Seven keys to running effective meetings

“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything,” said eminent American economist Thomas Sowell who, incidentally, also argued that the people who are most inclined to call meetings are typically the least productive.

Most of us can relate to this sentiment. In our recent article, “How to beat distractions and get things done”, we revealed that meetings are repeatedly cited by employees as the biggest time-wasters in the workplace. And in a recent survey of senior managers in the US nearly three quarters said that meetings were unproductive, and almost as many said they prevented them doing their jobs.

This may sound like compelling evidence to abandon meetings altogether, but until we’re all able to seamlessly mind meld with each other from anywhere on Earth, the unpalatable truth is that there are times when you will have to sit in a room with people to talk about stuff. In other words: meetings are here to stay.

Yet with all due respect to Thomas Sowell and others, the professionals tell us that the problem is not meetings per se, but rather the stupid ways we manage – of rather, mismanage – them. Workplace productivity guru Dermot Crowley, author of Smart Work and Smart Teams, says most people don’t know how to run meetings effectively.

“In Ireland, where I come from, there’s a traditional drum called a bodhrán,” Crowley says. “A bodhrán is a hard instrument to play well, but an easy one to play badly, and the same is true of meetings.”

With that in mind, here are the seven keys to turning meetings from efficiency-sapping inconveniences into powerful productivity engines.

Know your purpose

How many meetings have you been to in the past week in which the purpose was neither clearly stated nor implicitly understood? Crowley recommends that in addition to stating the basic subject of the meeting, meeting requests should also contain a sentence in the notes section that begins with, “The purpose of this meeting is to…”

If you’re calling a meeting and you can’t articulate a distinct and relatively narrow purpose, reconsider calling the meeting altogether. And if you’ve been invited to a meeting where the purpose is unclear? Feel free to say no! It’ll almost certainly be a waste of time.

Choose participants wisely

If you’re calling a meeting, only invite those people you require to be there. It sounds pretty obvious, but for a lot of people meetings serve as exercises in base-covering: invite everyone, then no one can say they didn’t know.

Of course, this often leads to a room full of bemused people wondering what the hell is going on while two people have a conversation.

Crowley says that one problem he regularly encounters is people misusing the “required” and “optional” designations in Outlook. “Making someone ‘optional’ is often seen as copying them in but that’s not what it should be for,” he explains.

“‘Required’ means you’re required and the meeting won’t go ahead if you’re not there. ‘Optional’ means it will go ahead with you.”

No facilitator, no meeting

A facilitator ought to set and distribute the agenda, run the meeting, take notes or appoint someone to do so, and allocate tasks. A good facilitator is a good communicator and an active listener who has the trust and respect of the room and ensures contributions from all participants.

If the meeting has no facilitator, it’s not a meeting.

Crowley says meetings without an appointed facilitator tend to to defer to the most senior person in the room. This is typically a bad idea. “They’re often the worst person,” Crowley explains, “because they have the strongest opinions, the strongest personalities and they end up taking over the meeting.”

A competent facilitator is especially important in a globalised world where many meetings are held via video or teleconference. “Without a good facilitator meetings like this tend to become one-way talkfests,” Crowley says.

Write, publicise and follow an agenda

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a robust agenda. While some meetings, like daily stand-ups within your team, might not require one, most do. A good agenda helps attendees prepare for the meeting and also prioritises the items by importance, giving a structure to the meeting itself.

Designing an agenda should be straight-forward if you have a clear idea of the meeting’s objectives and desired outcomes. Crowley recommends including a start and end time for each item so participants know how long has been allocated for discussion.

And don’t forget to allocate roughly 10 per cent of the meeting time for preamble, and another 10 per cent at the end for wrapping up and closing off.

Assign actions during the meeting

A good meeting will be ruined by the lack of follow-up. If you’re all sitting around agreeing that it would be really great if person X did thing Y by time Z, and no one writes it down, well… you can be almost certain Y will never get done.

To avoid this, a good facilitator will assign any actions and delivery dates to participants within the meeting itself. These should be captured centrally within the team’s task-management system – if you don’t have one, here’s a list of some options – and followed up at a future meeting.

Start and finish on time

Ensuring meetings start and finish on time is more than just making the most efficient use of work hours, it’s also about establishing a positive meeting culture.

“Punctuality” is a key component of Crowley’s “7 Ps” framework of good meeting management, the others being “purpose”, “preparation”, “people”, “priorities”, “participation” and “promises”. He says treating start and end times like mere suggestions is deeply unprofessional.

“You have to turn up on time,” Crowley says. “You need to be sitting in your seat before the meeting starts so you’re ready when it does.

“Don’t be the one walking in five minutes late saying you just had to get a coffee.”

The facilitator should keep discussion to the times as per the agenda, and ensure things are wrapped up on – or before – the dot.

Are you sure you need a meeting at all?

“Politician’s logic”, a concept first introduced in a 1988 episode of the British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, goes like this: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”

Meetings are often called for similar reasons: We need an answer. Meetings can provide answers. Let’s call a meeting.

But sometimes, if all you need is a quick decision or an update, a formal meeting may be overkill. Be especially wary of meeting subject lines containing the words “check-in” or “status update” – these are typically the work of managers who can’t be bothered reading documents. Consider declining such a meeting in lieu of a quick email or corridor chat.