How to Run an Effective Meeting: The Basics

by Martha Craumer

Meetings have become a popular target of corporate jokes, too often viewed simply as napping opportunities. But “productive meeting” doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.

Here’s how to make sure that your meetings generate accolades—and useful output—instead of yawns and muttered curses.

Analyze your purpose and set clear objectives. Start by understanding why you want to have a meeting at all. What do you hope to achieve? Make sure that a meeting is the best means to that end. If your goal is simply to disseminate information, an e-mail may be a better, more time-efficient approach.

Meetings are most effective in situations that require interaction and input from multiple people—such as brainstorming, problem solving, or decision making. Meetings also make sense when the topic or issue at hand is challenging or emotional, and it would be better to address the concerns and questions of your people face-to-face.

Once you understand the purpose of your meeting, develop a clear set of measurable objectives. These will drive your meeting agenda and help you stay focused during the meeting itself.

Create an agenda and distribute it in advance. Once you know the purpose of your meeting, create an agenda. Productive meetings require structure and planning.

If you’re trying to reach a decision or solve a specific problem, provide the needed context, research, and parameters in advance, so meeting attendees have the background they need to hit the ground running. If it’s brainstorming you’re after, structure is a critical part of creativity; plan for both getting wild and getting real.

The best meetings get everyone actively involved. Use the agenda to assign roles and clarify what you expect each person to contribute. Then distribute the agenda and any prework well in advance so that people have a chance to think about the topic and prepare their contributions.

Make sure your agenda is realistic. Don’t try to achieve more than the meeting time comfortably allows. One way to do this is to include time limits for each topic on the agenda—say, two minutes to introduce a new team member, 10 minutes to discuss the production schedule, and so on. An overly ambitious agenda can lead to rushing over important items; an unfinished agenda can be demoralizing and lead to yet another meeting.

Too often we relegate “wrap-up” to five minutes—which is never enough time for a thorough review of who is doing what and why. Allow enough time for a significant review of decisions made assigned action items to ensure everyone is on board. You’ll save everyone time (“Why was I supposed to meet with Barbara, again?”), and you’ll see more follow through.

Be sure to bring extra copies of the agenda to the meeting—one for each participant.

Invite the right people—and the right number. Whom and how many people to invite depend on the purpose of your meeting. If the purpose is to quickly share critical information with as many people as possible, the group can be as large as necessary. But if interaction is critical, size becomes more important. Too many people can stifle creativity, and too few can limit input and stymie progress. Five to eight is a good range.

Think about who can help you achieve your meeting objectives. Sometimes specific expertise is needed. At other times a broad, cross-functional group of people is more effective.  Either way, it’s often useful to talk to people ahead of time to lay the groundwork for the outcome you hope to achieve. Advance “lobbying” can make the meeting go more quickly and smoothly.

If the meeting group is large, break into smaller groups to work on specific tasks or problems, and reconvene to share results.            

Be considerate of everyone’s time. If an individual is needed for only part of the meeting, plan the agenda to allow for an early departure or late arrival.

Set ground rules. If you’re meeting with the same group of people on a regular basis, the group can develop these guidelines together. Otherwise, suggest some ground rules at the beginning of your meeting and get buy-in from the attendees. This is also the time to appoint a meeting scribe to capture the meeting highlights.

The best guidelines encourage participation by everyone and keep the meeting on track. For example, your group may decide to let only one person speak at once, disallow interruptions, set time limits on contributions, table issues that aren’t easily resolved, limit conversations that stray from the topic at hand, and make sure that everyone is heard from. Although you’ll want to discourage disrupters, be sure to encourage differing points of view.

Often the most thoughtful or creative people are the ones least likely to speak up in a meeting. To make sure you collect everyone’s input, survey the attendees, take a straw vote, or go around the room to get the opinions of each person. When all attendees feel they’ve contributed, widespread buy-in and cooperation are more likely.

Start and end on time. No one ever complained because a meeting ended on time. Many meeting planners find it useful to appoint an official time-keeper who works with the facilitator to keep things on track.

Start by reviewing the purpose of the meeting, why it’s important, and what the objectives are.

To keep things moving forward, manage each segment of the meeting. Table any issues that can’t be resolved, try to keep attendees from sidetracking the discussion or going off on tangents, and limit question-and-answer periods.

If you do fall behind schedule, work with the group to prioritize the remaining agenda items instead of rushing through everything and achieving little—or making the wrong decisions.

If time runs out in the middle of a particularly fruitful discussion, ask the group if it’s okay to go beyond the scheduled end time. And be sure to allow time to wrap up the proceedings.

Clarify action steps and responsibilities. Without a plan for moving forward, even the best outcomes can languish as the initial enthusiasm and commitment dwindle away. Create an action plan and stick to it.  

As a group, discuss and agree on specific action steps and responsibilities, along with clear time frames. Identify possible problems or challenges that might hinder progress, and discuss who will take responsibility for resolving them, and how.

Things to consider: what resources are needed, who must provide input or permission, whether further research is necessary, which other people should be involved, and what else is needed to move forward.

