How to Make Meetings Matter


Meetings: the bane of all self-confessed “busy people”. Unending exercises in monotony, sucking up precious time that could be better spent fixing bugs, designing applications, polishing pitches, writing reports – anything that involves actually working rather than sitting in a room (or on a call) staring into space.

Considering how badly most meetings are run these days, it’s no surprise to learn that the age-old practice of getting a group of people together for a common goal has become such a contemptible and dreaded activity.

But long before the likes of before email, IM, video conferencing, Google Wave and SharePoint, meetings were pretty much all we had when it came to collaborating in an open environment. Whether it was the shared intention of agreeing on a solution, imparting some knowledge or just catching up with the progress of a project – you needed a meeting. Now that we have all settled comfortably into our inter-connected worlds, more and more people view meetings as atavistic hindrances; superfluous and futile time-pits in which we waste our days and sanity when there’s work to be done, darn it!

Long before the likes of email, IM, video conferencing and SharePoint, meetings were pretty much all we had when it came to collaborating in an open environment

The fact is: meetings are still as relevant and conducive to a successful and productive working environment today as they were back when they were in vogue (and the only option). If done right of course. Conducted incorrectly, however, meetings are not only acutely annoying, they’re downright wasteful and counter-productive; the antithesis of working in an awesome fashion.

Done wrong, meetings are not only acutely annoying, they’re downright wasteful and counter-productive.

The next time you call a meeting — be it a face-to-face chinwag in the office boardroom or a group call with geographically dispersed team members — consider the following:

Audience

Meetings should consist of either people who are contributing to the meeting or those who need to receive the information first-hand.

One of the most important aspects of running a successful meeting is ensuring that the correct people attend. There is a natural tendency these days to invite everyone and their dog to meetings; a clear sign of the “Well, the more we invite, the more chance we have of solving the problem” attitude. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Meetings should consist of either people who will contribute to the meeting or those who need to receive the information first-hand. When considering who you want to join your meetings, keep the following in mind:

  1. Can someone else already invited to this meeting cover this person’s input? “Doubling up” meeting attendance is one of the biggest causes of meeting wastage.
  2. Why am I inviting this person to the meeting? Is it because I need their input regarding the agenda, or is it just because I want them to know what was said? If it’s the latter, consider simply forwarding on the meeting minutes to this person.
  3. Can someone join the start of this meeting and then leave early? Don’t be afraid of inviting someone to a meeting and informing the audience that this person will not be attending its entire duration. “We’re going to talk about the finance report first with Matt. He is then going to drop off while we continue on with the sales figures.” Matt doesn’t need to hear about the sales figures and he’ll thank you for dismissing him politely from the meeting after he has finished with his contribution. Meetings should be dynamic. Those who start the meeting need not necessarily be those who finish it.

Resist the urge to start meetings before all the people who are required to attend are actually present.

Punctuality

To have a worthwhile and productive meeting, starting and finishing on time is essential. Every company has that one person who always turns up late or arrives on time only to duck back out again for a coffee.

Meetings start at the time scheduled without fail. Someone else’s tardiness is frustrating and disrespectful to those that have put aside the time to make the meeting on time. Make it clear that it’s not acceptable for people to be late. Mention it in the meeting invite. Mention it again (privately) to people who turn up late when the meeting has ended. A culture of turning up late will soon dissipate when people consistently find that meetings are in full flow when they arrive late. If a key stakeholder has not shown at the start of the meeting it is less disruptive to quickly abandon the meeting and reschedule rather than wait. There is no hard and fast rule as to at what time a meeting should be canceled. Use your best judgment. Sitting in a room waiting ten minutes for someone to turn up is probably the maximum in most people’s books.

Meetings start at the time scheduled without fail.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is equally essential that a meeting finishes when you said it was going to end. There is a temptation to keep a meeting going if the core aspects of the agenda have not been covered. This is probably due to poor agenda management or lackadaisical time-keeping. Regardless, respect the fact that people attending your meeting may have other meetings to attend, and maybe right after your meeting was scheduled to end. If you haven’t covered what was required in the time allotted, schedule a follow-up meeting. Holding people in a room (or on a call) past when you said they’d be there is unlikely to result in the attendees contributing in a productive and open manner.

Minutes

All meetings – no matter how small – should have minutes. Minutes should be kept by the meeting organizer and should clearly outline:

  1. Who attended
  2. A brief summary of the agenda
  3. Time, date and location of the meeting
  4. Actions and — most importantly — agreed times or dates for these actions to be completed.

Minutes should be sent as soon as possible after the meeting has ended

Meetings without minutes are merely informal chats likely to be questioned later. It’s common for misinterpretations to happen in business meetings but good minutes can dispel such ambiguities. Minutes allow people to speak up and later say: “That’s not how I remember what was discussed in the meeting.” Minutes remove certain degrees of uncertainty while also having the handy trait of ratifying the meeting in question. You don’t agree that a certain point was what was said in the last meeting? Well, it’s in the minutes …

It’s everyone’s responsibility to read minutes of a meeting they attended to see if any action items have been assigned to the person in question or if any other details are incorrect.

