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BirdsEye View

best practices in leading meetings

 Most managers spend more and more of their time in meetings, instead of with their team or their customers (both internal and external.)  As a result, managers become less effective, because they have the most impact when they spend most of their time with other people.

Folks talk much about the calendar frustration – having their time gobbled up by meetings that are ineffective and non-productive.  This article focuses on making your meetings more productive and less time consuming.  It’s a simple process, but it does require discipline.  Being organized about your meetings and intentional about their content and outcomes will make a significant difference in their duration and effectiveness.  

PRE-MEETING

  1. Define the purpose of the meeting.  Is this an information-sharing session?  Are decisions going to be made?  Be clear about the meeting’s definition of success.  What will make you say at the conclusion of the session: we did what we came together to accomplish?

  2. Consider invitee list.  The list of participants will be determined by the goal of the meeting.  Remember – decision effectiveness is often inversely related to the number of people on the room once you breach the double digits.  Make sure you invite those who need to be at the meeting, not those who want to be there.

  3. Build a realistic agenda.  All too often the meeting duration doesn’t match the agenda, which is either too long (we will need more time) or too short (we will make use of all the time we have, but not efficiently).  The agenda should be tight and focused.  It will define the boundaries of the meeting.  You should use the agenda both as grounds for meeting pre-work as well as exclusion of meandering conversations that veer off-topic.

  4. Give participants an opportunity to comment on the agenda.  Providing the agenda at least 3 days in advance of the meeting will allow participants to prepare, make suggestions regarding agenda items and participants, and make other pertinent suggestions for the meeting.

  5. Define the meeting duration in advance. Most meetings have duration attached to them, but it is often not respected.  Use this statement to make absolutely sure the meeting doesn’t go over, even if the meeting objective hasn’t been reached.  It’s important to be respectful of people’s time, and they will quickly learn the value of time management during meetings.

DURING THE MEETING

  1. Follow the agenda.  A typical digression occurs when sales meetings deteriorate into complaint sessions about operational issues.  Nip such digressions in the bud.  They are not on the agenda and are not relevant to the focus on THIS meeting.  Use the agenda to focus participants’ attention on the topic at hand and on achieving the desired outcome for the meeting.

  2. Manage time.  Be aware of time at all times.  Raise your antennae toward any meandering, repetitions, and digressions that are not consistent with the meeting objective.  Be sensitive to people’s needs but continue to point out that their issue, while important, needs to be handled at a different session.  This is a difficult thing to do.  A personal example I experience from time to time as the chair of a few board-level committees is discussions during executive sessions.  Those sessions are designed to handle sensitive issues where management’s presence might inhibit conversation.  In reality they often meander toward other topics that might be interesting but do not require management’s exclusion.  It is my job as the meeting leader to stop the conversation and refocus the room.  It can be awkward but it’s an integral part of meeting management.

  3. Find a spot for topics outside the agenda.  Although keeping meeting participants on task is key, it’s important to note pain points and other relevant topics; ignoring these issues entirely is not productive and will end up quashing conversation in the future.  Instead, document such topics on a parking lot for future discussion at more appropriate meetings.

  4. Answer questions and address concerns.  Interaction makes meetings better and more engaging.  Encourage it.  Answer questions as appropriate, and acknowledge when you don’t have the answer.  Make it a point to address such questions later on after more research.

  5. Facilitate discussion and redirect when necessary.  Being the meeting leader is tough.  You must be engaged at all times.  Draw people out, have them share their information and opinions without reprimand, and ensure all voices are heard.  Speak last, not first.  If you take a position, the conversation will revolve around your opinion.

  6. Using focusing techniques.  When brainstorming, ask for ideas and prioritize to ensure unified focus around the most effective ideas as assessed by the group.  Spend time making decisions when needed, not simply information sharing.  We often find ourselves out of time when decision time rolls around, so make sure you focus attention on the decisions, not just the easier part of information-sharing.  Be mindful of the decision trap – requiring more information.  While this is a valid concern, all too often it is aimed at putting off the decision.  Ask a simple question when folks want more information:  how will that data change their decision?  If it will not change their choice, the decision should not be delayed.
     
  7. Adjourn on time.  This is controversial, but I believe in ending on schedule.  It will make the point loud and clear and will quickly become a habit.

CLOSING THE MEETING

  1. Summarize what was shared and decided.  It is even more effective to ask others to share their summary, but it can also add some strain to the meeting.  Summary of both information and decisions made is essential.

  2. Review decisions, task assignments and timelines.  Make those crystal clear.  Use these assignments to sharpen the focus and reduce distractions.

  3. Send an email documenting #1 and #2.  Be brief.  Share highlights an outcomes as well as parking lot items and unresolved issues.

  4. Identify next steps, including subsequent meetings if necessary.  Formalize those in the email and FOLLOW UP.  One personal peeve on follow-ups:  I prefer to do so well before the agreed-upon deadline to give the appropriate parties an opportunity to succeed (i.e., to give them enough time to make the deadline even if they haven’t started yet.)  I find acknowledgement of elapsed deadlines too close to punitive conversations, as they occur beyond the point of no return – the damage has already been done and recovery within the agreed-upon timeframe isn’t possible.
     
  5. Consider limiting the percentage of your and your people’s time spent in meetings.  After all, where do we make the most difference if not in the field?

Meetings are essential, so the question is not how we can eliminate them, but how we can improve their effectiveness.  I hope some of the ideas above will help you achieve that objective.