Depending on where you work, you may dread a meeting invitation or look forward to meetings as opportunities to solve problems or accomplish goals. The difference is in how an organization handles meetings, and the methods are almost as diverse as are organizations themselves.
First, the organization in general should decide what the criteria for even holding meetings should be. If a conference call will work, a meeting may not be necessary. In other words, business should be conducted in the most time and cost effective way possible while still meeting business goals.
So the first meeting criteria would be whether or not a meeting is really necessary for this particular business purpose. Business purposes for which meetings could make sense might be the necessity of collecting different points of view, or updating a particular work-group on status of the business or of a particular plan. It could be a meeting of a task team to update progress toward particular goals and to make additional assignments.
It’s often helpful to establish the general format all your meetings will follow as a matter of course. Most meetings, regardless of purpose, need a meeting leader, a scribe, and sometimes a sort of timekeeper/”Sergeant at Arms” kind of role. The leader is responsible for leading the meeting and creating and following the meeting agenda. The scribe, a role which can rotate, is responsible for documenting the meeting and sending out meeting notes and assignments promptly. The Sergeant at Arms is a role you may want to employ depending on your group.
If lengths of time are to be adhered to for each agenda item, this person will be responsible for alerting each speaker when his or her time is up. He may also have the role of discouraging side conversations. Each organization is different. Some groups would not dream of having meetings without this kind of “meeting cop,” while other groups simply see no need for the role.
Once you have determined that a meeting is indeed necessary, what the purpose of the meeting is, and what roles need to be filled for the meeting, then you have the task of developing the meeting agenda. A typical agenda for a task team might be to review and status past assignments, to determine what next steps are, to assign both tasks and timelines to accomplish next steps, and to set the date and time for the next meeting.
The group should also determine who needs to attend that next meeting. If your team needs input from a particular expert outside your team, someone needs to be responsible for inviting that person, explaining the needs of the group, and confirming to the leader that the person will attend. The leader needs to either create the agenda for the meeting or to assign agenda creation to a team member. Rotating responsibility for the agenda often works well and gives each person more investment in the workings of the team.
Meeting ground rules are also worth considering. If your group establishes up front that everyone will arrive on time for meetings and will be there for the entire meeting, you are less likely to have to address that issue with the occasional (or chronic) straggler. Ground rules could include being prepared with your assigned tasks, not “shooting down” others’ ideas harshly, being willing to take on assignments, not having side conversations, and sticking to the agenda. In many cases, a ground rule for turning off cell phones and pagers during meetings is appropriate.
Remember, you are having this meeting to deal with identified business needs or goals. You have the right people there, and you have a solid agenda. It certainly seems to make sense to eliminate distractions from cell phones and pagers so you can more readily accomplish the work planned to be done in this meeting.
Improving the Situation
So what if you work in an organization where meetings are now poorly planned and executed and are often a waste of valuable time? I would venture to guess that most of your colleagues also find these meetings unproductive. Consider going to your management and asking if you can try an experiment with the next meeting. Prepare a few simple slides about what you’ve read or heard about how to make meetings more productive. Without assigning blame, gently suggest to the group that each meeting needs to be evaluated several ways. Develop a list of the standing meetings the organization members currently attend and what the purpose of each meeting is.
Evaluate the effectiveness of each meeting with this set of questions:
- Can the business need the meeting purports to meet be met in a more efficient, effective way, such as with a conference call?
- Do the people who attend each meeting know what the purpose of the meeting is? Do they all agree?
- Once the purpose is established, are you confident that the correct people are attending the meetings? Should some people be excused or even some added?
- Does the meeting structure allow for accomplishing the stated purpose of the meeting?
- Is the meeting documented? Who is responsible for documentation of the meeting and sending out meeting minutes or task updates?
- Is the group in agreement as to when these meetings should be disbanded? If this is a regular staff meeting, it probably will continue indefinitely. But if it’s a task team, be sure the group agrees on when the task is finished.
You may have additional questions that are relevant to evaluating the usefulness of your meetings. Frankly, the questions you ask are not as important as taking a good hard look at your meetings and being willing to make changes where they are needed. Been to a good meeting lately? If your answer is “NO!” then you have a path forward. It’s worth your time.