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Conducting Better Meetings

Published July 14, 2012 1:49 PM by Glen McDaniel

Right now I feel all "meeting-ed" out. These past two weeks, I have had many overly-long meetings regurgitating the same issues and not coming up with too many solutions. As someone who is receptive and has conducted many meetings in my career, I have also been the recipient of many complaints and frustrations form fellow-attendees.

Long ago, I developed a list of meeting rules which I have shared with my direct-reports at various organizations.  The list varies slightly in both length and emphasis- depending on the organization. But as I run through the rules in my head, I am convinced  the most basic 4 or 5 still hold true in any setting.

Have an agenda.   Never hold a meeting just to get together or to meet some requirement of, say, a monthly staff meeting. If there is nothing to inform or discuss, cancel the meeting. Having an agenda means it is easier to stay on task. If the agenda is shared with the participants ahead of time, they can also be prepared to address the truly important issues.

Having a section for "open discussion"  or "Comments" sounds very democratic   and inclusive but that is often too open-ended and, depending on the number of participants,  it invites off-topic or an overly-broad discussions which could double the anticipated meeting time. If you include this section, narrow it to maybe 2 minutes each or structure t in such a way that set areas are covered. For example, a department director meeting might include recap of recent issues regarding personnel, equipment and quality.

Limit the meeting to one hour.  I know, I know. That seems too autocratic and rigid, but I challenge you to give me an idea of any topic that cannot be covered in one hour's time. Remember the meeting is not the time to hear every possible variation or opinion. Also minute details and strategies should be conducted "offline" with  the decision or short list presented/discussed at another meeting.

Knowing ahead of time that the meeting is time-limited, tends to focus participants' attention and forces them to be succinct and precise, rather than using the time to ramble or think out loud.

Start on time. Always waiting 5 minutes for stragglers, re-sets the expectations, so that even normally-punctual individuals learn to come 5 minutes later. Not starting on time is disrespectful of people's time and also rewards the "bad behavior" of repeat offenders.

I had a boss who would lock the door 2 minutes after the scheduled start time. She would do this with great fanfare and the latecomers (department directors) would still be held accountable for decisions made in the meeting. That might be going a bit far, but it was effective.  At first we joked about it, then learned to be early-or at least on time.

Summarize the meeting. It is very sound practice, logistically and management-wise, to provide a summary of the meeting. This creates a record of discussion and decisions. It is also a way to clarify action items with responsibilities. How often have you left a meeting wondering what was decided and who is responsible for a certain action?

If possible, summarize the salient points at the end of the meeting. But at a minimum, send out minutes or a summary email as soon as possible. Some organizations prefer to send out minutes just before the next scheduled meeting so information is fresh for the new meeting. I recommend sending out information ASAP. 

It is each attendee's responsibility to access the minutes, refresh their memory and come to the next meeting prepared to participate.

These very simple strategies will work for any meeting in any organization. They have worked for me in organizations large and small over the years. I just wish some of the meetings I attended this month had followed these rules.

4 comments

You touched on this a little. But we have way too many meetings. I think if the agenda is too short or not enough things to discuss dont have  a meeting.

So we go in a meeting because it is that date of the month and everyone start having side bar conersations and bring up irrelevant stuff and we have wasted an hour. It is better to say "nothing to discuss this month." and cancel the meeting. We have way too many meetings.

Mervina T, Chem Supervisor July 25, 2012 3:01 PM
Tacoma WA

Good idea, Steve. Do you send this  out directly after the meeting? I think when you send out "next steps" indicating who is responsible, it reminds the responsible person to complete their assignment, plus it also sends the message that they a responsibility to the entire group.

Glen McDaniel July 22, 2012 5:26 PM

I have found that a summary is good but I have added an additional section "Activities".  These are actions that were agreed upon during the meeting to arive at solutions.  This set up the agenda for the next meeting.  It also keeps the stakeholders accountable to the team.

Steve Bellistri, Laboratory - QA Manager July 17, 2012 11:38 AM
PA

I need to print this off and get it to my boss and her boss anonymously. We do have many meetings and we have an agenda but the agenda is so long and some individuals monopolize the meeting and talk for ever. We never stay on topic.

I can easily spend 5 hours a week in meetings: meeting with my boss, employee staff meeting, supervisor meeting, committee meetings with other hospital departments.

I hate meetings and  I agree that if we had ground rules it would be much better. But the rules have to be made by the person running the meeting or someone in charge. I got into trouble once for leaving a long meeting too early. I had to leave to go cover someone else for lunch. So it does take the leaders to buy in to conducting better meetings.

June Thomas July 15, 2012 8:24 PM
Rochester NY

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