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How to Avoid Soul-Crushing Meetings

Oh, yes. You know what I'm talking about. Those meetings are the worst.
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When was the last time you had an amazing meeting?

I had one this week, for about an hour and a half. There were equal amounts of information exchanged and ideas generated, and we had a clear action plan at the end. I left feeling as though a new initiative had been born and progress was being made--just from one meeting.

Most people, however, regularly experience the opposite.

According to a 3M Meeting Network survey, professionals agree that as much as 50 percent of meeting time is unproductive, and that up to 25 percent of it is spent discussing irrelevant issues. Typically, they complain that meetings are too long, are scheduled without adequate time to prepare, and end without any clear result.

So why are good meetings so elusive--and what is the solution?

According to a Verizon Conferencing white paper on conferencing trends, prepared by Infocom, there are six key objectives to having a great meeting. And Dave Kashen, who is the co-founder and CEO of MeetingHero, a tech startup with a mission to have its cloud-based meeting tool rid the world of soul-crushing meetings, believes productive meetings are a lot more attainable than you think.

I recently sat down with Kashen, to walk through strategies that make for an effective meeting--and asked for his suggestions on how to make it a reality.

1. Set clear objectives for each meeting based on the type of meeting being held.

Kashen's suggestion: "A great question to ask yourself is, 'What does winning look like for this meeting?' Often, the answer will help you determine the meeting's objectives. Having the whole group get clear about the agenda beforehand, or at least at the start of the meeting, can make a huge difference in the meeting's focus and effectiveness."

2. Focus meetings on substantive topics (e.g., problem identification, progress toward quantitative goals, new ideas for improvement, lessons learned).

Kashen's suggestion: "Consider whether the agenda items you listed are general topics or specific goals. Topics are OK, as long as the goals for discussing those topics are self-evident. Otherwise, it may be useful to frame each topic as an objective you're trying to achieve by the end of the meeting (a decision to make, a question to answer, or a set of actions to plan)."

3. Always prepare and publish an agenda.

Kashen's suggestion: "This is one of those pieces of advice that everyone knows, but nobody does. Most people are so busy running around from meeting to meeting and task to task, there simply is no prompt to create an agenda, and no easy place to do it. I suggest using a meeting tool like MeetingHero that puts the agenda in the cloud with its own dedicated page online, thus making it dead simple to create, edit, and share an agenda with collaborators."

4. During the meeting, periodically summarize the discussion.

Kashen's suggestion: "Great facilitators instinctively do this. They stop every now and then to let people know where they are in the process and what has happened so far. This helps ensure everyone is on the same page (and makes it easier to resolve inconsistencies if not), and frees people up to focus on the next part of the conversation. We realized that this function can largely be served by allowing the group, or a designated notetaker, to create a real-time summary of the meeting as it's going. That way, all the members of the group know where they are, and the summary can be sent out immediately after the meeting instead of someone having to go back through a set of notes and remember what happened."

5. Reinforce oral communications with written/published documents.

Kashen's suggestion: "The reality is, we are all busy people. In the moment, it feels like we can remember what we're supposed to do, and if that was the only thing we had to remember, we probably could. But after a long day filled with meetings, emails, and phone calls, it's hard to keep it all from slipping through the cracks. Creating a meeting summary that you can refer back to makes it way easier for everyone to remember what was decided, who is supposed to do what, and which issues are still to be discussed. I recommend having one shared record for a meeting, instead of having seven people with seven ideas of what just happened."

6. Conclude with a summary of decisions and action items.

Kashen's suggestion: "Most meeting notes are relatively useless for anyone other than the notetaker. There's just way too much 'noise' among the 'signals' of decisions and action items. I recommend using a simple structure in which you capture the decisions and action items separately from the other notes. I also like to include a section for open issues that couldn't be resolved during the meeting, to ensure the team members go back to them at future meetings."

Meetings, if approached methodically, can be a powerful tool for business action. However, just like most things, if you don't make the effort to make meetings valuable, they will waste your time, and the one thing that everyone agrees is the most valuable thing we have is time.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: May 29, 2014

LAURA GARNETT

Laura Garnett helps business owners and CEOs develop a personalized leadership and performance strategy by identifying their zone of genius. Learn more at LauraGarnett.com.




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