Do you ever recall a time during childhood when you thought, “I can’t wait to grow up and attend meetings for the rest of my life?” I know I didn’t have those thoughts as a kid, but the reality is that meetings are the necessary “evil” of business. Getting stuff done usually involves communication and planning, which leads to the need for meetings. Unfortunately, many organizations hold ineffective and often demoralizing meetings. The following are a collection of best practices to host better meetings based on years of attending and leading meetings.
No Agenda, No Attend-a
Often meeting invites are sent out via email with only a simple title to indicate the reason for the meeting. It’s common to see titles like “Production Meeting” or “Business Development Review” that only give a hint to the meeting’s meaning. I instituted a “No Agenda, No Attend-a” rule at my last company knowing that most meetings without an agenda are likely a waste of everyone’s time. Consider the cost of having a large group of teammates attend an hour meeting. Doesn’t it make sense to have a plan going into the meeting instead of making it up on the fly? Hence the requirement that all meetings have agendas, including the clearly defined items:
- Attendees – An attendee list with company name and titles when appropriate.
- Date & Time – A clear start and end time with the date.
- Location – The location with an address or physical room when appropriate, and any necessary video/conference call information.
- Meeting Objectives – What needs to be decided or accomplished by the end of the meeting? List all of the objectives as questions to be answered in the meeting. For example, “Should offer expedited shipping as an option for international customers?”
- Agenda – A list of specific items to be covered and who is presenting each section.
Many of the companies I consult keep a master meeting planner that includes all recurring meetings with agendas in a single document. This makes it easy to see overlapping or unnecessary meetings. I also find that adding items to an agenda is the easiest way to ensure they get covered consistently. For example, if you just rolled out a new employee survey tool, find the meeting where the results of the survey should be reviewed and add it to the agenda. And always include the agenda in the calendar invite.
Meet in Small Teams
The research on effective teams indicates that the ideal team size is 4-5 people. Going back to the Greek armies, the base unit for the military has been and remains 4-5 soldiers. Considering a soldier’s life is on the line during battle, the military knows that 4-5 is the right number for an effective team. Not only are smaller teams more effective, but I believe meetings with more than 10 people will likely need a facilitator to make it an effective meeting. It’s common to include more people in meetings to just keep everyone aligned – otherwise known as CYA. Make sure you’re not including people in the meeting just so you can say, “You had a chance to contribute…” If it takes a lot of people to make a decision, you likely have a deeper accountability issue with your organizational chart.
Cut the Time in Half
If you think your meeting will require 60 minutes, consider how you could make it a 30-minute meeting. If the meeting contains a lot of “updates” or reports, consider sending them out in advance for the team to review on their own schedule. This step allows attendees to be better prepared for meetings. What was a lengthy “update” becomes a quick question, “Does anyone have any questions or comments about the efficiency report that you received yesterday?” Other ways to shorten meetings is to have everyone prepare their contributions ahead of time in writing. Several applications allow you to capture these notes in a common location. Not only does it ensure that everyone comes prepared, but it also creates a written journal of the meeting.
Use a Scribe and a Timekeeper
At the beginning of every meeting assign a Scribe and a Timekeeper. The Scribe is responsible for capturing and distributing any action items captured during the meeting. Ineffective meetings typically include a lot of commitments (e.g. “I’ll follow up with the vendor to get lower pricing…”) that are never captured, and subsequently never completed. I recommend the Who What When (WWW) sheet from Scaling Up to capture action items. The Scribe may also capture any important notes or visuals from the meeting that can shared with non-attendees. The Timekeeper has one task, to keep everyone on schedule.
Leverage Parking Lots
Use Parking Lots to capture topics that are not contributing to accomplishing the meeting objectives. Occasionally topics come up that sparks a lengthy debate and long conversations that derail the meeting. The leader or Timekeeper should recognize that the rogue topic and move it to a “Parking Lot.” If the meeting ends early, the group can tackle the Parking Lot items. Or, these topics can be addressed in a separate meeting. It’s a great tool to bring focus back to what matters.
Ban Technology (…most of the time)
This might be the most important recommendation – ban technology from meetings. Not only is it rude to check emails or text messages during meetings, but research indicates that just having your phone in the room (even face down and in airplane mode), reduces your cognitive ability and those around you! The only technology exception should be laptops for giving presentations or capturing notes. But even those technology users should quit out of any email or instant messaging apps during the meeting. The more fully present all attendees can be in the meeting, the more effective the meeting will be for everyone. One good use of technology is leveraging a video conference calls for meetings with remote attendees. Participants that are on a video call are more likely to be fully present in the meeting compared to those that just connect with audio-only.
Rate Your Meetings
Finish all meetings by asking all participants to rate the meeting on a scale of 0 to 10 (terrible to outstanding.) Have them write the rating down on a piece of paper and then below the rating, ask them for one suggestion on how you could improve the meeting moving forward. Review everyone’s rating and suggestions as a group. This provides instant feedback and a continuous feedback loop to make your meetings more effective.
All organizations require a regular and consistent rhythm of meetings. (You can download my recommended list of regular meetings at www.petracoach.com.) But having well-designed and run meetings contributes to a healthy environment that leads to big payoffs in terms of high moral and team effectiveness.
Probably in a meeting right now, Rob Simons is a business coach at Simons.Coach – a Texas-based company that helps organizations build a culture of purpose, alignment, and accountability by implementing the Rockefeller Habits. Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 210-845-2782.