The action plan is the heart of your meeting—the critical outcome—and a key task of the meeting scribe is to capture it in writing.

Follow up—and follow through—promptly. When the meeting is over, the follow-up begins.  

To drive your action plan forward, send out the meeting notes promptly—within a day or two. Detailed minutes are less important than a summary of the meeting’s key points, decisions made, action steps, responsibilities, and time frames.

Distribute the meeting notes to meeting participants and to anyone who will be affected by the decisions made or the actions taken.

As the deadline for each action step approaches, follow up with those responsible and get a progress report. If deadlines are slipping, offer to help. The key is to maintain the momentum and commitment needed to drive home the outcome put in motion during your meeting. Then all participants can enjoy the satisfaction that comes from working well and productively together. That just might start to give meetings a good name.

Martha Craumer is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass.

The Key to Shorter, Better Meetings

by Anthony Tjan

Here is a simple managerial tip for meeting effectiveness that I learned some years ago.

Outside general relationship building, consider that a business meeting has only three functional purposes:  

1. To inform and bring people up to speed.

2. To seek input from people.

3. To ask for approval.

Use this as a filter to determine why you are having a meeting, and explain that purpose to your audience. Your meetings may often cut across multiple objectives, but forcing yourself to clarify the agenda into these three purposes can result in more effective meetings.

Consider a meeting that sets its agenda goals along the lines of: “I want to bring you up to speed on these two things; I need input on this item; and, finally, I would like to seek your approval on these outstanding issues.” That’s it—a simple three-purpose meeting rule that frames the goals of the meeting from the perspective of the meeting participant.

Anthony Tjan is CEO, managing partner and founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball.

Why We Secretly Love Meetings: The Status and Social Drive Beyond the Agenda

by Ron Ashkenas

Is too much of your time spent in unnecessary or ineffective meetings? Most managers consider meeting fatigue and meeting failures as two of the most significant drains on their productivity. As a result, an entire industry has sprung up over the past 20 years focusing on “meeting management.” Many companies have courses on how to run good meetings, and in case you miss the training, there are posters, laminated cards, and checklists for preparation, conduct, and follow-up.

  • As a result of this saturation of meeting education, almost every manager knows the basic rules:
  • Be clear about what you want to accomplish
  • Invite the right people
  • Send out pre-reading material in advance (include an estimate of how long it should take people to read it)
  • Have an agenda and follow it with discipline
  • Send out notes with key decisions and action steps

You know the drill.

Unfortunately, these basic and widely understood guidelines for effective meetings are probably the least followed in corporate history. If the government conducted “meeting audits,” many companies would probably fail. Most managers complain about ineffective meetings and yet schedule multiple meetings and run them poorly. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

This leads to one of the dirty little secrets of organizational life: Despite their protestations, at an unconscious (or conscious) level, most managers actually like meetings, for several reasons.

They encourage social interaction. Most people don’t enjoy working alone; they want contact and relationships with other people. Meetings make them feel part of a community and give them an outlet for sharing their personal feelings and opinions, not only on work issues but also on personal or political topics. So, some of the seemingly off-target chatter in meetings (even the complaining) is the realization of an important social outlet.

They keep everyone in the loop. As firms have become more matrixed and interdependent, meetings serve as the informal loom that weaves together the organizational threads. People need to know what’s going on in other parts of the organization. They need informal sources to supplement the formal communication mechanisms—and to guide them through political and personal minefields. These information networks are created, reinforced, and expanded through meetings.

They often represent status. Membership on multiple committees implies that you are important and that your opinion is valued, and it means that you have a seat at a decision-making table. Attendance at staff meetings means that you are part of the leadership team. Even being asked to present or answer questions at a meeting on a one-time basis gives you visibility with senior people and is status-enhancing.

These psychological drivers of meetings are very powerful—and usually trump all the logical and rational “meeting management” advice that is doled out in courses and articles. In other words, what seems like wasted or unproductive time for many managers is actually fulfilling important personal and organizational needs.

This does not pardon meetings run wild and the time we lose to them. Managers at all levels need to be continually on guard against unnecessary meeting proliferation and poor meeting disciplines. For example, several years ago in GlaxoSmithKline’s research organization, there was a realization that—as a result of multiple project meetings and the inclusion of all functions on drug development teams—many people were spending as much time in meetings as they were on actual drug development work. As a result, the company developed a “fit for purpose” meeting process in which only the people directly involved in a particular phase or issue of the project attended the meetings, while others just received information.

All organizations should periodically look at their meeting patterns and make adjustments like this in addition to encouraging the use of agendas, virtual-meeting approaches, and all the rest. However just complaining about too many meetings or poorly run meetings won’t do much good. Like moths to a flame, we’ll keep coming back, no matter what we say. 

Ron Ashkenas is a senior partner with Schaffer Consulting and the author of Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Guide to Making Every Meeting Matter. Copyright 2011 Harvard Business Publishing Corporation. All right reserved.