A meeting is often described as “an event at which minutes are kept and hours are lost”, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
According to recent research in Management Today, office workers spend 16 hours a week in meetings and reckon around a quarter of their time is totally wasted.
Do the maths and you’ll see you can easily waste an entire year in meetings during your career.
Run your meetings ineffectively and you are wasting a year for every one of your direct reports. Depending on the size of your team, that could be 15, 20, 25 years or more down the plughole.
In this fourth blog in a series on the essential skills of employee engagement for leaders and managers, I offer some practical tips to make your meetings productive and help you become famous for running great meetings.
1. Be clear about your purpose
First things first. Do you really need to hold a meeting? Would a phone call do? A chat in the corridor? Even an email?
If you do decide a meeting is the way forward – and by doing so fulfil a basic human need to meet – be clear about the purpose. Are you trying to solve a problem, provide an update, make a decision or build a team?
With a clear purpose in mind, you can now create your agenda. But before you do, be sure to start with a vital line at the very top: “The purpose of this meeting is X…” That will focus your mind as you design the agenda – and the minds of those you invite.
Then get your agenda out four to five days ahead of the meeting. That way participants (I use that word deliberately – I presume you’ll want people to actively participate as opposed to merely attending) can plan their contributions. I’ve seen many a meeting room with a sign on the door that can be set to “vacant” or “engaged”. On entering the room, I often wonder if it’s actually a commentary on those in the meeting.
Be super wary of ‘rolling’ and ‘standing’ meetings – they’re often the prime suspects in ‘the case of the murderous waste of time.’ And AOB is often the ‘blunt instrument’ tacked on the end of a meeting. Just as participants were thinking of leaving, you bring up a potentially controversial topic, but there is no time to do it justice. If the AOB is important, surely it should be an agenda item in its own right?
Indeed, important topics should appear towards the beginning of any agenda to take advantage of the natural energy early on in a meeting – and to make sure it gets sufficient airtime.
2. Think carefully about who should attend
Who should come to your meeting? Research by Harvard Business Review suggests that four to seven people is optimal.
But it can’t be just anyone. Invite people who can genuinely contribute to or benefit from the meeting.
And think about the styles and needs of participants. That will impact the way you do things. Detail people might appreciate pre-read materials. Quiet people could need time to reflect before giving a view. Loud, domineering types will probably need to be managed with care.
3. Create a conducive environment
The purpose of your meeting should influence the space you use and how you lay it out. Dark windowless rooms lead to dark windowless thoughts. No point running a brainstorming meeting in there then!
Make the table layout work. A boardroom table drives formal boardroom style behaviour – and people nearer the chairperson are perceived to be more important. Is that want you want?
You might even think about a seating plan. We all pay attention to who sits where at an informal dinner party – and yet for a mission-critical business meeting we happily allow ‘free’ seating. Opposites do not attract in meetings – people with opposing views should never be sat opposite one another as it encourages them to be antagonistic. Instead, try sitting them next to each other.
And work out where you should sit. As the leader of the meeting, can you ‘drive’ it from that position?
I realise that meeting room space is often at a premium and you cannot always pick and choose. But you can always tidy up the room you have got; cluttered rooms can hamper clear thinking and communication.
4. Agree rules of engagement
Start your meetings on time. One person, whose late arrival delays the start time by 15 minutes, wastes 1.5 man-hours of the other six participants who were on time.
Set out and agree your ‘rules of engagement’ as the meeting begins. For me, that always means phones on silent and invisible. You want everyone fully present and in your meeting, not on their email or texts.
If tablets are on, check they’re for note taking not for a sneaky bit of cyber working. The reason people need to check their email during meetings is because they are always in meetings, with no time set aside to actually do the work or complete the actions from the last meeting!
5. Assign roles – including Yoda!
Be clear about who is taking what role. The leader does not have to be note-taker, nor even timekeeper.
You might get someone to do the job of asking the awkward questions – pointing out the elephant in the room, the topic on everyone’s lips that no one ever mentions. This is sometimes referred to as the Yoda role: “Speak the unspoken. I will…”
According to Keith Ferrazzi, author of Who’s Got Your Back, candour in a meeting is a very reliable predictor of an organisation’s success. Organisations that don’t encourage challenge in meetings perform worse.
6. Drive dialogue
Set aside meeting time for facilitated discussion.
You don’t want the loudmouth to dominate and block the input of more reflective characters, so consider breaking the group into small teams (possibly as small as 2s and 3s) and give them time to discuss issues before a spokesperson shares their team’s view with the wider group.
After an inclusive discussion, be sure to summarise and check for consensus or understanding before moving to the next topic.
7. Follow up
Whether you meet virtually or face to face, follow up is key if your meeting is to achieve its potential. Do it within 48 hours, copying all participants and outlining actions, owners and dates.
You might even consider calling out late arrivers and early leavers – it sometimes stops persistent offenders!
8. AOB!? Remember the special considerations for virtual meetings
Of course, these days many of us need to run our meetings via telephone and video conference or using web-meeting platforms. Everything I’ve said so far still applies to virtual meetings. But there are some specific techniques and considerations that can make all the difference between a clunky, unsatisfying virtual meeting and one that is just as good as face-to-face.
The author Dave Barry said: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”
I don’t want that, or the lost years, on my conscience. Nor I suspect do you. Time to become famous for running great meeting then…
Putting these tips – and others – into action is the subject of Axiom’s workshop on running great meetings that we have delivered in a wide range of organisations. Get in touch if you think your leaders and managers would benefit.