Making meetings effective

I have too many meetings. I know it’s a consequence of collaboration and being inclusive in the workplace. I appreciate team gatherings are great to build relationships, nurture innovation and ensure clear exchange of information. All undeniably important benefits that spur productivity overall. Why then do so many of us loathe having to attend more meetings?

I think one of the biggest impacts of having meetings block up my day is the interruption to achieving Flow state. I talked about the importance of Flow in a previous post here. It’s the fundamental key to Happiness; unlike More Meetings. We’ve all attained Flow at some time. Think back to when you were so immersed in what you were doing that you lost track of time. Remember when you were so focused on the job at hand that your awareness of surroundings shrunk to the task alone. When you were so absorbed in the act of Doing and in control of the process that there was no anxiety of failure and the activity itself was the source of enjoyment and reward. That’s Flow.

Such contentment does not describe how I feel about meetings. Productive meetings will generate work in promised tasks whilst dysfunctional meetings waste time, energy and workplace goodwill. In a previous post and here, I talked a little about making meetings work for you. What else can we do to make meetings more effective so we can get back to work?

Do we need to have a meeting?

  • First assess whether a meeting is needed at all. An effective meeting allows the right participants to collaborate in real time what can’t be solved asynchronously. 
  • Planning a project or customer journey. Making a decision or setting goals as a team. Setting a forum for executives to communicate with the organisation are all good reasons for effective meetings.
  • Sharing information is much better done through asynchronous channels like email, chat and platforms like Verbz and Slack.

Have a clear purpose that engages everyone attending

  • Make the meeting more effective by sending out a results focused agenda beforehand. This allows participants to judge whether they need to attend.
  • No surprises. Having a defined agenda to achieve an outcome but also review the attendee list. If you’re the organiser, ensure everyone knows each other. Make introductions, include a quick icebreaker in the invite  or at least review their LinkedIn profiles and seek to understand why each attendee is relevant to the discussion. Use this knowledge to draw each attendee to contribute in the discussion.
  • Schedule creativity oriented meetings in the morning and problem solving ones later to align with how people operate best during the course of the day.
  • Make meetings accessible to joining remotely through any of the video conferencing options and be mindful of time zone differences. If necessary, check with attendees for their preferred times and give adequate notice to avoid child pick up times and lunch hours.

Manage the Meeting

  • Watch the timing and make it count. Start and finish on time so as to be respectful of participants’ time.
  • Meetings are expensive. Try Harvard’s meeting cost calculator to see how much an executive meeting costs the organisation.
  • Stay on topic. Agree on a mechanism to take out-of-scope conversations offline and for all participants to be responsible to guide the discussion back to the agenda. Roger Schwarz and Amy Gallo have great tips in their HBR articles.
  • A useful technique to curtail off topic discussions is for attendees to call it out early and suggest to “park” the topic as a future discussion item. The same applies to any side conversations that arise. A whiteboard is ideal to park topics yet keep them in view of the participants.
  • The most important task a meeting leader is to keep discussions focused on the agenda items. Sharing the meeting leadership role builds management and planning skills amongst the team and offers an opportunity to present in public.
  • As meeting leader, you should push for resolutions on discussions. Get to a decision for each agenda item, summarise the outcome, who’s responsible and move on.
  • Delegate the leadership of the meeting and try rotating the role between attendees at subsequent meetings so there’s less chance one participant dominates the discussion.

Take Notes and Follow up

  • There’s a trend towards recording everything within a meeting which I’m cautious about. The benefits of total capture seem obvious. Nothing is lost, no one needs to be distracted in taking notes. However, if everything is being recorded, there is a risk that participants will be reluctant to voice their views. Will the spectre of accountability stifle inclusive conversation and controversial brainstorming? It’s vital for an effective meeting that all attendees feel safe to voice their views and not have to worry about repercussions and being taken out of context. 
  • Attendees of a meeting are coming together as a temporary team to collaborate on challenges to the organisation. We need to be wary of anything that may block team cohesion and effectiveness.
  • Another challenge for the “total capture” approach is the heavy load of data generated for subsequent review. Even if accurately transcribed and formatted, the transcription file will be onerous to search for future reference.
  • Attendee generated meeting notes and summaries tied to agenda items are more effective. Focus on being engaged in the discussion and record quick notes that can be expanded on after the meeting. Voice first apps like Verbz offer the ability to transcribe dictated notes into meeting summaries and assigned tasks. This reduces the burden of both end-of-day catch up work and cognitive load.
  • Following up on a meeting within 24 hours is an effective way to sustain the momentum from the meeting and focus on getting to outcomes agreed upon. Timely follow up makes a good impression on others and reinforces the decisions made. 
  • Sharing the meeting results broadly to others who will find the information relevant will help to maintain the peer pressure effect for attendees to follow through with promised actions as well as reducing the chances of conflicts with other parts of the organisation.
  • Finally, as meeting leader, refer to the list of “parked” items on the whiteboard that were off topic at the meeting and distribute to all attendees as suggestions for future agenda items. Where time permits, research the topics for relevance and to demonstrate the issues have been taken seriously.

I hope these tips are useful for you in making meetings more effective and productive. When meetings generate share-able outcomes and allow attendees to be open and feel heard, everyone is more likely to engage. Let me know in the comments if you have any tips I’ve left out.

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