True or false: If a meeting ends with no actions, you didn’t really need the meeting in the first place. My vote: Mostly true. Although some meetings may be held simply to cross-pollinate information or brainstorm new ideas, the goal of most meetings is to get something concrete accomplished. A resulting list of actions is often the most reliable barometer of progress.
Why then do so many meetings end up with few, if any, action items? I have some suspicions. Simply put, I think that many of us give up too easily, offering a variety of excuses, some of which I have enumerated below. For every excuse, I’ve provided at least a couple of choices.
Whether meetings are face to face, virtual, or a blending of the two, we can almost always do a better job wrapping up cleanly with a list of unambiguous actions and next steps. And if we do, we will be amazed by what actually gets done.
- We always run out of time before we can get to actions. Of course you do. Maybe it’s because you never allocated a reasonable amount of time in your agenda to begin with. Or maybe you’ve let conversations get so badly off track that you have to skip over certain “optional” segments like action planning. Whatever the reason, it’s time to make new habits right now. Be vigilant about protecting the last 5-10 minutes of each meeting (or more time for a longer meeting) to review actions, deliverables and timing out loud, while everyone is still present.
- People slip out before we can review assignments. Whether your meeting is in person or virtual, put people on notice that they need to stay until the very end. In return, you will guarantee that the meeting won’t run over. Before you move to the actions portion, restate the need to have everyone stay until the end, and ask if anyone plans to leave early. If so, review their actions first to make sure they don’t miss anything before they leave. Otherwise, someone will have to chase them down later, which is never fun for anyone.
- We expect people to keep track of their own actions. Ah, wouldn’t that be nice? In reality, even if everyone did record their own actions, in the absence of some kind of a discussion, people are likely to have different ideas about what kind of commitments those actions really entail, and for whom. Plus, people who are left to their own devices can be a lot more selective about which actions they’ll get done, and which ones they’ll report on. Insist on having everyone participate in a verbal review of all assigned actions before the meeting ends, even if they’re taking their own notes.
- We don’t do meeting notes. No one has the time to write them and most people won’t read them. Well then, you’ll just have to make it easier to capture and distribute notes. A note-taking template can help, along with sections such as: decisions made, actions taken, issues that need resolution, or topics to explore for next time. Make notes faster to read by using bulleted lists, as well as boldface, italics, symbols or color to highlight critical points. Make sure everyone can see the notes (whether in person or on a shared screen) as you review key points out loud to help minimize opportunities for misunderstandings. Post or send the notes right after the meeting, and establish a timeline by which people review them and suggest any needed edits. Rotate the note-taker responsibility, unless someone really clamors for the role.
- We don’t do a great job of tracking actions, so some people don’t take them seriously. Challenge yourself to do a better job. Without a sense of accountability, people will slide when they can, especially if they are already overloaded. Thanks to collaboration tools and readily-available project management apps, it’s easier than ever for people to report on their progress so everyone can see it at any time. People need to understand that this is a requirement to be part of this team, and not a “nice to have.” While people learn this new routine, you may also ask someone to check on each person’s status sometime prior to the next team meeting. As people learn new habits, this step should no longer be necessary. Allocate time in team meetings for people to alert teammates of any deliverables that may be at risk, especially those that may affect others’ ability to follow through on their commitments.
- People take on commitments even when they are already overloaded, and then nothing gets done. Maybe you’re making it too hard to say no. Establish a protocol whereby people can make a counteroffer if they sense that this commitment is unrealistic. Encourage people to say exactly what it will take for them to deliver on this commitment, if indeed they can. Do they need more time? A narrower scope? An extra pair of hands? Relief from other work? Much better to have everyone be realistic about what they can really agree to, by when, than to have people say yes to everything, even when they know it’s impossible. And of course, they may just have to say no altogether. And that should be okay, at least sometimes.
Insisting on a verbal summary of agreed-to action before closing the meeting can be exhausting. This is especially true when people work virtually, when it’s easier to slip away early or tune out without being noticed. But insist you must, if you want to increase the likelihood that people will follow through on their commitments. Without a verbal review, followed by a succinct written summary, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether people understand what they signed up for.
Facilitating Your Way to Project Success, white paper by Nancy Settle-Murphy
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