I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to read yet another lengthy book on running meetings.
Instead, what follows here are 70 actions to help you improve your meeting effectiveness.
I haven’t spiced it up with graphics or as an infographic that would really detract from the actions. If you don’t want to take action to improve your meetings then don’t read any further.
Why 70? Because we’re all tired of seeing so many effective meeting blog posts with only a few action items – 7 tips, 10 hints, 8 actions, 5 secrets etc. There’s a lot of overlap between many of them and yet so much is left unsaid. This post is a comprehensive and exhaustive guide to what I’ve learnt over two decades of meetings – it wasn’t long enough for a book but it was perfect for a post.
But enough background. How do we improve meetings?
Planning the meeting
Ask yourself what you really want to get out of the meeting? Do you want to communicate with stakeholders? Do you want better engagement with a particular team? Do you need to repair some collateral damage? Answering the question of what your really want thoughtfully and honestly will help you decide many of the meeting details – the results, participants, structure, flow, follow-up amongst other things.
What type of meeting do you need?
- Information sharing
- Problem solving or issue resolution
- Decision required
Do you even need a meeting? Can you get by with an email, phonecall, report or slidepack?
Determine the Minimum Viable Meeting – what do you need to happen at an absolute minimum? Who are the absolute mandatory attendees? This thinking should drive every decision you make about the meeting.
What is the purpose and intended outcome? even though the purpose of many meetings are generally well known (e.g. staff meetings, project kickoffs, status reviews) it is important to communicate their intent to every stakeholder. Some stakeholders may have different ideas about the purpose and likely decisions at each meeting.
Preparing for the meeting
Determine the structure and flow of topics that need to be covered and how long you want to spend on each.
Figure out who needs to be there – what gatekeepers do you need? What project owners or stakeholders need to be involved?
Keep the number of attendees to the absolute minimum possible. Have a great reason for each person to be there. Simply being related to one or more of the topics to discuss is not a good reason to be there. In Ken Segal’s book “Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success” he describes how Steve Jobs was famously ruthless about keeping meetings small and simple.
Create an agenda which is concise and will serve as a template to drive the meeting and enable easy note taking.
Make sure you put the most important topic/item first and allow it the most time on the agenda. Then put the other topics in order of descending importance (with a descending amount of time). There is a view that you should schedule a few small items to get some quick wins – however this is a false economy as many meeting items often run over leaving almost no time for the most important.
Determine and clarify the meeting objectives – make sure what you want to achieve is doable within the given time and attendees. Don’t try to determine company strategy in a 30 minute meeting with 30 operational staff.
If you or other participants will be using slides, make sure you limit the number of slides to suit to available time. Having 127 slides is excessive and benefits no one.
Provide clear roles and responsibilities to attendees and what is expected of them.
Do you need to prewire some or all of the attendees? Always make sure there are no (or few) surprises. By doing some preparatory work you can improve the odds of success for your meeting.
In addition to the attendees, who else will be affected by the outcome of the meeting? Keep your eventual audience in mind and how they may interpret the meeting results.
If the meeting is a standard review or something similar, reuse checklists to save you time and ensure nothing is left out.
Ensure attendees (especially gatekeepers and other sponsors) know they must attend and the default decision for non-attendance is agreement.
Make sure that you make it clear how decisions will be made even if attendees are absent. Determine whether decisions will be made by voting or general consensus.
Manage the expectations of attendees. They need to prepare as there should be no last minute reading at the meeting. I’ve seen many meetings take MUCH longer than they needed to simply because someone was reading during the meeting and couldn’t effectively participate.
Make sure that the effort you put into preparing is commensurate with the significance of the meeting. Ensuring you avoid meeting organization overkill demonstrates that you respect your and the attendees’ time.
Don’t forget to include the ground rules as part of the agenda and draw everyone’s attention to them. This will be important when you go to start the meeting.
Email the agenda 24-48 hours prior to ensure everyone has time to read and review the issues. Larger meetings require longer notice so put yourself in your attendees’ shoes to estimate the amount of notice required.
