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Guide to Effective Meetings

Project Management / March 30, 2016

It is always surprising me to see organizations struggling with having effective meetings. Everyone hates meetings where you sit for hours in a small room with stuffy air discussing the same things again and again. No real outcome is achieved and you are regularly invited to meetings of absolutely no relevance for you and your work.

Besides killing the motivation of you and your fellow colleagues, bad meetings are wasting money, too. Just consider a meeting of 4 people lasting 2 hours without any meaningful outcome: congrats, you just burned a full person day of work!

But is there any cure to bad meetings? Or are bad meetings the curse of modern office work? Well, read on to learn the 7 best practices for effective meetings!

Have a meeting agenda!

When you set up a meeting, include an agenda in the invitation. If you get invited to a meeting without an agenda, ask the organizer to provide one or decline the meeting invitation. Declining an invitation might seem impolite, but asking for someone’s time without giving a reason is even worse!

A good agenda should include:

  • trigger for meeting
  • required background knowledge
  • have a goal

The trigger tells people why you want to meet. Maybe you need input from your colleagues for an important concept, maybe you want to bring a problem to their attention or maybe you want to continue a discussion, which came up previously. Just let them know why you are asking them to invest their time and energy!

Effective meetings require people being prepared. If 3 out of 4 participants are prepared, but one needs a 10 minute introduction, you already wasted 30 minutes. If you notice people are not prepared, abort the meeting immediately!

Define the expected outcome of the meeting. Maybe you need a decision to continue your work? Make sure everyone knows upfront what’s your goal!

On time, on topic

Start a meeting on time. Make sure people are on time. If 6 people need to wait 5 minutes for the 7th colleague to arrive, you wasted 30 minutes already.

Establish a penalty for being late to a meeting. For example, people being late must pay 1$. If they come up with an excuse, they pay double! You can spend the money during your next company event or give it to a charity.

Nowadays, online meetings are common. A few colleagues might gather in a room whereas others dial-in via phone or Internet. Make sure to set up the online meeting in advance. The telephone speakers and beamer should be ready when everyone enters the room.

Ensure the meeting stays on topic. The person inviting for a meeting is responsible for moderating it. Start the meeting by repeating the agenda and highlight the meeting goal. Sometimes, other topics come up during a meeting, which is not a bad things. If those issues can be clarified directly, do it. If those issues take more time, keep a note of the issue, but ask people to focus on the topic on hand.

Meet, not chat!

People love to chat. The company’s grapevine is a very important source of information. Still, you got an agenda for your meeting. So yes, a bit of socialising especially at the beginning of a meeting is fine, but make sure you get back to the topic quickly. Meetings are work. If you want to chat with your colleagues, do it in the cafeteria or join them during lunch!

Small and short

Make sure to only invite those people, who can help you to achieve your meeting goal. Usually, too many people are invited. A meeting of 3 or 4 people is magnitudes more effective than a meeting of 7.

Sometimes, people ask to be invited so that they know what’s going on. Instead, offer them to inform them after the meeting of the outcome by providing the minutes to them or giving them a short summary.

Meetings should be no longer than 1 hour. If you can go shorter, do it! Don’t debug a technical problem during a meeting, but instead schedule a meeting where you update everyone on your findings.

Have meeting slots

Meetings interrupt our work. If you are invited to several meetings a day, you got no time left to concentrate on your actual work. Therefore, establish meeting slots at the beginning or end of your workday so that you got a few hours where you can concentrate without interruptions.

Provide meeting minutes

Without documenting the outcome of a meeting, the meeting never happened. People will bring up the same topics again or will forget the decision already taken.

Writing meeting minutes is easy and doesn’t require lengthy documents. In the simplest case, just reply to your own meeting invitation and list the 2-3 main points discussed. Meeting minutes should include:

  • date
  • participants
  • agenda
  • decisions taken
  • open todos per person

Provide the minutes immediately after the meeting. Crafting an email with the points above is a matter of minutes. Most often, you can already type the minutes during the meeting. If you use a collaboration platform like a wiki, put your minutes there so that others can search for it.

Establishing a meeting hygiene

All those points are easy to implement and most of us have learned them during university or in a company training. Still, we don’t follow them consequently.

It is the task of managers and project managers to establish and enforce a meeting hygiene in an organisation. Train your people on the best practices. Display the best practices on posters in your meeting rooms. Monitor meetings. Help your colleagues improve their practices by giving them e.g. feedback on meeting agendas or minutes written. But don’t be afraid to also sanction repeated violations of the best practices described by e.g. canceling meetings where people show up unprepared. Ask for a copy of minutes.

Usually, it takes a few weeks to significantly improve the meeting culture of an organisation. People will value that they got more time to concentrate on their work. You will see less interruptions of your workday and feel more productive. And you finally got more time to have a chat in the cafeteria…

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