6 Steps for Highly Effective Meetings
Meetings have long been the butt of jokes in the business world. But they don't have to be. You can get a lot more done, assuming you follow some basic steps and work with others to get the necessary attention and efforts.
Be sure you actually need a meeting
The biggest problem with meetings is that they have become a default response to many issues at work. Not sure of something? Have a meeting. Need to review material? Call a meeting. Unfortunately, starting this way translates into, "Want to waste a lot of time? Go to a meeting."
For better meetings, only have the ones you really need. If you're trying to inform a group of something, send a memo. Meetings should result in action. If everyone in the meeting doesn't walk away with some responsibility, you have to wonder why the meeting was held in the first place.
Create the meeting structure
You wouldn't create a product or marketing campaign without having designed it. Don't run a meeting until you have the structure and contents clear. That means you can briefly state what it is meant to cover and why that is important to the company's operations and strategy. Again, if the company doesn't have a clear reason for the meeting, you don't need it. Also decide on who absolutely needs to be there. Don't add to the roster any more than you need to; attendees can always brief other people in their departments.
Next, create a strong agenda. These documents are too often dashed off as a formality. But this is where you will set the tone of the meeting and begin the process of control. An agenda is like an outline for an important piece of writing. Few people like to do them, even fewer do them well, and pretty much everyone needs them.
The agenda should cover the overall purpose of the meeting and the intended results. It should indicate how long the meeting will be and the amount of time to allot to each section, and definitely reach all participants long before the meeting actually happens. Let everyone get used to preparation. Sometimes it can help to have other people help set the agenda. You get broader buy-in and others may come up with important points that you missed.
Consider making the meeting significantly shorter than you initially think is necessary; former insurance executive and current consultant Victor Lipman says cut it in half. That may seem too extreme, but it's worth a try. Eventually you'll get better at estimating the time necessary.
Get some respect
People have little respect for meetings because of past experiences. You need to firmly steer them straight. First, the meeting starts exactly on time. This is classic advice for a reason: It makes sense. You'll have stragglers the first few times, but if you delay, meetings will continue to consume more time than they should and do far less than you want.
Set a timer. When the timer goes off, the meeting is over. This will help people pay attention.
Get more attention
Here are two items from a corporate blog that are terrific: Everyone checks their phones and leave their laptops off and closed. No reading email or browsing through something else. If people need to take notes, they can use paper. Taking notes by hand improves retention, and it keeps an object of potential distraction out of reach.
Also consider having an official set of notes. This doesn't invalidate individual note taking. Certain details may be more important to some people than others. But it's also good to have an official version for reference.
Actively run the meeting
Every meeting needs facilitation. You can have someone else take this on if you are irredeemably bad at it, but it must be done. Keep people on track and on schedule. Watch the timer and remind people when you're coming up on the end of the time for a part of the meeting. Summarize longer points both to be sure that the group understands what was said and that you have a succinct version for notes. And don't let people drift off topic.
It is the rare meeting where everyone goes off and nothing need be done afterward. (In fact, if that happens, you shouldn't have had a meeting.) You'll need to follow up with people and ensure that they do what they said they would.
Running effective meetings requires a set of skills. Now's the time to develop them. You and your company will get more done and spend less time in gatherings.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.