Ensure that you ask everyone to be on time and that you will commence discussion of your most important topic at the very start of the meeting.
Provide needed materials or references to attendees prior to the meeting. Ensure that the data and information to be discussed are not a mystery to the attendees. Anything to reduce surprises is valuable. Dumping a report on participants during the meeting will only antagonize and frustrate people.
Immediately prior to the meeting
Email or call participants an hour before the meeting and remind them it’s still happening, that they are needed and that they need to have prepared.
Sort out the logistics, even though it may sound obvious many meetings suffer from a lack of chairs, pens, etc:
- tables and chairs organized
- AV equipment tested, twice
- Other aids (paper, Sharpies etc) are ready
- Tele/video conference equipment tested
- skype, gotomeeting, webex etc are logged in at both/all ends
- Water ready
Running the meeting
Make sure the person running the meeting arrives in time to set up. This might also sound obvious but we’ve all seen meeting times come and go without a meeting convener and is never a good sign.
Start on time even with absences. Even when participants are late, don’t bring them “up to speed”. This ruins the flow of the meeting and wastes the time of everyone who has been punctual. While you need to be political aware, most senior managers and executives who may attend late are happy to be brought up to speed after the meeting. Now, you did prewire them didn’t you?
Skip the small talk. It isn’t needed. If it’s a meeting with new stakeholders, introductions should be built into the meeting schedule.
Reiterate the ground rules – these should have been included in the agenda and it’s always useful to remind everyone of these.
If the meeting is a review, decision point or gate, ensure everyone understands the meeting process, structure and flow.
Have a standard process for integrating new participants into regular meetings. Preferably do this before the meeting so you don’t waste the other participants’ time.
Have a standard process for handing over actions and decision-making when participants leave. It happens in every company, yet most are not prepared when it does.
Agree on terms of reference and what progress needs to be made to deliver the expected outcome/deliverable for stakeholders and attendees.
Record decisions and important issues discussed – handwritten notes are fine – just take a photo of it once the meeting is finished and email it to everyone.
Stick to the schedule – both the start and finish times for each topic.
Have a parking lot to record off-topic discussions. Keep the tangential discussions to a minimum.
Keep focused on the agenda and make it visible by having a flipchart or hardcopy to hand out.
Ask early in each discussion for objections. If you have time, discuss them more fully. Otherwise just put them in the parking lot and move on.
Ensure that everyone participates – do a round robin or tick list to gather everyone’s views and opinions.
Ensure the meeting facilitator encourages discussion but always drives for closure.
Accept that differences can and will occur and that you won’t always achieve consensus. Design your meetings to minimize the need for absolute consensus. Always respect the alternative views even if the meeting participants agree something else.
Release participants from the meeting after their topics have been discussed. Don’t bore people with topics in which they have no interest. If you run the meeting according to the schedule, this becomes a lot easier and people appreciate when you give them back time.
Managing Attendee Behavior
Stop participants emailing, texting, tweeting during meetings – so ban laptops, tablets and smartphones. We’ve all seen people with laptops doing email, with their phones beneath the desk sending emails (what, seriously do they really think we don’t know what they’re doing?) They are simply not focused on your meeting and need to switch off the devices.
Always emphasize to participants to stay on topic, be brief and concise and always be driving to achieve the meeting objectives. That way they can also have a productive meeting.
As the meeting leader, keep things civil. If all else fails, establish a method to deal with conflicts, non-verbal behavior and difficult behavior. Be sure to enforce it. If things get out of hand, stop the meeting, address the issue and reconvene the meeting for another time.
Make sure there are no side discussions. Meetings exist for a number of reasons, not the least of which is communication and exchange of ideas. Having side discussions makes for unproductive meetings are best. At worst they are insulting to the other meeting participants.
Don’t try to please everyone. Look at the bigger picture to see how everyone can best contribute to achieving your objectives.