Finally, minutes should be sent as soon as possible after the meeting has ended. Sending out minutes the next day diminishes the impact of the meeting while also reducing the time people have for completing any actions assigned.

Agenda & the Types of Meetings

A meeting agenda clearly outlines the meeting’s objective(s) and topics of discussion. It’s handy to have agenda points in chronological order as it promotes a natural flow to the meeting.

Most meetings fall in the Past, Present and Future categories.

Meetings come in all shapes and sizes. There is the weekly team meeting which is more a social get together and usually doesn’t adhere to the majority of the normal meeting tenets. Apart from this isolated case, however, most meetings fall in the Past, Present and Future categories.

Past: Meetings that fall in this category include yearly reviews, project close off meetings, sales figures analysis, post mortems, etc. The key here is that you are meeting to review and possibly close off some business. The agenda for meetings of this kind usually involves the analysis of statistics, the closing off of issues or open items and/or filing some aspect of the business away. Archiving code or submitting financial reports are common action items for meetings of this type.

Present type meetings, despite occurring regularly for ongoing business ventures, are rarely the same from week to week.

Present: Meetings that fall into the present category include catch-up meetings for an ongoing project/venture. The agenda here should focus on gauging where the venture is against projections previously agreed upon. Ongoing issues should be raised with actions assigned to the relevant people. Open bug reports (if you work in a software company), ongoing market analysis (if you work in a financial institution) or any such activities that change on a weekly (or even daily) basis feature prominently in such meetings. The agenda for these meetings usually reflect short-term analysis and associative short-term decision making. These meetings are usually quite fluid and flexible. Present type meetings, despite occurring regularly for ongoing business ventures, are rarely the same from week to week.

A meeting without an agenda is like a traveler without a map. You might get there in the end, just expect to get lost somewhere along the way.

Future: Designing a new application. Discussing possible new business. Decisions on resourcing and company direction. Such meetings make up the Future category. The key attribute here is forward-thinking and openness. Accordingly, meetings of this nature are usually looser by nature in terms of the agenda than the other types. That said, these meetings still require an agenda. Agreeing to meet in a room with the curt agenda of “Discussing a new project” will likely involve a large amount of rambling and a short amount of progress. Consider an agenda such as:

  1. Introduce possible new project.
  2. Discuss possible difficulties and challenges of said project.
  3. Outline revenue projections if project was launched/completed in X time.
  4. Possible teams, impact on other projects, timelines, milestones.

You at least have a formulated plan. A meeting without an agenda is like a traveler without a map. You might get there in the end, just expect to get lost somewhere along the way.

Meetings should be interactive and lively with all members participating.

Treat Meetings Like Battle-Plans

It might sound a tad silly, but successful meetings are a lot like planning a war. Consider a General going into battle with his field officers. The General invites the right people to the meeting (audience), everyone turns up on time (punctuality), the General lays out the objectives of the battle (agenda), while a clerk documents what was agreed (minutes).

Meetings should be interactive and lively with all members participating. Remember to keep meetings free from external distractions (so close the door), and though some meetings might possibly be catered, there’s no harm in stocking the room with some glasses and a jug of water anyway. It says: “I want you to talk. I want you to contribute. And I want you to feel free to have a glass of water so you don’t duck out and get one during the meeting.”

Meetings have a bad reputation of being boring and monumental wastes of time. They needn’t be. Involve your audience by sending around the agenda in advance and inform each person where their input is expected. After all, it’s only fair that they have had as much time to come prepared as you have. Most importantly, clearly inform everyone what the outcome of this particular meeting looks like. Tell them in clear language, such as: “When this meeting is over I would like us to have agreed the milestones for phase 2.”

Meetings are necessary, and make no mistake about it, they are never going away. Make the most out of your meetings. Invariably, the more you put into them, the more you will get out. Never treat a meeting as the perfect excuse to pad your timesheet. Meetings are important and running them well is paramount if you want to have an awesome work-day. Make your meetings matter again.


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Discussion

  1. Damo on the 1st November

    Thanks for this enlightening post on meetings Lee.

    There are some really relevant points within this email and I couldn’t agree more that an unplanned meeting is the biggest time-waster within a business – taking out 3-4 people for only one hour equals 4 hours of billable time… and if each member is worth $200-300 per hour, than this becomes a costly exercise if nothing is achieved.

    Conversely, if the meeting is well planned and the right people attend, great leaps can be achieved in productivity for a project. However I have a question:

    Doe you have any recommendations/strategies for recording and implementing the good work from a productive meeting?

    I believe this is the crucial next step to a successful meeting…

  2. Roberto on the 12th January

    For me a good meeting is when everyone comes in prepared. Go straight to the point, and get out of there.

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