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Every year I consider how to make better use of my time and make one 'efficiency' resolution. I often come back to the same thing... I waste hours and hours in meetings that have little or no value.

So here is my guide to making meetings more effective. I wrote it a few years ago and sadly, in many companies I work with, it is still one of the top moans from the employees.

Step 1 - Do we need this meeting?

  • Don't waste everyone's time by using a meeting just for presenting information. There are many effective methods for one way communication and these are getting better all the time with new technology. Only arrange (or attend) a meeting if there is a clear requirement for two way communication that helps achieve a defined outcome.
  • Don't hold a recurring meeting just because it has been scheduled. Booking meetings on a regular date in advance can be good practice for diary management. However, if each occurrence doesn't satisfy the question "is there a clear need for two way communication to achieve a defined outcome", then cancel it. Similarly, if not everyone is required to contribute to the outcome, then remove them from the attendee list (there is no place for politics and egos in efficient meeting management).
  • Occasionally it may be a useful exercise to do a financial justification for large meetings. Add up the cost of the location, materials, time, refreshments and consider whether the outcome justifies the expense. Often, there are more efficient ways of achieving the outcome e.g. a smaller meeting with the key contributors or a series of individual meetings followed by a briefing of the outcome to stakeholders.
  • Be ruthless about challenging the attendees value to the meeting. If people are only in the meeting to receive information or hear the outcome then they shouldn't be there. You may find there are not enough people left to warrant the meeting.

Step 2 - Are we prepared?

  • Having satisfied themselves that a meeting is of value, the arranger owes it to the participants to make it as efficient as possible. This starts with an invitation that must have a clear definition of the desired outcome and the invitees' individual contribution. Without this the invitee is likely to decline the meeting or, even worse, accept and then not turn up (potentially making the meeting a waste of everyone's time because of the loss of a key contributor).
  • Meeting materials should be sent out in advance, giving enough time for attendees to read in advance. It should be made clear that pre-reading (if appropriate) is a pre-requisite for attendance. It is very annoying, and time wasting, to have to bring one individual up to speed when all the other attendees have taken the time to digest the material. The more information that is given outside the meting, the more efficient the meeting will be. Keep reading material to a minimum and only include information that is required to achieve the meeting outcome (this is not an opportunity to show how much work you have done or sneak in a lot of other material that is irrelevant to the meeting - it is unlikely to result in the key information getting missed or diluted).
  • Every agenda item should clearly state the desired outcome and the input required. This will help focus attendees on their individual contribution and preparation. Make the duration of each item long enough to debate the issues and achieve the outcome and short enough to keep it focussed. Allow for some contingency, but aim to complete early.
  • Only invite key contributors to achieve one or more outcomes. If an individual is only contributing to one of many agenda items then only invite them for that item. Smaller meetings are more productive and more effective.
  • Hold meetings in the appropriate space for the required style. A governance board will require a different space and a different set of materials to an idea generation meeting. Whether it be environmental or technology equipment, always make sure everything works in advance. It amazes me how much time is lost looking for extra chairs or trying to get the presentation equipment working. This not only loses valuable time but puts everyone in a negative mindset before the meeting has even started.

Step 3 - Manage the agenda

  •  As well as an overall meeting chairperson there is likely to be a different person who chairs an individual agenda item. This person should ensure that the desired outcome is introduced and the issue summarised (everyone should have read the pre-meeting material).
  • Avoid the tendency to get drawn into discussion that doesn't contribute to the outcome. If there are important issues being raised then document them so that the contributor doesn't get frustrated and 'check out'. If time permits, some of the issues may be revisited for further discussion or action.
  • Document contributions to the outcome as they arise and at the end of the debate, ensure each item has been addressed. This could be a resolution, an action, or a risk to follow up later. This recording of key issues in the debate is the forming of the post-meeting documentation. It is important to agree the decisions and actions with the group as they arise, so there isn't a big debate at the end of the item or, even worse, after the meeting. Allow for time in the agenda item to summarise decisions and actions.

Step 4 - Manage the people

  • Perhaps the most challenging part of chairing a meeting or an agenda item is facilitation of the attendees. Disruptive meeting behaviours include multiple conversations, digression, repetition, over-talking, not listening... all of which need monitoring and an appropriate response.
  • Prevention is better than reaction when it comes to facilitation. The chair should monitor all the contributions and act accordingly. For example, where someone is quiet the chair may bring them into the discussion with a question (before they start doing emails). If someone is continually digressing in an attempt to lead the debate to an irrelevant topic then acknowledge the issue and document it before announcing it as 'parked'. For the experienced chair, the facilitation becomes intuitive. For many of us, it is often worth trying to predict the behaviours and be prepared with a proactive response.
  • Agree roles for each item in advance. For example, if there is someone presenting and facilitating debate, they may not be able to manage the time effectively. Similarly, it is worth having a scribe to assist the chair so facilitation doesn't get diluted with summarising and documenting. The chair needs to do everything possible to keep the attendees interested, valued and contributing towards an agreed outcome.
  • Prepare something to energise the group. I don't mean a long group exercise but something short to set the tone for the meeting. Many presentations start with a joke in order to relax and engage the audience. The first 30 seconds is important to grab the attention with something interesting or fun.

Step 5 - Did we achieve the outcome?

  • So often a meeting ends and many of the attendees have a different view of the outcome. Decisions are challenged after the meeting and actions come as a surprise. The best documentation in the world is of no value if the attendees don't recognise its content. Agenda item summaries and a meeting summary are critical to the success of a meeting.
  • The agenda item summary is a recap of the objective, key issues from the debate, and the outcome conclusion. If this includes decisions and actions then they should be agreed with the group and the individual (avoiding opening up the debate again). Add a timescale and the follow-up approach if these got missed earlier. As much as this is good practice, the amount of time spent on it should depend on the clarity achieved in the debate. It is quite frustrating to repeat something in detail that has been clearly agreed by everyone earlier. Conversely, if there is a concern that not everyone is bought in to a decision or action then this is the time to put it to bed.
  • The meeting summary should be quick because the individual items have been concluded. It is a good idea to revisit the overall desired outcome presented at the start of the meeting and summaries the conclusion.
  • If there is time and there is perceived value, then a quick meeting review may be worthwhile. Feedback could be solicited either on an individual (round the table) basis or open invitation. This is valuable for the chair in both a successful outcome or unsuccessful one, to either extract learning points or to reinforce good behaviour.
  • Finally, a thank you to the attendees and a reminder of any follow up activity. Commit to dates when the meeting documentation will be available (24 hours is good) and agree onward briefing to other stakeholders.

If more people adopt these practices,  we will get more time back for more productive activities and meetings will no longer be a source of corporate moaning.