Episode 40: April 24, 2009
by Lisa B. Marshall
Dave Barry says that meetings are like funerals "in the sense that you have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else." He says, "The major difference is that most funerals have a definite purpose."
A quick search of Twitter will show you that at any given time someone in the world is sitting in a boring unproductive meeting. Geo Perdis recently wrote, "Tweeting at end of long, boring unproductive meeting and before delayed start of next one: priceless."
Run More Effective Meetings
With this episode I am trying to right this universal wrong, one listener at time. Today I'm going to share with you tried-and-true tips for better and more effective meetings. When you adhere to these guidelines your meetings will be better. Guaranteed. Don’t let a sloppy meeting culture influence YOUR meetings. Let your meetings serve as the model to be emulated. Here’s how to do it.
Plan and Develop the Meeting Purpose, Outcome, and Agenda
It sounds obvious, but always first think about the purpose of the meeting. If you need to come to a resolution then a meeting is usually a good idea. If you are only sharing information, then another approach might be better (maybe a podcast, email, or a report). Next ask, "What's the ideal outcome?" (Of course, if you can't come up with a good purpose and ideal outcome, then you don't need a meeting).
Bullet the purpose and projected outcome at the top of the agenda. Underneath, list the required and optional attendees. Then, for each topic, very briefly list what, who, and how long. Use action words like decide, discuss, review or select. For example,
* Review conference location recommendations – Paul G. - 3 min
* Select location – Team - 7 min
The content should drive the length of the meeting. Don't forget to include necessary breaks and time for social activities; they are just as important as the content. Establish a start time, then calculate the end time and include these times on the agenda.
Always think about the purpose of the meeting. If you need to come to a resolution then a meeting is usually a good idea. If you are only sharing information, then another approach might be better.
It's best to pre-publish the agenda. I suggest pasting it directly into the body of an email (because attachments often don't get opened). If possible, send it out more than a day in advance because you'll want give time for review. Someone might want to add or modify the agenda and that’s best handled one-on-one. One benefit is that it might encourage refection, preparation, and attendance. Oh, if the agenda doesn't go out ahead of time, it doesn't mean you shouldn't create one-- even if that means creating the agenda as the first thing you do in the meeting.
Start your meeting on time, even if everyone isn’t there. If this isn't your standard procedure (yet), it's a good idea to warn people that you really are going to start on time. Trust me, people will get the message. By the way, this also applies to returning back from breaks.
Likewise, always end your meeting on time or earlier. Participants will love it and remember you for that. The key for keeping meetings on schedule is to manage the time for each individual segment. Someone needs to be responsible for paying attention to this. It could be a facilitator or note taker or a participant that manages the time.
I’ve found using a 2-minute warning system works great. When 2 minutes are left in a segment, the timer raises a large yellow sheet of paper. When there’s only a minute left, he raises a red sheet and says in a soft, polite voice "One minute, Lisa." Once the system has been in place a while, that’s usually enough to keep people on track.
However, if the speaker is running over, the timer may need to say, again in a soft, polite tone, "Sorry, Lisa, we’re out of time. Does this need to go in the parking lot?” The idea is for your team “valet” to “park” issues that might need further attention on a white board or flip chart. If participants are truly engaged, occasionally a topic will need more time; and for sure, issues not on the agenda will crop up. At the end of the meeting, each item should be reviewed and assigned an owner for follow-up. The parking lot concept is a powerful tool to keep meetings on track. By the way, it’s a good idea to look at all the parking lot lists quarterly to see if there are any recurring issues.
Keep a Written Record
Another common meeting mistake is to not record decisions and next steps. It's very important to get explicit, public buy-in and task ownership. "Lisa, you said you're going to contact the University to see which dates in September are available, right?" That forces me to publicly commit. The note taker records the task, the owner, and the deadline. By the way, that’s what meeting notes are--just a summary of the next steps--nothing more. A quick summary should be done after each meeting segment and voiced again at the end of the meeting to ensure there's an owner for all tasks.
Maintain a Positive Engaged Environment
Maintaining an upbeat, engaging environment in meetings is important. One expert recommends starting each meeting by writing the desired outcome on the whiteboard and then asking participants to communicate something positive. The facilitator should ask questions and encourage feedback from all participants. “Bob, what are your thoughts on this? Mary, do you agree?” Include a ground rule that only one person speaks at a time so that everyone can follow the conversation. The facilitator manages the meeting process while the meeting leader manages meeting content. It’s difficult for the same person to fill both of these roles. For important meetings, choose different people.
Commonly I get asked about what to do about people who come late. I don’t think latecomers should be publicly embarrassed. At the same time, I don’t think you should make any effort to catch them up when they arrive. If you feel the need to say something, simply state where you are in the agenda. “We just started the second topic.”
Be a Better Meeting Participant
As a meeting participant, make it a point to properly greet (remember the episode on handshaking) and say good-bye to your fellow participants, especially people you are meeting for the first time; it’s good manners and it’s good for building your internal network. Come prepared to meetings with ideas and be open to a healthy discussion. Be sure to verbally express your support of good ideas instead of silently agreeing or worse-- not paying attention or texting messages to someone across the room.
Speaking of technology, it can be distracting. I encourage you to consider a no Blackberries, no cell phone conversations in the room, and a no laptop rule. Yep, I said it, a no laptop rule! Success of meetings depends on engaged, focused people. Enough said.
After the meeting you need to follow up. Quickly distribute the notes and update any project plans. You may even want to check-in on progress mid-way between meetings. Finally, the last step is to think about what was effective or ineffective in the meeting so you can continue to improve your process.
So there you have it: tried-and-true tips for more effective meetings. By adhering to a slightly more rigid meeting process you can make significant gains in productivity. Participants will feel the time invested in your meetings was well spent. With your help, we all can avoid death by meeting!
This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.
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