No question: We waste a lot of time in meetings when we could be getting more important work done. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for real-time conversations. Emails, instant messages and shared portals can only take you so far, especially when you’re pressured to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.
How we spend our time in meetings makes all the difference in the world between a great use of time and a big waste of time. Joining me in writing this month’s Communiqué is Stephen Laroche, Senior Manager, Core Financial Technologies at Staples, Inc. Several weeks ago, I interviewed Stephen to learn his views about what kind of facilitation skills IT professionals most need. It became clear that Stephen knows a thing or two about designing and leading super-productive meetings. That’s why I invited him to co-author this edition with me.
Together, we’ve come up with 10 tips for planning and running super-efficient meetings that help get needed work done in the shortest possible time. Although our focus here is on virtual meetings, many of these tips can be applied to any kind of meeting. (Check out my “123 tips for Planning and Running Exceptional Virtual Meetings” for more tips.)
- Invite only the people you need, and no more. You simply can’t get much done with a crowd. Who really needs to be there to achieve the goals of this meeting, and who can be involved another way (or perhaps not involved at all)? If it’s a project team meeting, say, perhaps only the decision-makers are needed, and not necessarily the entire team. If you must invite more people than can reasonably be included in the conversation, think about how you can let others know that they are being asked simply to listen. Once you determine whose participation is essential, set expectations accordingly, making your reasoning clear to all.
- Invite only the right people. If a critical decision is called for, those with authority must be present. Sending a subject matter expert who is not empowered to make a decision will only waste everyone’s time, as the decision will likely need to be revisited, if not reversed. On the other hand, some decision-makers may lack the proper context and knowledge to make a well-informed decision. Consider inviting both SME and decision-maker, if need be. Better yet, appeal to the SME’s manager and request that s/he have authority to make any needed decision. Be clear what the implications are, so the decision-maker is not surprised later on, which may mean having to rethink the decision.
- Do a stakeholder analysis in advance, especially if there’s a weighty decision to be made. Reach out to people you know and trust to find out more about key decision-makers, their likely perceptions and predispositions, communications style, relationships with other participants, and other important information that will help you facilitate the decision-making process. If there’s a lot on the line, vet this information with others in the know. You always want to anticipate and minimize, if not eliminate, any surprises that can throw a meeting off track.
- Create an agenda that facilitates the conversation, and send it in advance. Make objectives clear, and explain how each topic will be treated during the call. For example, an update about the disposition of current issues might be listed as information-sharing, letting people know they won’t have to participate actively. (Note: A topic that doesn’t require active participation should be an exception rather than the rule!) On the other hand, if the team needs to decide whether to postpone a key milestone, then a discussion is required, as well as preparation by all. The more people need to be prepared to actively participate, the more you’ll need to set clear expectations up front. View a (very detailed) actual virtual meeting agenda.
- Insist on the necessary preparation. Nothing drags a meeting down like people who come unprepared to participate actively. If several people come unprepared, you may need to reschedule the meeting for another time. If your meeting is tightly-orchestrated (as many highly-productive meetings are), you won’t have time to review content that everyone was expected to read ahead of time. Other options: Ask those who didn’t prepare to step out of the conversation to catch themselves up and then rejoin the conversation when they’re ready. Try scheduling a content review call in advance of your meeting, as an option to independent prework. Create a culture where completing prework is expected, and a lack of preparation carries consequences.
- Reward those who join on time. You may want to allow up to five minutes for people to join the call, but don’t delay the start much more than that, especially for a 30-minute meeting. If key people are 5-10 minutes late, you may need to reschedule the meeting to avoid wasting everyone else’s time. Another option: Re-order the agenda so you can go ahead with at least part of your meeting. When latecomers arrive, you have a choice as to whether to let them catch up by listening for a minute or two, or by offering to catch them up – very quickly! Keep in mind that the more concessions you give to latecomers, the more likely they’ll be to come late next time. Discuss possible ways to handle any potential showstoppers with your sponsor before the meeting, and make sure you’re in agreement about the best way to address each challenge.
- Keep people actively engaged, but not too much. It’s important to strike a balance between keeping things going at a brisk pace and allowing enough time for people to have the needed conversations. Be ready to call on people by name when their participation is most needed. At the same time, keep a watchful eye on the clock. You never want to cut someone off once you’ve invited her input, so be clear about what you’re asking, to encourage brevity. As a rule, having everyone look at the same document or electronic flipchart on a shared screen can really help keep people focused. (People who attend our Planning and Running Engaging Virtual Meetings workshops say they love the tips they learn about keeping people involved in the conversation and away from email.)
- Summarize actions and decisions at the end of each meeting, while everyone is on the call. You may not need to send out minutes after all of your meetings, but you do need to give a verbal summary at the end of each call, to ensure shared understanding and clear commitments. Allocate enough time at the end of each call, and make this practice a routine. It’s amazing how many people either didn’t follow the conversation, or quickly (and conveniently) forgot what they have committed to (or hope that you do!) Whether or not to send formal meeting minutes depends on a variety of factors, including the extent to which everyone on the call took their own notes, especially related to their actions and commitments.
- End the meeting early if you’re all done. If you finish what you set out to do before the official end time, by all means, declare the meeting over. No one will be unhappy that you’ve just given them a gift of more time in their day, and people will be impressed by your ability to help people get so much done in such a short time.
- Question whether your meeting is really needed. Even though you have a weekly standing project review meeting, for example, no routine meeting should always be sacred. You may want to cancel the meeting if your objectives can be met just as well other ways. (Test this assumption with others to make sure they’re in agreement.) On the other hand, if your team is at a critical stage where relationship-building is important, rethink how best to use the scheduled meeting time to facilitate this. Most meetings have both tangible objectives as well as experiential objectives. Before you call off a given meeting, be clear on what participants may be losing as they gain more time back in their days.
Most people experience far more badly-run meetings than productive meetings. That’s why so many people will do almost anything to avoid them, and prefer to get work done another way. But, if you put the time and effort into designing meetings that make the best use of peoples’ time and experience, you can set the standard for the kind of super-productive, enjoyable meeting that people actually look forward to.