When making a decision, be sure there are no ‘invisible’ criteria – they must be explicit and understood by the meeting participants.
When a decision must be made be clear about the outcome: OK, Provisional OK with dated actions and owners, Reject, Place on hold, Cancel
The Meeting Killers and Monsters
Everyone needs to know the “Meeting Killers” (from the WSJ) and “Meeting Monsters”, and how to effectively deal with them. With each of these you need to either deal with them individually or “collectively” to the meeting. You need to assess the level of reaction/compliance and what politics is occurring.
Attacker – someone who attacks the person and not the idea can be very destructive and demoralizing for participants – especially the intended victim. Emphasize in the ground rules that the ideas are for discussion, not those who proposed them. Take them to task privately and then reiterate this during the meeting.
Dominator/Monopolizer – like the attacker this type of meeting participant can destroy the effectiveness of a meeting. Giving everyone an equal amount of time is often effective – as is getting their input prior to the meeting (with a prewire).
Tangent talker – this is why the parking lot is so important – let them get their point across and then put it in the parking lot. Giving everyone an equal amount of time can often shorten their tangents.
Talkaholic – if this is a frequent behavior allow a brief amount of time from each person and get input from them in the day prior to the meeting. This enables you to prewire them and reduce their incessant talking during the meeting
Jokester – let them know everyone loves a good laugh. This only becomes a problem if this is a recurring problem. Let them know privately that it’s starting to impact meeting effectiveness, and that you need their valued contributions.
Silent assassin/sleeper – let them know silence means agreement. They need to have a chance to raise objections early so these can be addressed.
Yes-man/Brown noser – if they are saying Yes to everything why are they needed? Simply allow them to give their proxy to the chairperson or another participant.
Devil’s Advocate/Cynic/Dr No – allow them to provide their solutions or options. If they don’t have alternatives and it’s a recurring behavior, then address it individually with them letting them know if they need to provide options.
Ping pong master/ buck passer – try a pre-wire or get their input prior to the meeting. If they have a reputation for doing this, look at alternatives to their participation.
Nit picker – acknowledge their contributions and get them to focus on the larger picture. If they can’t then just involve them separately so that the other meeting participants can work on the meeting objectives.
Staller and Fence sitter – manage everyone’s expectations so that they know a decision will be made (where relevant) by the end of the meeting. This is where a pre-wire becomes critically important.
Closing the meeting & Follow-up
Schedule some time at the end of the meeting to summarize decisions and actions. By summing up you can set expectations of next actions for participants and other stakeholders.
Close the meeting on a positive note wherever possible. Most meetings are not too controversial and it’s always motivating to the participants to end on a note of agreement. If things didn’t go so well, try and find something.
By making a record of the key points, decisions and actions during the meeting, you can distribute them straight after the meeting. Ensure meeting notes are distributed no later than 24 hours after the meeting.
You should send reminder emails to actionees to ensure they understand their responsibilities don’t stop after the meeting has ended.
Be sure to communicate openly and effectively. Rarely are meetings conducting in isolation. The wider staff, project team and/or stakeholders need to be informed immediately of the meeting outcome.
Collect data on review performance. Make sure you take the time to reflect on the meeting performance and what can be improved. Do this as soon as possible after the meeting to keep it as fresh as possible.
What’s your next action? When was the last time you made an improvement to one of your meetings?
Something I didn’t mention was the use of tools. When used correctly these can help make meetings even more productive. But effective meetings start with forethought and effective behavior. Without the people side of things, cool tools will not fill the gap.
Have you found other improvements for your meetings?
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James Kelly is a highly experienced quality and organizational improvement specialist with practical application of high maturity methods. With more than 25 years in quality and organizational improvement, he brings about significant productivity and quality improvements in engineering and technology intensive companies.
He is the author of Practical Kaizen: 501 Daily Steps To Improve Your Business. The book gives you hundreds of simple improvements that can be implemented across your team and company regularly, quickly and cheaply.