During my professional career I’ve attended several thousand meetings and chaired many of them. Many of these meetings have been less effective than they should have been. Preparing for a meeting requires some real work to make the meeting truly useful and to avoid meetings that need not be called at all.
A lot of thought and a fair amount of writing has gone into how and when to hold meetings. Amy Gallo suggests there are seven imperatives to keep meetings on track. These are based on what experts have said about effective meetings. These imperatives include: Make the purpose of the meeting clear; Control the size of the meeting; Set the right tone; Manage ramblers; Control tangents; Make careful transitions; and End the meeting well.
Should a Meeting Happen
Elizabeth Grace Saunders published an article in Harvard Business Review in 2015 outlining a process to determine whether a meeting is necessary. The process is outlined in the graphic below:
If this process were followed before meetings were called, especially ad hoc meetings, there would be fewer meetings held and the ones that occurred would be more effective.
Often people fail at the first step. They fail to clearly define the problem or problems to be solved and the decisions that need to be made. Sufficient thought is then often not given to the best way to address a problem or task and whether a meeting is really needed. Meetings are often called to “brainstorm” something without a clear idea of what the objective is.
Often information can be solicited without a real time conversation. In these situations an email or phone call may be a much better use of everyone’s time than a meeting.
How often have you attended a meeting when the questions presented were not adequately thought through in advance? When the task of the meeting was not well-defined? When materials and information needed for the meeting were not provided in advance? Adequate preparation for a meeting is essential for it to be an effective use of everyone’s time.
The challenge here is to be well prepared for a meeting while still leaving genuine decision making and analysis to be done during the meeting. There is little point in calling a meeting just to tell everyone what decision has already been made. Meetings require the free exchange of ideas and the willingness on everyone’s part to be open-minded and consider new ideas.
Who Should Attend Meetings
Meetings are most effective when:
- Those attending have a clear reason to be there and understand it;
- Those attending have a genuine contribution to make;
- Those attending should have the authority to make decisions.
In deciding who should attend a meeting one must first determine how important it is to have a face-to-face meeting. Meetings take up valuable time that participants might put to a better use. They can also require extensive costs for travel, meeting venues, etc. Before asking people to participate, give their time and expend these costs it should be clear that the meeting is necessary.
The Agenda and the Chair
Setting a clear agenda and providing it in advance to all who will attend a meeting is essential. The agenda defines, limits and organizes the meeting to achieve a goal or a set of goals. A good agenda:
- States the purposes of the meeting – what needs to be decided.
- Creates a clear beginning time and ending time – time is very valuable to all who attend and should not be wasted.
- Sets limits on what the meeting will consider and do.
- Has been created with some serious thought about what the meeting should achieve.
An effective chairperson for a meeting will hold the meeting to that agenda and avoid wasted time. The chairperson should make it clear to everyone why they are meeting and what needs to be decided. The agenda if the primary tool for doing this. The chairperson must also keep the meeting on task. People will naturally go off task or head down various tangents that may waste time. On the other hand if a participant points out something that has not been thought of that has direct bearing on the success of the meeting this should not be ignored or squelched.
The chairperson should also insure that at the end of the meeting a decision is made, or if necessary is postponed until more information is obtained. The chairperson will make sure that “next steps” or “action items” are clearly agreed upon at the meetings’ end. There may be nothing worse than a meeting that changes nothing and achieves nothing because there is no follow-up.
The chairperson should provide in advance all the written materials that the meeting will consider and the participants should read those materials in advance to avoid the waste of time that occurs when people sit around a table reading documents.
If we follow these guidelines for effective meetings they will make best use of time, reduce participant’s frustrations, and achieve more. Meetings will become more effective and more meaningful.
Learn how to manage your time to achieve more of what you want to do in my book, Effective Time Management. Get free lessons on how to use your time more effectively with my Effective Time Management Lessons.
Wishing you well,
Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.