We’ve all been there. Stuck in a meeting that seems to endlessly drag on, thinking about all the other constructive work we could be carrying out at that moment in time. But then we brace ourselves to attend the next one, scheduling yet more, believing them to be a necessary evil of business life.
But at what cost?
Our research shows that the average professional wastes at least 4 hours a week in unproductive meetings, or 10% of their working lives. Which adds up to 5 weeks a year. That’s at best; at worst, this is double. So 20% of a working life or a staggering 2.5 months a year. Put eight people in a room together and the cost is immense.
So to get the most out of them, you should:
Check if you really need a meeting
You have to ensure that you’re going to get together, everyone needs to get a lot out of it. So consider whether there’s a better alternative, for example sending an email, or having shorter huddles with two to three people. Of course, you must have a meeting if you have tough group decisions to make, or complex issues that need everyone’s input.
Have a clear objective
To get a clear objective, simply ask yourself: ‘Why are we all getting together to have this particular meeting?’ Your objective acts as an anchor for everything you do in a meeting whether you are informing, discussing or deciding. Which is all you ever do in any meeting.
Write an agenda
An agenda is a plan of what’s going to happen at your meeting, and it sets out the order in which you’ll discuss or deal with different topics. Remember that the responsibility for the agenda isn’t just yours. Consult with participants and ask them to submit relevant items. Plan the order so that some easier decisions come first, and make sure that breaks don’t occur in the middle of tough items.
Allocate roles and responsibilities
You need to know:
- What to prepare and if you’re presenting something, what you want from everyone else
- Who’ll be writing up any actions, when they’ll be circulated and after what process
- Who’ll help keep timing and ensure that the process stays on track
- How you will decide: people often trip up as they want to achieve consensus and then they fall into conflict when they don’t
Think about having a ‘wingman’ who is responsible for the stuff that can really trip you up, like making sure IT is working, helping everyone recognise when they are going down an irrelevant rabbit hole or helping manage ground-rules.
Establish ground rules for conduct
Standard ground rules include things like making sure pre-reads are sent out early enough, that everyone sticks to etiquette, like answering phones or knowing how to contribute (butt in or raise a hand). You need to stick to your ground-rules or there’s no point in having them in the first place.
Listening is the communication level you use most but are taught least. The result is you might think you are listening when in fact, you aren’t. Work out what stops you from listening and think about how to manage these triggers.
During the meeting, make sure that everyone knows what’s happening and where they are in the process. To do this:
- Check-in: this means verifying what you believe has taken place. Do it by saying things like ‘I think we might have arrived at a consensus now. Is that right?’ and ‘I believe we’re all done with this. What do you all think?’
- Summarise: This helps everyone understand what has just happened and reinforces the key points
- Paraphrase: state what’s been said to show that you’ve heard someone and recognise their input
Know what to do when it’s not working
Really thorough preparation is a great route to success. But if you find yourself working with a difficult group try some options such as:
- Call a break so you can check in to see what people think and what they would like to change
- Give everyone the option to postpone the meeting or leave if they want to
- Check with the group that everyone feels on track and that they are making progress
- Use post-it notes and invite participants to anonymously write down what needs to happen to make the meeting work
Review your meeting
If you don’t review your meetings they’ll never get any better. The easiest way to review a meeting is to use a scaling question and apply it to what you want to know. For example rate the agenda on a scale of 1 to 10. Online tools can be useful too, though the risk is that once the meeting is over, no-one bothers to complete your carefully crafted questionnaire. Incentivise everyone to give feedback if you think that might happen.
Most of the time simple and straightforward meeting minutes do a great job. Simply use plain language, highlight actions, responsibilities and deadlines. Then make sure you send the minutes within 24-48 hours so that you and everyone else gets stuff done. After all, that’s the point of your meeting.
Jessica Pryce-Jones and Julia Lindsay, Joint CEOs of the iOpener Institute for People and Performance and co-authors of ‘Running Great Meetings & Workshops for Dummies’.