Meeting Hygiene: Conducting Productive Meetings

I’ll admit it up front: I’m not a fan of regularly scheduled group/team/status meetings. They tend to be unstructured and, as a result, not terribly productive.

Don’t get me wrong, I want people to feel a part of the team and playing on the same field in the same game. I just don’t believe weekly status meetings do much to accomplish that result.

If it’s team building you’re after, schedule a group activity that allows individuals to get to know and interact with each other more personally. If it’s meeting productivity you’re after, give some thought to the suggestions below.

Managing Meeting Expectations

When I was put in charge of my first team of people, the group was used to weekly meetings. My predecessor mandated them. The purpose of the meetings was to make sure everyone was pulling on the oars together and in the same direction. The meetings involved status reports, project updates and, most importantly, doughnuts.

When I took over the group, there was a weekly meeting already scheduled, which we held. During that meeting, I announced that this would be our last regularly scheduled weekly meeting. I went on to explain that it was my opinion that such meetings were not particularly productive, but that if anyone had a specific topic they needed input on from the group, I’d be more than happy to schedule everyone together to discuss that item. Of course, I explained, the individual seeking input would be required to prepare and present a brief presentation on the topic before open discussion ensued. I also explained that no more than 45 minutes would be scheduled for these events.  Oh, and doughnuts were discretionary. My final comment was that anyone needing assistance with their work was more than welcome to stop by or schedule time with me in my office (at my in-office conference table) to discuss their needs.

The result of this change was dramatic. We held infrequent group meetings that were very productive. I spent many highly productive hours meeting with individuals and/or small groups of team members in my office. And, in the end, the group’s revenue doubled over a 24-month period, primarily, in my opinion, because the team was allowed to get to work and make things happen versus being compelled to prepare for and sit through endless hours of status meetings.

Elements of Effective Meetings

There’s a host of learning points in that brief summary. However, I want to focus on the meetings component and how we used a new structure to produce very effective and efficient meetings that got the job done for the person needing the meeting. It is my experience that good meetings have the following elements:

  • Agenda. I don’t know how meetings happen without an agenda. To me it’s the equivalent of scheduling a business trip without an objective! Agendas are simple to construct and distribute, but the road map they provide not only prepares attendees for what will be covered during the meeting, they are a terrific way to keep the meeting on track. The more specific the agenda, the better the road map, and the more likely the success of accomplishing the stated objectives!
  • Predetermined and Stated Start/End Times. Meetings need physical structure, which means predetermined start and end times. The old saying that “work fills the time allotted” is all too true in this context. It’s also important to state the start and end times at the beginning of the meeting. It serves as both a reminder and a set of parameters for everyone involved.
  • Only Necessary Materials Prepared/Distributed. A lot of work can go into preparing for a meeting, so prepare (or instruct others to prepare) only what is truly necessary to communicate effectively during the meeting. One thing that should be eliminated from virtually every team meeting is PowerPoint slides! Read that sentence again because it’s important. Most people use PowerPoint to put their speaking points on the screen. BORING! I can read your speaking points, so why are you there? In fact, why are any of us here if we can all just read these points at our own desks? Moreover, creating a list is much easier to do in e-mail or Word than it is in PowerPoint and there’s no setup time required for sending out an e-mail or handing out a list. If you’re one of the very, very few who can truly leverage PowerPoint to communicate AND have extra time in your day, then go ahead because the payoff is there. If you’re not, just prepare a summary of your points and sub-points on paper or in e-mail.
  • Distribute Materials in Advance. Send out the agenda and any accompanying materials well before the meeting – like the day before the meeting – with a request that people review them and come prepared to discuss. That material is everyone’s homework before coming to the meeting. When you’re putting several (10? more?) people in a room, you don’t want to waste everyone’s time by reading them your thoughts! Group time is precious, so leverage it to your best advantage.
  • Moderate the Discussion. If you’re the presenter or person in charge of the meeting, it’s your job to run or moderate the meeting. That means keeping your mouth shut most of the time and acting as a guide to keep everyone on course (topic-wise) and moving forward (productivity-wise) within the timeframe allotted. Think of it as a referee’s or facilitator’s role. You want to marshal these valuable resources (people and their ideas) toward an effective end. If you get on the field too much you’ll run the risk of (1) taking over the meeting by superiority alone and of (2) allowing the group to stray off into the wilderness of other topics, thereby losing your effectiveness and fundamentally wasting everyone’s time.
  • Confirm Decisions & Action Items. As the moderator, it’s your role to confirm out loud with everyone in attendance both the decisions made and the action items determined (if any) and people assigned to those action items. This is a huge point of failure for many meetings – the failure to articulate decisions, action items and attendant responsibilities assigned. Ironically, it is generally the stated reason for the meeting! Fix this hole by stating things clearly before everyone disperses. (Note that this list can be reduced to a follow-up e-mail and used to gauge progress downstream.)
  • Identify Follow-up Expectations. The final point of any effective meeting is identifying and stating the next point of follow-up, if there is one. Put parameters around the work so people have relatively short-term goals for producing results. Make the follow-up period reasonable within the context of the work to be performed, but make it date-certain.

A New Culture Develops

I’m sure all this sounds reasonable and fairly easy to implement. Doing it is always the hard part. Take this list into your next meeting and follow it. You’ll be surprised at how well it works. Eventually, your team will come to meetings well-prepared to participate and add value to the issues at hand. They will also leave meetings energized by the dynamic productivity and clear direction they received from the meeting.

© 2009 – 2012, Paul H. Burton. All rights reserved.