It’s no wonder Dilbert and his comic strip colleagues mock boring meetings that drain time and productivity from the work day. We all get the punch line — literally, because those ennui-inducing sessions plague offices everywhere.
Here are 12 ways to impose discipline onto staff meetings to transform them into effective, productive tools.
1. Have a good reason to meet
Meetings should not be held unless they need to be. Ask, for instance, if the managers need to meet every Monday at 3 pm, no matter what? Are you sure about that? And why? If the reason for the meeting isn’t readily apparent and sound, cancel it. Communicate another way.
2. Send an agenda at least a day beforehand
This lets everyone be prepared — or, if they aren’t, takes away one really good excuse. Meetings should start with everyone briefed and ready to go.
3. Amend the agenda to incorporate suggestions
Take comments that come in about the proposed agenda and adjust it, if needed. Shaping a meeting ahead of time, so it can be as on-point and relevant as possible, allows it to unfold much more efficiently.
4. Keep the meeting focused on the issues at hand
If topics come up that weren’t on the agenda — and don’t need to be solved immediately — make note of them and work on those later. Sometimes, swift action is required to address issues raised unexpectedly by staff. Spontaneity is good. Meandering into an hours-long morass is bad.
5. Have a firm deadline for ending (and meet it)
Staff should know how long a meeting will take. That respects their time and their schedules. Commit to a deadline, in advance. And keep the meeting as brief as possible.
6. Bring a timer (and use it)
Don’t just set a deadline, show you really mean it. Use a visual timer to keep the meeting on track and on time, such as a Time Timer. This innovative, but simple, tool can be downloaded to an iPhone or iPad.
7. Make them interactive
Meetings that resemble monologues would benefit from being more like conversations. Droning on is sure to make those in attendance tune out, just like the students in Charlie Brown’s class.
If the meeting is simply a one-way presentation, try to find ways to make it interactive, in places, or otherwise engaging.
8. Invite input from everyone
As author Susan Cain shows in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” consensus in meetings often gravitates to the opinions of the loudest and chattiest — regardless of whether they actually proposed the best ideas. Seek out a range of opinions and make sure people are truly welcome to contribute. That’s not just considerate; it might flush out some great ideas that hadn’t yet come to the surface in the discussion.
9. Before wrapping up, recap
Briefly restate the focus of the meeting and the main points raised. Verify that concepts and ideas were accurately captured and summarized. This step enables the ones that weren’t grasped as intended to be recast and clarified while they are still fresh in people’s minds.
10. Give assignments and get commitments
Make it clear, verbally, who’s going to do what, by when. Establish expectations about any issue requiring follow up action. Confirm that those with tasks know what they are and have adequate resources to tackle them.
11. Summarize, swiftly and in writing
Right after the meeting, send a brief note confirming the verbal recap and the assignments.
12. Set next steps
Later — likely after a few days, but perhaps after a few weeks, depending — communicate with the staff at the meeting to let them know what will be happening next on the issues discussed and the action steps assigned. If you leave things hanging, progress can stall in the wake of even a productive meeting.
If these steps were followed, we’d all be having many fewer meetings. And the ones we did have would be effective, brief, focused and result in action. Now, THAT would be ingenious. It would also save businesses a mountain of money and increase productivity.
Becky worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C.; Sydney, Australia; and Cleveland, Ohio for major publications including the New York Times, Salon.com, Business Week, the Wall Street Journal, and was Associate Editor of the Plain Dealer's Editorial Page before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. The company helps clients improve their external relations and communication and increase their influence and impact. Becky blogs about that (a few other things) at Framing What Works.
Becky, have you thought about ways to make it easier to follow these steps? I find one of the challenges is that people know what they should be doing in meetings (at least in the back of their mind), but when it comes to taking the effort & discipline required to follow these tips, it doesn't always happen as planned.
@jeff1 Jeff, that's a great point. It is really hard to impose this kind of discipline onto meetings and staff. Perhaps incentives could be used to encourage these kinds of outcomes. Currently, that doesn't seem to be the case in most work places. There's no impetuous for getting out of the meetings for meetings sake rut. The goal should be on focusing on achieving, doing and solving - instead of just meeting. You may have just given me the idea for a new 12 Most post.... ; )
@BeckyGaylord@jeff1 I'd love to see that post. I also think the stand-ups that @dbvickery talks about are a great place to start (for most meetings at least). The nature of the meeting style forces you to incorporate a number of your 12 tips from this article.
Excellent suggestions, Becky. I like agile project 20-minute daily standups because it is fairly well choreographed and lightweight. However, leadership meetings can sometimes breakdown into what you describe above.
We actually discussed a couple of your above points in a meeting today...especially #9 and #10. And if you have people coming in on a teleconference, I think it is very important to get input from everyone...and don't just accept an "I'm fine" from people that call-in. Dig for that input, and the company most likely will be better for it.
@dbvickery Thanks Brian. And great point about eliciting input in cases where the meetings don't involve everyone in the same place, such as teleconferences or through video links. It's easy, in those situations, for those folks to feel as if they are observing the meeting, rather than participating in it -- and contributing to the ideas.
Great post, @beckygaylord on how to remedy one of business’s biggest time-wasters — the meeting! If more people followed these tips, people might actually look forward to them again.
Another big improvement in my opinion, would be #13: actually follow through with that follow up meeting to track progress and establish the next, next steps. I think this is where many well-intentioned first meetings fail.
@PaulBiedermann Yes, Paul, you nailed it. That fuzzy black hole that sucks up follow up and action after meetings is like the expanding dark matter of the universe. It consumes an insatiable amount of energy!
The point of these 12 suggestions is to stop and ask if we all need to be in the meetings we spend so much time in. In my view, the answer is a resounding "no!" Too many meetings are just not productive.
To me have an effective meeting is about coming away with some sort of action! I sit through far too many meeting that have no agenda, no clear purpose, and the person who called the meeting doesn't really even know why I am there. If there is one way to kill morale, it is through too many meetings that don't have a purpose. Your tips are perfect. Now if leaders will just act on them!
@Michelle_Mazur Thanks, Michelle! Even if ideas like this were used to trim just a fraction of the meetings most of us find ourselves stewing in each week, it would almost certainly increase our productivity.