6 Keys to Effective Meetings
Written by: David J. Volk, Esq. | February 28, 2017
"There is no specific agenda for this meeting. As usual, we'll just make unrelated emotional statements about things which bother us…" Dilbert.
Most meetings are terrible. They don’t have to be. It is pretty easy to change to an effective meetings model. You simply need to plan and work efficiently. The bad meeting is the enemy of time and accomplishment. There are only so many hours in the day. Every moment of wasted time takes us away from achieving our objectives. So, every moment wasted in a meeting takes us off the path we need to be walking. When we realize that every minute in time is precious, we begin to honor each of those minutes. If you honor each minute, your outcomes improve. Your skill level improves. Your wisdom improves.
If you set and run the meeting, treat that power as a responsibility to the others. Don’t waste their time! Be direct and clear in what you are saying. If you want some follow up action taken, be direct and clear about that.
If you are attending, you have a role to play. You need to be an engaged participant and help the meeting move along by effectively participating. Do not take the meeting to a discussion area unrelated to the objective. Try to get the discussion back on track if another participant tries to hijack it. Some chairs do not have the personality or emotional strength to do that. You may need to help them. The questions you ask and comments you make must be on the subject at hand. This is also the perfect time to raise questions to understand what is being said. If you are expected to take follow up action after the meeting, you are well advised to know what you are supposed to do. Take detailed notes. Writing something you hear gives you five to six times the recollection of the subject matter. It also gives you something to refer back to aside from going back to a person to ask what was said. Be in the moment and fully engaged. Do you want to get a supervisor angry? Don’t pay attention when they are instructing you to do something.
Perspectives and roles vary. I have run thousands of meetings through consulting with clients, potential clients, and witnesses, as President or Chair of various organizations, as a litigation team leader and law firm owner, as an officer in a family business, and chair of a Bar Committee. I have had over 800 Court hearings and over 80 trials which are meetings of sorts. I have served on Florida and Brevard County Bar Association Committees, been a law firm associate and partner, and a board member of various organizations. There is a theme.
Your key to a good meeting: plan and prepare ahead of time then work fast with structure.
1. The Agenda
Chair: Think of a meeting as a journey. A journey you are unfamiliar with. And what do you need on a journey you are unfamiliar with? You need a road map. Your destination is the end of the agenda having accomplished things. Get there as effectively and efficiently as possible. Your Agenda is a bullet point or numbered point list. Write topics rather than sentences. Make the points sound interesting. Think how important the title of an article is. You are trying to intrigue and hook people. Assign topics to individuals where you can. It keeps the meeting interesting if different voices are heard. The assigned individuals will have more buy in and prepare in advance if they know they own something.
What happens to a journey that goes off course? Time is wasted. If you are running the meeting and it gets off course, politely get it back on track. Someone that has taken you off track is interfering with your objective.
Plan your agenda in advance. Decide what you are trying to accomplish. Here are some examples.
- Do you want a decision?
- Do you want to generate ideas?
- Are you getting status reports?
- Are you communicating information?
- Are you making plans?
- Are you soliciting information?
- Are you answering questions?
- Are you brainstorming ideas?
- Are you solving problems?
- Are you networking?
- Are you selling an idea, product, or service?
- Are you showing or providing support for others?
To help you determine what your meeting objective is, complete this sentence:
“At the close of the meeting, I want the group to ....”
Next, determine whether you need help to plan your agenda. Each of these items requires attention:
- Needed participants
- Discussion items leading to accomplishment of each goal
- Time needed for discussion of each item
- Date, time, and suitable location that will hold all participants comfortably
- Consider attendee advance work for the meeting such as reading, documentation, data, meeting minutes from a prior meeting, or any other preparation that will make your meeting successful. Attach materials to the meeting notice and agenda when you distribute them to the attendees.
Attendee: if you are invited and see the agenda and materials in advance, do you need to make suggestions to the chair to make the meeting more effective? You may want to see about adding items to the agenda or getting advance information to be better prepared to participate.
- Review the meeting’s purpose, agenda, and expected outcomes.
- Review the minutes of the prior meeting.
- Review participants' progress on commitments and action items made at the prior meeting.
Running The Meeting:
Enthusiasm Seek to build enthusiasm. That generates commitment and a feeling of accomplishment from the participants. People feel part of something bigger than their day-to-day challenges. That sets the stage for follow-up results.
Move It Along You have to keep the agenda moving. You can allow brief digressions. You run the risk of offending the offender that takes you off course. Better to let them babble a bit then forcefully bring things back on track by say something like, ‘getting back to the business at hand, ….’ Only the hardest cement head will not realize what just happened. Frowning, but not cutting them off, while they are babbling can also work wonders.
Rely On and Reinforce Advance Preparation Refer to the pre-meeting materials supplied prior to the meeting. This reinforces the need to spend advance time to review material that is integral to accomplishing the desired results. You participants will prepare prior to attending your meetings and your results will bear testimony to solid preparation and leadership. Sometimes, you will realize virtually no one read the advance materials. It happens. People get busy and forget. If it happens frequently, consider leaving the meeting and coming back after telling the attendees to read what should have already been read already. That is not a pretty moment, but it sends a message about the importance of your time.
