of your time together.
But above all, remember that the two types of meeting do have one other key element in common: Donuts are appreciated in both.