Maximize your team’s time with a focus on being purposeful and productive
If you’re like most people, your calendar is filled with meetings. Despite their reputation for being a major time-suck, meetings are an essential part of our daily work life — and the effectiveness of yours can often determine how successful your organization will be. Poorly conducted meetings will negatively affect your team’s performance and morale, and they can be very costly as well. Well-run meetings can leave you and your team feeling energized with a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment.
The good news is, there are proven best practices for planning and running highly effective meetings — where everyone is prepared, engaged, focused, and left with that sense of accomplishment and purpose. Over my 25 years of experience leading teams of all shapes and sizes, I’ve picked up some best practices along the way that I’d like to share with you.
- Determine if the meeting is actually necessary. Before setting up a meeting, ask yourself if it’s really needed. Assess the meeting cost in staff hours against the anticipated value the meeting may add. Avoid meeting if the same information could be covered in an e-mail or brief report, or you don’t have enough information to meet. It’s okay to cancel a standing meeting if you don’t have a compelling reason to bring people together.
- Have a clear purpose and objective for the meeting. Remember, an effective meeting must serve a purpose. Ask yourself why you’re having a meeting. If the reason is compelling, determine the objectives or outcomes you’re looking the achieve. This could be a decision, a list of ideas, an agreement, or a plan. The more concrete your objectives, the more focused your meeting will be.
- Choose invitees wisely. Take time to think about who really needs to be there. If you’re trying to solve a problem, only invite people who have the skills, knowledge, and authority to be of value. If you’re announcing a change, invite the people who are directly affected by it. If people feel what’s being discussed isn’t relevant to them, or they lack the skills or expertise to be of assistance, they’ll view their attendance as a huge waste of time.
- Have an agenda. Your agenda should include a one-sentence description of the meeting’s purpose and objectives, a list of the topics to be covered, and who will address each topic. To help keep everything (and everyone) on track, assign time blocks to each topic. There is no ideal length for a meeting; it depends on the purpose. Think of what overall outcome you want from the meeting and what activities need to occur to reach that outcome. Next to each major topic, include the type of action needed, the type of output expected, e.g., Decision, Action Plan, Vote, Awareness, List, etc. Consider the following when planning your agenda:
- Priorities: What absolutely must be covered?
- Outcomes: What needs to be accomplished?
- Participants: Who needs to attend based on the topics?
- Sequence: In what order will you cover the topics?
- Timing: How much time will be spent on each topic?
- Time and Place: When and where will it take place?
I recommend sending out a draft agenda to your meeting participants to get their feedback and adjust accordingly.
- Distribute the final agenda with participants ahead of time. Ideally, include it with the meeting invitation. This way, participants will have time to familiarize themselves with the discussion topics, prepare any information that will be needed, or ask you questions before the meeting. Also, this provides them with the chance to add or suggest topics if something’s missing. Consider the following when sending out the final agenda:
- Specify how participants should prepare for the meeting.
- Publish any supporting information early so it can be reviewed ahead of time.
- Send out meeting reminders. Everyone is busy, and calendars quickly become filled up. Send out a reminder at least two days before the meeting.
- Always start and end on time. Begin your meeting at the scheduled start time, no exception — barring a natural disaster or other emergencies. I can’t stress this enough. You do not want to penalize folks who arrived on time by making them wait for the meeting to start. When you begin at the appointed time, stragglers will quickly get the message they are arriving late — and they should only make that mistake once.
- Establish ground rules. We’ve all been in meetings where things seemed to get out of control. If you want your meeting to be effective, you need ground rules — and you need agreement from each participant about how to use them. Ground rules are used to set an agreed-upon set of standards and behaviors that will guide how the participants will interact with one another. You don’t need to develop new ground rules each time you have a meeting, however, it pays to have a few basic ground rules that can be used for most of your meetings. Here are some sample ground rules I use in all my meetings:
- Humor is welcome, but not at anyone’s expense.
- Everyone speaks — to get all the issues and ideas on the table.
- Respect the speaker — one conversation at a time.
- Use the issues list — to table those that are off-topic.
- Avoid sidebar discussions — to keep the conversation relevant.
- Question first — to get all the facts before disagreeing.
List your primary ground rules on the agenda and keep the ground rules posted at all times.
- Assign roles for the meeting. Determine who will take minutes, who will keep track of time, and who will take notes. When each person is assigned a job, meetings are more focused and productive.
- Take meeting minutes. Your meeting has a purpose, and what is done to achieve that goal needs to be recorded. Document decisions made and who is going to do what. Recap the results of the meeting before adjourning. Few meetings warrant lengthy minutes (and the time spent producing them), but I recommend teams keep a record of any critical decisions made, along with an Action Log.
- Keep the meeting on track. Don’t lose sight of what it is supposed to achieve. Have a watch or clock in your line of sight and keep the meeting moving forward when the time for each topic is consumed. Having ground rules for your meeting, as previously mentioned, will help keep everyone on track and focused on the topics at hand.
- Ensure all participants are heard and engaged. If you pick your attendees correctly, everyone will get something of value and give something of value during the meeting — making the time not only well-spent but engaging. Ask the group for ideas and opinions; don’t just talk at them and make it all about you. Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable airing ideas or opinions in a group, so solicit feedback from the group rather than individuals. And in the end, get a commitment to actions assigned to owners as well as agreement on deadlines for completion. Here are tips for handling any problem participants:
- The disinterested: Ask them a direct question.
- The topic hijacker: Appeal to the agenda and insist on staying to it.
- The chatterbox: Appeal to the clock and staying on schedule.
- Recap and share the next steps. Quickly recap the meeting by listing achievements and outcomes. Make sure you have buy-in and commitment from the participants on assignments and next steps. Thank the participants for their contributions. If needed, decide on the date and time of the next meeting.
- End the meeting with a Plus/Delta. If your team meets regularly, ask two questions to ensure continuous improvement: (Plus) What did we do well? (Delta) What do we want to do differently for the next meeting?
- Follow up with a written meeting debrief. Your debriefs should be sent to participants within 24 hours of the meeting and include a summary of the discussion points, decisions made, next steps, and topics earmarked for future discussions. For the next steps, make sure you include the responsible person for each action item as well as the agreed-upon deadline.
I hope you find these tips helpful in planning and leading your next meeting. If you find your meeting needs a neutral third-party facilitator, check our Meeting & Retreat Facilitation services.