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Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

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By Keith Barnwell

 “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.William Penn

How much of your valuable time, and that of your people, is taken up moving between and attending meetings, many of which produce little or no value?


Sometimes there’s a real need to bring people together in one room to discuss and debate; however, most people consider meetings to be boring, demoralising and meaningless!  Bringing people together for a meeting means removing people from their work, sometimes even necessitating travel just to attend.

Take a look at your diary and add up how long you will be sitting in meetings over the next week and consider how much real work you, and all those attending, could get done in the same time.  A one hour meeting of ten people (when you allow 30 minutes either side for preparation and getting to the venue) is 20 man hours, which you can double if any attendees need to travel to attend.  Perhaps it’s time to cast a very critical eye over the meetings you’re responsible for, and even those you just attend and consider the following points:

If you have to hold meetings at least make them productive and meaningfulEnsure everyone knows in advance the expected outcomes of the meeting and if decisions are to be made, make sure those who have the authority to make those decisions are present.  Open your meetings with a clear definition of the objective(s) and get everyone to agree to them.  Keep all the discussions focused on the relevant issues only.

Create an agenda, including a start and stop time, then stick to it!   Start on time even if not everyone is there, they’ll soon learn that you expect punctuality!  It’s particularly important to end on time, so if you’re chairing the meeting, keep tight control of the agenda and the attendees, allowing time for discussion where necessary but keeping it relevant and to the point.  Try to avoid the ‘extroversion’ feeding frenzy of just talking!

If possible, distribute reading material in advance.   This reduces the amount of presentation time at the meeting and allows everyone to be properly prepared; and who knows, even the introverts amongst you may be prepared to talk!  It also allows for wider consultation, where necessary, so decisions taken will be based on the best possible information.  As chairman, you have a right to expect attendees to have read what you sent out, and attendees have a responsibility to do so.  Another approach is to allow a short silent ‘read-in’ slice of time at the start of a meeting.

Keep a record of the salient points of discussion If necessary, appoint a note taker, ideally someone who understands the subject(s) under discussion. This avoids multiple versions of what was said and serves as a useful record behind key decisions, particularly for those unable to attend.  Make it clear that all the attendees will have a chance to see them in draft form (within 24 hours of the meeting ending) but once published they will be final.

Keep it short and to the pointIdeally, keep your meetings to 60 minutes or less. Most people can only focus for relatively short periods and will naturally lose the ability to be fully engaged after too long.

Consider standing.  As strange as that sounds many companies are finding that by holding their meetings without using chairs they are more productive and normally much shorter.

Always think of the cost involved in having a number of people around a table rather than at their desks, as well as any travel costs.  Make sure you invite only those that need to attend and can speak with authority for their section or organisation.  If it’s information that can be easily communicated by email, do that instead.  Remember, remote meetings technology now makes it possible to hold meetings ‘virtually’, saving valuable travel time and costs.

Avoid distractions such as smart phones and laptops (unless required for the meeting).  If the meeting is worth holding and worth attending, everyone should be prepared to give it their full attention.

If you are going to use any technology such as projectors or PC’s for presentations etc allow time to ensure that they are available and will work properly.  There is nothing more annoying and frustrating for everyone than wasting time searching for that cable that you just knew was there last time you used the room!

Once you’ve got people together, the least you can do is listen to them.  Try to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak; don’t let the extroverts get too carried away with their need to be heard, or the introverts come back to you the following day with a number of points they just didn’t feel comfortable making at the meeting.  Make it clear that you expect those attending to speak with clarity and candor and ensure that each topic is discussed to completion.  If things are left unsaid you can’t expect agreement.

Meetings should produce actions or make decisions.  If people leave without a set of tasks to perform, the meeting wasn’t necessary or productive.  Summarise the meeting to ensure clear accountability for agreed actions, and always try to end your meetings with ‘WWW’ (Who will do What, and by When).  Make sure they are realistic by going around the table and getting agreement from all those attending, and the commitment of those responsible for the actions.  Then follow up on them after the meeting and hold people to account. 

Keep on improving your meetings by evaluating them.  Consider asking the attendees what went well and what you could do better next time.

Even if the meeting is not your responsibility, question the need for it.   Many organisations have a culture of holding meetings because ‘they just always have’ and there’s a feeling that it’s the only way to make decisions.  Make it your responsibility to challenge such out-dated thinking.  And if you find yourself attending others meetings – participate as fully as you would expect them to in your meetings.

Clearly there are some meetings that just have to be held and there is real value to be gained from meeting with people face-to-face, but you need to be ruthless in identifying ‘the wheat from the chaff’ and then manage those that remain firmly and with a clear expectation of getting real value from them.  Managing effective meetings is a core skill of good leaders and managers, so make your meetings the ones that people actually want to attend.

Thank you for reading and please share this post with others who you think may find it helpful.

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This is an extract from the LeaderFocus App for the iPad available on iTunes.  To learn more and to download the LeaderFocus App click on the icon.  Keith Barnwell is a leadership development specialist and executive coach at It’s All About Leadership.