Involve Each Participant Every work group has various personalities that show up for meetings. From quiet to dominators, involve each attendee in the accomplishment of the meeting goals. Each participant must be invested in the topic of the meeting and in the follow-up. You accomplish more with the whole team pulling than with one dominant staff person trying to push everyone else up the hill.
Two way communication is valuable. Build a climate of safe speaking. Don’t embarrass anyone for a dumb remark. One way to do that is to say ‘no’ and explain why that is a bad idea. Don’t make it clear what decision you will make. Who participates when the outcome is preordained? Ask questions to get people to open up. Look at them when they speak and be careful with your body language to show you are actively listening. Others are probably watching you to see what you think of the speaker. It affects how comfortable they are in sharing their thoughts. Thank people for their input and praise good comments.
The note taker or leader reviews the commitments made during the meeting as a final agenda item. Include the following:
- the specific action item
- the person who committed to “owning” accomplishment of the item
- the due date
- agreement about what constitutes completion of the action item
Attendee: Of course, review the materials.
Did you agree at a previous meeting to accomplish tasks? Is your work done? Better get it done. It will come up.
Chair: Start on time. Budget the meeting time. Spend within your means with meetings. Decide how long the meeting must last and stick to that time frame or do better. Now there is a novel concept: get the meeting done quicker than anticipated. See how great it feels.
Attendee: If you are not running the meeting, ask the chair how long it is expected to last. Some difficult people will not appreciate that question. They could think it is a challenge to their authority or judgment in having the meeting in the first place. Or, that you do not want to attend. Refer to our previous materials on Dealing With Difficult People for a greater scope of strategies. Still, understand that if the person calling the meeting could be offended by such a question, you need to make the person understand the reason you are asking is for a logical and intelligent reason and not an attack.
3. Note Taking
At Google in 2006 and likely today, those who missed meetings received a copy of the notes. When people are trying to remember what decisions were made, in what direction the team is going, and what actions need to be taken, they can simply review the notes.
4. The Time Template and Office Hours
The open-door manager is in big trouble. He has things to get done like everyone else. If he can be interrupted whenever someone needs him, he will get constantly interrupted. The law office management organization Atticus suggests managing your day through a time template where you allocate time for various tasks. They suggest a concept within the time template called power time. During that time in my office, others are not allowed to call or come in to talk with you.
Why is uninterrupted work time so valuable? In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, as the Amazon.com summary tells us, ‘Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates that being in the flow of an activity is one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences a person can have. The exhaustive case studies, controlled experiments and innumerable references to historical figures, philosophers and scientists through the ages prove Csikszentmihalyi's point that flow is a singularly productive and desirable state.’ Being constantly interrupted breaks that state of mind. Csikszentmihalyi says it takes us seven minutes to get back in that deep state of concentration.
Office Hours is a concept from Marissa Mayer at Google. Beginning at 4 p.m., for 90 minutes a day, Mayer holds office hours. Employees add their name to a board outside her office, and she sees them on a first-come, first-serve basis. During office hours, Mayer can get through up to 15 meetings, averaging seven minutes per person.
So, try putting time on your weekly template blocked for people to meet with you including time where people can stop in for ‘a quick question’ or discussion.
5. Follow Up
After the meeting, determine what went well and what could have been done better. Evaluate effectiveness based on how well you met the objective. This will help you continue to improve your process of running effective meetings.
You may even want to get the participants' feedback as well. Depending on the time frame, this debriefing can be done within the meeting itself or afterward.
Finally, prepare the meeting summary notes. Forward this to all participants and other stakeholders. It is a record of what was accomplished and who is responsible for what as the team moves forward. This is a crucial part of effective meetings that often gets overlooked. You need a written record of what transpired, along with a list of actions that named individuals have agreed to perform.5.
Meetings Are NOT Good For-
Updates: If the flow of information is one way, send an email instead.
Getting slackers on track: Berating or embarrassing people in front of their peers doesn't improve motivation, and it wastes everyone else's time. Have a one-on-one conversation instead.
Getting everyone on your page: If there's disagreement about a project, approach team members individually and find out what they need to move forward. In a group setting, they might gang up on you.
Whipping up enthusiasm: Motivation is a daily management challenge, not a one-time fix. If your team is losing steam, find out why in private conversations and address each person's issues separately.
See, it is easy. With a little bit of thought, planning, and discipline in conducting the meeting and following up, you are going to be great at it.
Carmine Gallo, How to Run a Meeting Like Google, Business Week, September 27, 2006
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial; First Edition Ed. (February 1, 1991)
Susan M. Heathfield, Meeting Agenda, About.com Guide, Human Resources,
Susan M. Heathfield, Meeting Agenda, About.com Guide, Human Resources,
Cyrus Farivar, How to Run an Effective Meeting, CBS MoneyWatch, April 9, 2007
Running Effective Meetings, Establishing an Objective and Sticking to It, MindTools,
How To Organize And Run Effective Meetings, Marlene K. Rebori. Community and Organizational Development Specialist. The University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension
The matters discussed here are general in nature and are not to be relied upon as legal advice. Every specific legal matter requires specific legal attention.
The law is constantly changing and matters discussed today may not be the same tomorrow. Legal matters are also subject to different interpretations by attorneys, judges, jurors and scholars. No attorney-client relationship is intended or created as a result of matters discussed here. You should consult counsel of your choice if you have any dealings in these areas of the law. Volk Law Offices, P.A. and its attorneys make no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the matters addressed.