Meetings. There are a lot of them, right?
You’d think with so much practice, we’d get better at holding genuinely useful meetings.
And yet, many of us have left lengthy meetings wondering exactly what the takeaways are, or why we were even there in the first place.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
By introducing some purpose, structure, and clarity, meetings can bring positive outcomes and create new ideas.
From Amazon’s “two-pizza rule” (never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the room) to Steve Jobs’ aversion to slides, there are plenty of legendary “hacks” for more productive meetings out there.
Unfortunately, no list of tips (not even this one) can bring about a new collective mindset within a company.
We all dislike pointless meetings, but we won’t infuse them with substance until we figure out what exactly makes them so futile in the first place.
Productive companies have productive meetings; the two are very much linked.
The tips below are compiled with the aim of developing some healthy habits for effective meetings. They may not change your company, but they should start to develop productive, collaborative behaviors.
1. State the Purpose of the Meeting
It may seem obvious, but it is essential to know exactly why a meeting is being held. That applies to its general purpose and also to the anticipated outcomes. If you can’t articulate this clearly, don’t have the meeting.
If you do know what the purpose is, share the information with the attendees – all of whom should have a clear role to play.
By letting people know what is expected of them, the facilitator can generate a sense of personal responsibility among the participants. In turn, that will create an environment where people feel active rather than passive.
There is another great tip for meeting preparation, taken from Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.
Kahneman suggests asking all meeting attendees to write down their opinions on the topic to be discussed. This will involve everyone at an early stage and lead to a concrete reflection of their perspective going into the meeting.
By the meeting’s close, this can be used as a reference point to see if their aims have been met or if opinions have been swayed.
2. Beware of Parkinson’s Law
It can be tempting to set aside 30 or 60 minutes for meetings, just because that’s the done thing. Parkinson’s law applies here; meetings will take as much time as we set aside for them.
There is no need to rush meetings just to give people some time back, but there is a lot to be said for ending a meeting as soon as the objectives have been met. If the meeting takes 33 minutes, it takes 33 minutes.
A myriad of tips exists in this arena, some of which are gimmicks and some of which are helpful. Some claim setting a timer will create a sense of urgency, while others espouse the virtues of the stand-up meeting.
There are no clear rules here, but a skilled facilitator will know how to get the best out of the meeting attendees.
3. Hold Meetings in the Afternoon
In general, meetings later in the day have a better chance of engaging people.
It seems intuitive that we should meet to discuss important topics first thing in the morning.
However, the opposite is true; people come to the office with a list of things they want to get done, so they remain focused on this list when forced to attend a meeting instead.
Let everyone get on with their business and they will be better prepared to contribute actively.
Context is everything and certain topics need to be addressed immediately. However, if you want to avail of everyone’s full attention span, go for the afternoon session.
4. Create Clear Structure on the Agenda
This tip is helpful both for the facilitator and the attendees.
Devise an agenda that is comprised of different sections, with a set amount of time allocated to each.
It is also a good idea to write a precis of what you expect to discuss within each of the sections.
This will create a clear picture in your mind of the meeting’s outline, but will also allow people to consider the discussion points in detail before the session starts.
5. Allow Time to Prepare
If you expect the attendees to contribute new ideas and dedicate their time to your meeting, it is essential to circulate the invitation and agenda in advance. Depending on the topic, this time frame can change.
For a regular weekly meeting, often 24 to 48 hours in advance will suffice. For a session to discuss a new strategic initiative, it is a good idea to share details one week before the meeting occurs.
Part of this preparation phase can involve one-to-one discussions with some attendees. This can be necessary if the meeting will provide new information that will affect some participants more than others.
It is important not to get derailed by sub-topics within the meeting itself, so try to preempt these and deal with them before it starts.
6. Set Rules
Setting some boundaries will help people to engage in a meeting. There are plenty of suggested rules, but these will differ from company to company.
A few rules that I see quite often include:
- No PowerPoint.
- No laptops (this should pretty much apply to all meetings).
- Listen with an open mind.
- Let everyone speak.
7. Involve Everyone
The person that speaks first in a meeting has a disproportionate impact on the shape of the rest of the meeting. This herd mentality is deeply ingrained in us, and we find it much easier to follow than to engage critically and challenge.
Unfortunately, this allows extroverts to take the floor early and dominate the discourse after that. I have seen a lot of meetings sidetracked by this approach, and it is rarely conducive to the productive use of everyone’s time.
Returning to point one on our list, we can once more see the importance of asking people to record their opinions before the meeting.
Even if one person tries to take over, this provides a handy reminder of everyone’s thoughts coming into the room. If opinions have changed dramatically, the facilitator can assess the factors that have led to such a sea change.
8. Facilitate with Purpose
A skilled facilitator is often the difference between a successful meeting and another pointless get-together.
As Alexander Kjerulf, the author of “Happy Hour is 9 to 5”, puts it:
The purpose of meetings is not to talk–the purpose of meetings is to arrive at ideas, solutions, plans and decisions.
This can mean interrupting people who take the conversation down a cul-de-sac to get things back on track.
It can even mean incorporating time for silent thought within the meeting if that’s what it takes to gain new perspectives.
We often spend so much time talking that we forget to think. It takes confidence in the overall purpose of the meeting to bring these elements into the room.
9. Bring Questions
It can be helpful to ask everyone to prepare a few questions for the meeting. Again, this encourages engagement and it is also something the facilitator should consider.
For example, you can go round the room and ask why everyone thinks the meeting is taking place. It is surprising (or perhaps not) just how often people will say, “I’m not actually sure.”
Hopefully, with the above tips in mind, this will not be the case, but it is interesting to note the differences in the responses you receive.
It is equally important to ask what would make the meeting a success for everyone. This helps create a useful structure to proceedings, as you can return to these points at the meeting’s close to see if they have been satisfied.
10. Write Notes by Hand
A study of the note-taking habits of students found that those taking notes by hand had a much greater level of conceptual recall than those who took notes on a laptop.
For most meetings, this is a pretty important factor to consider. It should also help decide who takes the notes, as this person will gain deeper insight into the topic through the process of noting its details.
Just another reason to ban laptops from the meeting room.
11. Follow Up Promptly
Those hand-written notes should be typed up and shared within 24 hours, but that is rarely enough to encourage ongoing collaboration.
Organize any follow-up sessions soon after the meeting and make clear what the action points have been, along with the parties responsible for completing them.
Straight after a constructive meeting, there is a short window of time when everyone has focus on the topic and wants to take it forward.
Capitalize on this by arranging some working groups to follow through on the agreed activities and use a project management tool to keep everyone up to date with progress.
There are no shortcuts to creating a new working culture, but we can at least work to introduce more productive behaviors
By following these 11 tips, you can arrive at shorter, more effective meetings that actually have a purpose.
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Screenshot taken by Clark Boyd, April 2018