Meetings: A necessary evil

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Why do we need to have so many meetings? Like it or not, meetings are necessary for decision-making, problem solving, communication, and team participation. Most organizations couldn’t function without them, so we should take deliberate steps to ensure that meetings are more effective, and a better use of everyone’s time. Here are some of key guidelines to improve your next meeting:

Planning your meeting

The key to holding good meetings is for the organizer to spend more time preparing for the meeting, and making the best use of participants’ time. Answer a few basic questions to make sure people won't boycott your meetings:

Is a meeting really necessary? If not, cancel it. Don’t hold a meeting just because “we meet the second Monday of every month”.

What is your objective? Be clear about why you are having a meeting, and what you hope to accomplish. Also, be clear about what you expect from your participants. Is your meeting just the most effective way to share information with a group of people at the same time, or are you hoping for input, or a group decision?

Who should attend? Decide who must be at your meeting to accomplish your objective, and don’t invite anyone else. If necessary, copy non-participants on the minutes of the meeting. Only invite people that are actually responsible for agenda items and don’t invite senior management if the topic is not at a macro or strategic level.

What is the agenda? Develop an agenda and distribute it at least 24 hours in advance. There is no more important tool for having a good meeting. Agendas don’t need to be fancy, just informative.

Who will run the meeting? This may sound pretty basic, but how many times have you seen a meeting go nowhere because no one took charge? If you called the meeting, this is likely your responsibility, or you may have a regular chairperson, or you might ask a facilitator to keep your meeting on track.

How long should the meeting be? Decide how long your meeting needs to be to accomplish your objective and get through all agenda items. Unless absolutely necessary, meetings should not exceed one hour in length.

Running a great meeting

If you are the meeting organizer, you have some basic obligations to ensure that your meeting runs smoothly:

Be prepared. If you called the meeting, arrive early to ensure any necessary equipment is set up and ready to operate at the start of the meeting. It is unprofessional, and a waste of everyone’s time if you are not fully prepared when the meeting begins.

Start and finish on time. Always start and finish meetings on time regardless of late participants. Do not restart the meeting, or recap information for those who arrive late. Always adjourn at least 10 minutes before your scheduled finish time, so participants can arrive on time for their next meeting.

Open with your objective, and finish with your actions. Briefly reiterate purposes and established ground rules at the beginning of your meeting. End with a summary of accomplishments, clarification of agreements, and next steps.

Stick to the agenda. Manage the time throughout the meeting; don’t wait until the end of the meeting to try and catch up. Keep conversation focused on the topic. Feel free to ask for only constructive and non-repetitive comments. Tactfully end discussions when they are getting nowhere.

Actively manage your meeting. Use the chair or facilitator to actively manage the meeting to stay on track, stimulate participation, and accomplish your objectives. Don’t allow participants to take your meeting off agenda, and park unforeseen items for another time.

Encourage participation. Encourage group discussion to get all points of view and ideas. You will have better quality decisions as well as highly motivated participants; they will feel that attending meetings is worth their while.

Keep track of key items. Have someone other than the chair or facilitator record key decisions and action items. It is not necessary to record every detail, but make sure you capture the key points, and reiterate them when appropriate.

Meeting follow up. If you do not follow up, all your effort may be wasted. Within 24 hours, circulate a brief report on decisions, individual responsibilities, next steps, next meeting dates, and so on. Quick action reinforces the importance of meeting and reduces errors of memory. Finally, follow up to see that actions are being taken.

Participant responsibilities

Good preparation and active management can go a long way to making meetings more effective. Only prepared, active, and courteous participants can make meetings great. Respect the objectives of the meeting organizer, and the time of the other participants by following these guidelines:

  • Respond to all meeting invitations and changes as quickly as possible. It is a professional courtesy, and electronic booking only works when everyone keeps his or her calendar up to date.
  • Respond to the agenda in advance if you think changes will make the meeting more effective.
  • Read all pre-reads, do any pre-work, and come prepared to each meeting. If participants are not prepared, the facilitator should move on, and if necessary, reschedule the meeting.
  • Always arrive on time. If you will be late, or can no longer attend, let the organizer know as far in advance as possible.
  • As a participant, don’t try to run the meeting; allow the chair or the facilitator to do his or her job.
  • Give the meeting all of your energy and attention. Turn off your cell phone. don’t bring materials that aren’t pertinent, and don’t work on your PDA or laptop unless it pertains to the meeting.
  • Don’t engage in sidebar conversations, even if someone else initiates it. If you have a relevant comment, say it to the entire group.
  • Do not leave a meeting, and do not allow others to interrupt you during a meeting.

Peter Wright is a career strategist and president of The Planning Group. As a respected executive in the financial services industry and in his current consulting practice, Peter has successfully developed and executed business strategy with notable results. Peter used his planning and training experience to develop The Business Planning Boot Camp series. You can e-mail him at peter.wright@theplanninggroup.ca or call (519) 740-2725.

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