Eight keys to running effective meetings

I confess that I hate meetings – at least those that are poorly run, go on forever, and where decisions are never made. 

Am I alone in thinking that such meetings are a complete waste of my time? I don’t think so. However, I am a big supporter of meetings that are valuable and well-run. 

Here are my thoughts on what it takes to make meetings a good use of your time and everyone else’s.

  1. A clear purpose: Is the purpose, for example, to share information, consult, collaborate on solutions, plan for the future, or to encourage relationship building? Whatever it is, don’t rely on people’s mind-reading ability - be clear as to what the purpose of the meeting is. 

    One workplace I know does all of their information sharing by email, phone and informal conversations. They keep their meetings instead for collaboration, planning, celebration of wins, and relationship building. 

  2. Relevance: There is nothing worse than suffering through a long meeting that is completely irrelevant to your work. So ask the questions, ‘Who needs to be there?’ and ‘Do I need to be there?’ One manager I know refuses to attend meetings that are not relevant to the work she does. A great example, I think, for the rest of us.  

  3. A clear agenda: Have an agenda with an allocated timeframe for each topic. You can distribute this beforehand and perhaps include questions beside certain agenda items for people to think about. But also have the agenda displayed on a whiteboard to help people to be focused and stay on track.

  4. A strong chairperson: Although some workplaces like to rotate the chairing of meetings, unfortunately, this can lead to some people being in a role that does not play to their strengths. A chairperson who allows individuals to dominate meetings or who is dismissive of other people’s ideas is not creating the atmosphere that is needed.

    People who are good at chairing meetings can keep people to the agenda, be flexible when needed, encourage and affirm everyone’s input, manage differences of opinions well, and give people credit for their ideas. 

  5. Timeliness: Here the rule is to ‘start on time, finish on time’. When the majority of people have made the effort to be ready for a meeting, it is disrespectful of their time and efforts to then begin and finish the meeting late. Starting a meeting late, also reinforces the behaviour of late-attenders. 

    I also recommend meetings of no longer than 60 minutes to help people maintain their concentration and engagement. A short meeting can be a good meeting. However, if longer meetings are needed, then at least schedule breaks to allow people to check emails, etc.

    Consider also whether a meeting needs to happen at all. If you cancel a meeting due to an especially busy time at work, your colleagues will be very grateful. 

  6. Clarity on how decisions are made: There is no one right way to make decisions – reaching agreement by consensus, taking a vote, deferring a decision to the following meeting, senior leadership making the decisions – these are all perfectly valid, at times. 

    The key is that everyone needs to be clear as to how a particular decision will be made. There is a potential for conflict when leaders, for example, think they are consulting about a decision and team members who think a decision is going to be made by them at the meeting itself.

  7. Clear minutes of the meeting: Here there needs to be a summary of decisions that have been taken, the reason for those decisions (which will be helpful for those who did not attend) and who is going to do what by when. 

    This last part I consider the most important. Even problem performers will be more likely to act when the minutes record the actions they need to take and a due date. Even if they don’t take action, it will at least be easier to hold them accountable. 

  8. A shared understanding of how meetings will be run: Ask people if they happy with how meetings at your workplace are being run. Chances are that they will see room for improvement. So gaining consensus on how your meetings will run for the future will help them to be a more productive use of everyone’s time. 

    Your team might choose to develop a ‘Meeting Magna Carta’, which summarises the ground rules for your meetings. These might include the need for all to practise open, honest, but respectful conversation; for no one individual to dominate the discussions, and banning technology so people are focused on the conversations. 

    Apart from the traditional, sit-down meetings, there are other types of meetings to discuss – short stand-up meetings at the beginning of each day, longer stand-up meetings to encourage brevity, and by phone or on-line with remote staff. There is also my personal favourite – a short meeting followed by a shared lunch where people bring in food from their country of origin.

You are welcome to forward this article onto your colleagues. Or better yet, place on the agenda for your next meeting, 'How we run our meetings' and discuss the points in this article.

Meetings can be valuable. But they don’t happen by accident. It takes action to make them that way.


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