Productivity Knowledge Base: 10 Steps to Productive Meetings
|It may seem
"productive meetings" is an oxymoron. Studies of meetings show
they are anything but productive. In fact, studies done over the past
five decades have consistently shown meetings to be the single largest
productivity killer in the typical organization. But, this does not have
to be the case with your organization.
A related site, Mindconnection, offers a course called The Secrets of Effective Meetings. You'll find effective ways to change your meetings from time-wasting exercises in torture into useful and powerful business tools.
Here's a look at the 10-step process, which is just a fraction of what you need to know:
Step 1. Devise a preliminary agenda.
Begin with the end in mind (S. R. Covey). Most people hate meetings because they are painfully pointless—no driving purpose, and no agenda. State the meeting purpose, then list the activities you want to cover. Be sure you show the number of minutes allotted for each. That, too, may change based on feedback.
Step 2. Hold a real, not phony, meeting.
If your goal is to disseminate new information, you can do that without a meeting billed as "Getting your opinion." Managers may use this tactic to get "buy in," but instead they make attendees feel the manager doesn’t want to hear their opinions. Decide the purpose, and stick to it. Don't do bait and switch, or you'll get attendees who are neither prepared nor especially happy to be there.
Step 3. Decide who can serve the purpose of the meeting, and whom the meeting serves.
Don’t invite your boss in hopes the meeting will impress him/her. In fact, you should avoid inviting your boss, because bosses often upstage meetings their subordinates attempt to conduct while the boss is present. Consider sending non-essential people the agenda. In the body of the e-mail to which your agenda is attached (or ahead of the agenda if it’s in the body of your e-mail), put in a disclaimer like this one:
The purpose of this e-mail is to keep you in the informational loop. Because meetings use time, the attendee list is as small as possible for this particular meeting. Out of respect for your time, your participation is not required. But, you have the agenda and will receive the minutes because you are an important part of the team. If you have any comments on the agenda material, I will be happy to represent your views at the meeting and so note them in the minutes. Please have those comments to me by noon Wednesday the 18th, which is 24 hours before the meeting. Thanks!
Step 4. Always include a non-essential or non-urgent item near the end of the agenda.
This can be a time buffer if someone derails the meeting. It is something you can throw away, if you need more time for other items you had to table earlier. It also allows you to prevent the whole meeting from being one big headache-generating session where everything—no matter how minor—takes on supreme importance.
Step 5. Ask for agenda comments well before the meeting.
Weigh comments against the proposed agenda and revise accordingly. This isn’t a matter of counting votes, though. It’s a matter of weighing what will be the most productive use of the attendees’ time. You may end up changing the entire proposed agenda to match the new input.
Step 6. Finalize the agenda.
Decide how much time to allot for each item. Allow 2 to 5 minutes for "tabled items and off-agenda items." Some "Last-minute Larry" may introduce a topic nobody had time to prepare for. Adding a slot for this is a sort of safety valve. Be sure to start the meeting at an odd time (0858, rather than 0900), and show the starting and ending time for each activity.
Step 7. Do any necessary tweaks, and then release a final agenda.
This should include the meeting time and place—perhaps even directions on how to get there. When giving the time, follow these tips:
a. Start at an odd time: 0903, not 0900. This shows you expect people to be there when it starts. If you feel this technique would make you look like an oddball who can’t win friends or influence people, take heart. The popular Dale Carnegie communications and leadership courses use this very same technique—to great effect. Experienced negotiators know, too, that an asking price of $5,127.36 is far less likely to be countered than a price of $5,000.00.
b. Don’t rely on the confusing 12-hour clock. Many people, including me, prefer the 24-hour clock. Use both. If the meeting is at 1404, then write it like this: "The meeting begins at 1404 (2:04 PM) and ends promptly at 1444 (2:44 PM). To accommodate everyone’s busy schedule, we will start and end exactly on time."
c. Understand date formats are confusing. What is 3/4/02, for example? A database person would read that as 2003 April 02. A military person or other person with international experience would read that as 03 April 2002. Others would read that as March 04, 2002. If spoken, it could come across to some as a military order to march forth! So, use letters to designate the month. I’d express the date as 03APR2002. It doesn’t hurt to add the day of the week, either. Make sure you match the correct day of the week with that day of the month!
d. If people need to meet in a lobby before going to a meeting room, allow time for his before the starting time. Otherwise, the first 10 minutes of your meeting will involve moving people from the lobby to the meeting room. So, do it like this: "Meet in lobby by 1357 (1:57 PM)—I suggest bringing something to read and aiming for 10 minutes earlier because of traffic." Note, if you say "in case of traffic," the typical response will be "it won’t happen to me" and folks will still be late.
Step 8. Stick to the agenda.
Don’t budge even a minute. Simply say, "I messed up and didn’t anticipate this much action on this item. So, I am going to scratch Item 7 to give us 3 more minutes. If we need more time, we’ll table this and make some research assignments." The mere thought of being given a research assignment is often enough to make even the biggest blowhard stop filibustering.
Step 9. End on time—or early.
Period. Don’t ask if anyone wants to extend the meeting. People are put on the spot by such a request, and those who really don’t want to stay just fume silently rather than speak up. Remember, you are trying to improve the meeting experience for the group, not pander to those who can’t communicate concisely. The only reason for a meeting to continue past its scheduled time is poor planning. This is not the mark of a leader, so don’t do it. Yes, you’ll have those who object to "ending before we’re done," but you’ll just have to let them know that you’ll make their concerns a priority for the next meeting or handle those concerns via e-mail. Other people’s time is valuable, and you allotted only so much for this meeting. You can prevent sour grapes by adding, "Besides, your topic is so important that we need to do more research before trying to resolve it. Can you provide a summary document of the facts to the group via e-mail within the next 48 hours?"
In What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, Mark H. McCormack advises, "Give someone the gift of time. One of the best ways to impress a buyer is to take a half-hour of his time when he’s expecting you to take an hour. One of the worst is to take an hour and a half."
Note: Reinforcing Steps 8 and 9, one high-tech company established a culture of respectful use of meetings as a tool, by hanging their Meeting Protocol, lovingly framed and under glass, in every conference room.
Step 10. Send the minutes out for approval within a couple days of the meeting.
This prevents wasting time reading the minutes at the next meeting. It also helps ensure attendees won’t have forgotten all that transpired "way back then." Another big bonus is it serves to remind them promptly of their action items, in case their own notes—or motivation—are poor. Also ensure reports go ahead of the meeting, so people know the material ahead of time. E-mail is a real time-saver—use it.
The course called The Secrets of Effective Meetings also shows you how to be a power attendee. You can turn meetings into something useful, or you can endure them as an institutional "necessary evil." The choice is yours.
Do you want to radically improve how well people in your organization make use of the limited number of hours in each work day?
Contact me to arrange a time when we can talk about a presentation: firstname.lastname@example.org. Why arrange a time? So I can give you full attention during the call. There's a really powerful time management tip. Ask me why it works.