Making Meetings More Productive
Almost everyone I talk to has a similar complaint - too many meetings or meetings that are a waste of time. How can we make meetings more productive, and how can we decide whether a meeting is even necessary? I'm glad you asked.
To begin with, many meetings are completely unnecessary. If the purpose is simply to share information with one another, such as sales reports or progress reports on projects, a few concise e-mails should take care of that. The information will go out in a uniform way and can be easily stored for future reference.
Some organizations hold meetings simply to provide some face time among employees who work at different locations, or to give employees access to senior management. Unless there's an emergency or some other really good reason, these kinds of meetings should be limited to bi-monthly or quarterly intervals.
From a financial standpoint, telephone or video conferences are much more economical over the long term than face to face meetings, especially when the participants work in different locations. The savings in travel time, mileage or travel expenses, meals, etc. are obvious and substantial. The recessionary problems around the country, the price of gasoline, and other economic issues are pushing more and more companies to invest in the hardware and software to enable virtual meetings.
The most valid reason for holding a meeting is that complex issues need to be discussed and decisions need to be made by the participants.
Once a meeting has been determined to be necessary, no matter what form it takes, it's important to make sure the meeting time is productive. Some of the steps necessary to ensure productive use of everyone's time are as follows:
- A clear, detailed agenda is an absolute must. The agenda should outline:
- The time, date and location of the meeting.
- In the case of a virtual meeting, call-in numbers, PINs and passwords should be given to all participants. Reminder e-mails should be sent at least a day in advance, and when possible, on the morning of the meeting.
- All communication should contain the purpose and objectives of the meeting.
- The agenda should indicate clearly what will be discussed and who will be responsible for each part of the discussion.
- The agenda should be distributed to all participants in advance, to enable time enough for any necessary preparation.
- The agenda should include the total time of the meeting and realistic estimates of the time necessary for each agenda item. And by the way, the number of agenda items should be kept to no more than 3 or 4. That will ensure that enough time can be given to each item within the total time allotted for the meeting.
- Meeting discussions should result in an action plan for each item on the agenda.
- A note taker should be specified, who will be responsible for recording what was discussed and any action plans developed.
- Participants should be reminded of standard ground rules for meetings in the organization - These might include:
- Being on time
- Participating actively in discussions
- Listening carefully to what is being said
- Respecting one another's contributions
- The meeting facilitator should open the meeting with a clear statement of purpose and why the meeting is important. These opening remarks should include the impact of the discussion and conclusions on the work group or the organization as a whole.
- For each agenda item, participants should seek and share information about the situation or task before them, and identify any issues or concerns. Withholding information or concerns runs the risk of contributing to groupthink or otherwise making bad decisions.
- For discussions that are complex or difficult, an outside facilitator should be considered; someone who can be more objective and willing to ask the hard questions. Using an outside facilitator also allows the nominal leader in the group to participate more fully.
- As decisions are made and action plans developed, everyone needs to know who will be responsible for each component, what are the deadlines for action and completion of tasks, how progress will be measured and reported, and what resources will be needed to achieve results.
- This information should be carefully recorded by the designated note-taker and distributed to participants as quickly as possible, ideally within 24 hours.
- This distribution should be mainly a back-up to the notes that individual participants make about their own responsibilities.
- Each agenda item should be closed with a summary of decisions made and actions to be taken.
- The meeting itself should be closed with a summary of all decisions and actions to be taken.
- If audio-visual equipment is to be used in the meeting, the facilitator or someone designated for the purpose should make sure the equipment is in place and tested. Back-up material in the form of printed handouts should be available, not only for future reference, but in case of equipment breakdown.
I'm certain that this is not an exhaustive list of what to do to ensure productive meetings, but it's a pretty good start. If you have any other ideas or suggestions, feel free to send them to me, and I'll be glad to include them in any updates to this podcast - with full credit given, of course. My contact information will be given in the closing segment. In the meantime, keep up the good work!