Projects / Meetings
Managing Meetings Effectively
Meetings are a “necessary evil” in our workplace and work life. It is probably true that we will never totally eliminate meetings, even though technology makes other methods of communication easier, faster and more flexible. Sometimes there is just no substitute for getting people together in the same room and talking about an important business problem, or issue.
Despite rapid changes in technology, face-to-face meetings are still very much central to the way we work. According to one recent study, for example, eleven million formal meetings are said to occur in the U.S.alone each and every day. For many people, (and especially those in leadership positions) much of their days, weeks and even careers will therefore be spent in meetings – in fact, most professionals in the workplace attend more than 50 meetings per month.
Meetings may well be how we stay informed and exchange information with a group of people, but given the time we invest in them we need to make sure that the time is well spent and managed. Another recent survey of over 5,000 managers across Europe suggested that almost half of the executives said that they were “overwhelmed” by the number of meetings they attend. And here’s the really scary news: many different research studies on meetings of all kinds indicates that over 50% of the meeting time is wasted. Think about the implications of that: If you spend 60 hours a month in meetings and half that time is wasted, 75% of one working week is being lost every month! And just to make matters worse, the same research indicates what many of us always suspected: the vast majority of people who spend a lot of time in meetings admit to daydreaming (over 85%), missing meetings regularly (over 90%) or missing parts of meetings (95%). Perhaps even worse, three quarters of people say they often bring other work to meetings and nearly 40% even admit to having dozed during meetings.
It would be funny if the effects weren’t so sad: meetings are longer, less efficient and generate fewer results. This means that yet more meetings are needed to accomplish objectives. And with so much time spent in ineffective meetings, employees have less time to get their own work done; ineffective meetings create frustration and information generated in unproductive meetings usually isn’t managed properly.
What can be done to make meetings more efficient?
The first step to ensure that we are making a wise investment in the time is to ask ourselves “why is the meeting necessary?” A meeting should only be held if there are no other viable ways to reach a decision, such as writing a note or memo, phone, email, fax, video-conferencing, virtual meeting, etc.
Once you determine that a meeting is indeed necessary, then there are different issues to consider in making sure the time is well-spent. Here are a few key steps:
- Determine who should come to the meeting? The relevant participants need to be identified. Key participants are those without whom decisions either cannot or should not be made – these are the “essential” participants. It doesn’t make sense to hold a meeting without such people because any decision reached – even if it’s a good one – may not be implemented or supported if they are absent from the process.
- Pre-circulate an agenda for the meeting so that people know what’s to be discussed and can prepare accordingly. If background reading is necessary, send this ahead of time also or ask people to do any work they need to do before the meeting.
- Start on time. This is a simple aim, but unfortunately one that is often hard to achieve. Typically, you only achieve success over a period of time – you will in time get a reputation for either starting promptly or late and people respond in kind. (“Oh, his/her meetings never start on time, we can be late.”) Many people expect that the start time is just an “indication” or “suggestion” so you will probably have to be explicit about the start time and be prepared to stick strictly to it. This, of course, gets difficult if key players or senior people don’t arrive on time. Preparation is the key – in distributing the agenda you may say that you plan to start on time regardless of latecomers so you hope everyone will understand (“don’t punish the prompt!”).
- At the meeting outset, state the purpose of the meeting and focus everyone on the agenda – ask if there are any questions or if anything is unclear, but don’t get distracted into debate or side issues. The agenda has, after all, been circulated well in advance and input invited (where appropriate), so this is not the time for changing it or debating it.
- Whatever the overall meeting purpose, you need to be able to identify it, describe it (simply) and share it with others so that participants are clear about meeting expectations and about their responsibility to contribute.
- Confirm timeframe and “ground rules” / format issues. Take the opportunity to reiterate the timeframe – you have started on time and will finish on time, but can only do that by sticking to the allocations for each item. This requires efficiency of contribution and discussion, so you may want to outline/reinforce or briefly discuss some ground rules.
- What should happen in the meeting? Desired outcomes need to be established. If the purpose is, for example, to overcome a problem, then you need to establish what specific goals, outcomes and decisions the meeting needs to achieve. For example, identify causes, agree on remedial action, or design a new policy/procedure. While the purpose provides direction, the goals or outcomes help ensure focused activity.
- Keep notes or minutes where appropriate. This will inevitably vary from one meeting to another but is often important in most meetings even if only done in summary form. This is especially true of any agreed actions and who is responsible for execution or follow up.
All meetings can be more effectively managed with a few simple approaches (applied once the meeting has deemed to be necessary). These approaches fall into two key areas:
- The structural and procedural design of the meeting (which should be smooth, efficient and well organized from the pre-circulating of a well put-together agenda to rules of meeting conduct).
- The positive contribution of people at the meeting to focus on behavior that is conducive to an effective meeting in which better decisions can be made as a group.
As meetings are likely to be a permanent feature of organizational life in the near term, it is well worth investing both time and energy in bringing about greater efficiency and effectiveness. As with many things, a positive attitude and practice makes perfect.