How to run an effective meeting

Meetings. They are a necessary evil in the modern workplace. There are times that they are the most effective way to collaborate or share information. Few people will argue that more often than not though, they are an almost complete waste of time.

Some meetings will end up completely dominated by a few ‘alpha’ personalities. Unfortunately there are those that see any meeting as a captive audience for their awesome stories.

Many will be simple demonstrations of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also known as ‘the bike shed effect’. This is where people won’t speak their view on important issues for the fear of looking stupid. Instead they will just spend their time discussing unimportant things in an attempt to feel like they have contributed something.

For whatever reason, often just because people feel that they should be, meetings are a part of professional life.

As Dale Dauten stated – “A Meeting Moves at the Pace of the Slowest Mind in the Room”.

Just because they are unavoidable doesn’t mean they need to be a waste though. Here are some tips on how to conduct a meeting and to hopefully limit their impact on productivity.

Only hold them if necessary. Cancel them if not

There are a number of reasons that people give for calling meetings. One that has the potential for the most impact is the innocent seeming ‘weekly team meeting’. These are often created with the best intentions. Something similar to ‘we have a team and so we should talk about things’.

Where they can become trouble is when they are held just because they are scheduled. If the meeting holds no real value, it should be cancelled and everyone given back that slice of time.

Just a simple weekly meeting has the potential to waste well over a week of productivity per person over a year. That is a lot of time on discussions that don’t add value.

Only let the meeting take as long as it really needs to.

Just because MS Outlook sets an hour as the default meeting duration doesn’t mean that is how long a meeting takes. There is nothing wrong with only taking half an hour (or less) if that is all that is required.

If you have finished discussing the items on the agenda or the purpose of the meeting has been fulfilled – Stop!
There is no reason to keep discussing the same thing repeatedly. This is where much of the time is wasted. People like to give themselves a little pat on the back and feel that they have achieved something.
I have been in countless meetings where people have sat around just chatting about unrelated things until the time is up and they feel a need to vacate the room.

Hold them standing up

In line with this 1999 study, stand up meetings will take on average 34% less time. There are also a number of other physical benefits. People are not designed to sit down for as long as we do.

Standing promotes better blood flow and allows us to be more expressive with body language.

It is also likely that those looking to just waste time and avoid work by sitting in a meeting room will contribute so they can get back to their desk.

Distribute an agenda before the meeting

Yes it requires some preparation before the day. Honestly though, if you are asking the attendees to share their time with you, the least you can do is let them know why. It will also allow them to prepare for the expected conversation. This will give your meeting a better chance of achieving its purpose.

Your meeting should have a clear purpose. Clearly stating what this is before people get together allows everyone to work toward achieving it. It also allows people the opportunity to not attend if they feel they will add no value.

If people come prepared, they will contribute more relevantly and require less time to get up to speed in your meeting.

Only invite people that actually need to be there to achieve the meeting outcome

The more people that are in the room, the more different perspectives you will need to manage. If they are not needed it is logical that they should not be present. Some of the other reasons for limiting the number of attendees in your meetings are:

  • There are less personalities for you to manage
  • There is less potential for side conversations
  • You will reach decisions faster

Expect people to have read the agenda and be prepared

Following on from the earlier point about always distributing an agenda. It is also appropriate to expect people to have read it and prepared.

Spending the first few minutes covering off the key goals of the meeting is time well spent. Beyond that it is fine to expect people to be ready.
The first few minutes of meeting introduction time could be viewed as allowing time to get settled. It also allows people to get in the right head space and be confident that they are prepared.
If they are hearing things for the first time though, they are likely to take longer to get up to speed. If this is due to their lack of preparation, they have almost earned the right to either be ignored until they catch up.

Obviously the exception to this is senior managers. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are busy and the topic of the meeting is often fairly trivial in the scope of their role. Secondly, they normally have the ability to make your life easier or harder depending on your relationship – Chose wisely.
If you have a feeling that they might not be up to speed, consider it a part of your meeting preparation to get them there before the meeting. In most cases they will be required to participate in a meaningful way. Whatever you can do to get them there will save everyone time.

Avoid ‘round table’ updates

For many people these are the biggest sources of meeting angst. The meeting facilitator stating “so, let’s go around and update everyone on what you are working on” sounds more like “let’s waste some time talking about things that you don’t care about”.

I have seen (far too many!) meetings where it has honestly taken half an hour to get around a large conference room table. Half an hour!
On these occasions I have often passed the time by doing a calculation in my head on how much that conversation is costing.

As well as wasting time, this approach breeds laziness. Why would someone bother remaining on top of things if they are just going to be told again? Make people take personal accountability. Save valuable meeting time for decision making or addressing real issues

Think of an alternative way to achieve the same outcome

The outcomes wanted from many meetings could be achieved more efficiently another way. Some are even often a complete waste of time. These are:

  • To inform people of a status update. There are far more efficient ways to advise a group of people something.
  • To allow the attendees to give a general update to each other. These are my favourites as mentioned above. If the other members of the meeting need to know, they should already. If they don’t need to know, they probably don’t really care.
  • To discuss something and give all attendees the chance to hear others. In a similar way to the points above these are often discussions that should have already happened. If a single person is given the responsibility for finding a solution, you can often save a great deal of time. They would then use their judgement and experience to get the information needed.
  • To reach a decision. Sometimes this is warranted. However there are often far too many people in the room for effective decision making. This comes back to making a call on who should be present.

For many workplaces, meetings are a necessary part of the decision making process. They can also be useful to help (or remind) people feel that they are part of a team.
In many situations though, they are a tool that is not used in the most appropriate way. With a small amount of thought and planning their impact on productivity and general morale can be reduced.

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