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“Not another waste-of-time meeting!” You’ve probably had this thought when a meeting invitation shows up in your Outlook inbox. It’s a well-known fact that some managers love to schedule meetings all the time. That’s not always a bad thing. Ideally, regular meetings help to improve communication and productivity. Unfortunately, the reality is often different. Far too often, meetings are used merely as a break from work or as a platform for self-promotion. They drag on instead of simply focusing on the problems at hand.
Many employees become frustrated with the “meeting madness” that plagues many offices and forget that running effective meetings is actually possible. But this isn’t the job of the meeting leader alone: It’s the responsibility of each meeting participant. Some team leaders and project managers see meetings as a necessary evil and participate in them half-heartedly. A meeting can’t be effective unless all participants play their part. Good preparation and clear delegation of tasks are key to conducting effective meetings. If you consider the following meeting tips before the next time you conduct a meeting, you may find that it is much more productive than ever before.
Taking inventory: Identifying disruptive factors in meetings
So, the meetings you regularly conduct aren’t going well, and now you’re wondering how to conduct a meeting effectively. Start by identifying the causes. This will help you develop a strategy to make sure that you are conducting effective meetings every time.
The most common time wasters and disruptive factors in meetings are:
- Lack of punctuality: Although everyone’s already gathered in the meeting room, one participant is still at her desk writing emails and another one’s late because they decided to get coffee and snacks at the last minute. That’s disrespectful to the person hosting the meeting as well as to everyone else who showed up on time even though they too had other important tasks they could be doing.
- Lack of preparation: Everyone’s sitting around the table, but nobody knows what the meeting’s actually about. This happens when there’s no agenda with specific agenda items, or nobody’s taken the time to read the agenda. Having to bring everyone up to speed before you can even have a productive discussion is extremely tedious. Many times you’ll lose the attention of participants who are already very familiar with the agenda item.
- Lack of structure: Without clear organization, things quickly become chaotic. People jump from one topic to the next, talk about items that either aren’t up for debate or topics that won’t be relevant until later in the meeting. Other participants quickly lose focus, switch off, and can’t wait for the meeting to end. People who know how to conduct effective meetings know that an organized structure is a must.
- Going off on tangents: Sometimes certain participants will debate at length about project details that are almost completely irrelevant to the day-to-day business of the others. Other times, topics that have already been thrashed out are brought up over and over again without being resolved. Before you know it, a brief update turns into an out-of-control policy debate with no outcome.
- Unequal opportunity to speak: Some people are reluctant to speak in a large group of people, while others seize the opportunity to engage in endless self-promotion. If nobody ensures that everyone gets roughly the same chance to speak, there’s a risk that notorious self-promoters will take over. Many good ideas are never presented because more reserved participants never get a chance to speak.
- No leader/moderator: The person designated to conduct a meeting is ill-prepared or ineffective and relies on the participants to get the meeting up and running. Without strict leadership, a range of things can happen that are rarely productive, such as endless monologuing, awkward silences, or random jumping around between topics that may or may not be relevant.
- No results: No list of effective meeting tips would be complete without this one: The meeting is over, and as everyone heads back to their desks, they’re already wondering what the point of the meeting was. Without concrete outcomes and action items, a meeting is really just a waste of time.
Anyone who attends meetings regularly is familiar with these problems. Complaining about them is easy, but solving these problems is more difficult. If you are supposed to conduct a meeting, you should let every participant know that they are also responsible for the outcome. Colleagues who come unprepared to a meeting every week only to call it a waste of time afterwards play a big role in making their meetings pointless. It’s better to openly express constructive criticism and to make concrete suggestions for improvement instead of always complaining about meetings. If the criticism is legitimate and well-founded, everyone can join forces to figure out the problem and make sure that running effective meetings becomes the new normal.
If you conduct a meeting that suffers from any of the above problems, don’t be afraid to take action. It might mean reprimanding latecomers or simply calling off the meeting if no one is prepared. That takes a conscious effort and should also fit your leadership style. But as long as you remain professional and objective, there’s nothing wrong with reminding participants that such behavior wastes their own time and that of their co-workers.
The solution: planning and structure
Once you’ve identified the problems, you can work on solutions. Problems are often easier to solve than you think, because most meetings simply lack organization and leadership. You can make great progress simply by improving these two areas.
Meetings can sometimes take many hours to prepare, depending on the meeting size and subject. But even if you’re the one who is supposed to conduct a meeting, you don’t have to do it all on your own. Delegate tasks and assign moderators for individual agenda items. The more people you involve ahead of time, the more likely that everyone will be invested in the success of the meeting.
Step 1: Preparation
The first step should be to state a clear goal. Is the primary objective of the meeting to inform everyone about the status or progress of a project? Or is the goal to find solutions to specific problems or make important decisions? Next, agree on the preliminary details of the meeting so that participants have a chance to think about questions or suggestions.
In the invitation, identify the specific area in which decisions need to be made or solutions need to be found. That way, participants can focus on the topic in advance. You also might start by collecting suggestions for topics from all participants, especially if not everyone works in the same office or at the same location. You can use communication tools and cloud solutions such as Microsoft 365 so that participants can record their notes in the Outlook invitation or save them in a shared document.
Step 2: Sequence planning
Once the goal is clear and the topics have been defined, your job is to structure the meeting. It’s best to structure the meeting so that you start with one or two “easy” topics instead of delving straight into the most complex topic. That way, participants can gradually feel their way into the discussion. But don’t save complex topics until last because people tend to lose focus as the meeting goes on.
Once you’ve defined the order of topics, create a clearly organized agenda with individual agenda items and send it to all the participants along with any necessary documents. The best time for sending the agenda depends on the size of the meeting. If participants need to do a lot of preparation before the meeting, they’ll need all the necessary information at least one week in advance. For smaller meetings, two or three days is sufficient preparation time.
Step 3: Rules
You can prevent discussions from spinning out of control with no outcome by defining a set schedule that allocates a certain amount of discussion time for each agenda item.
If you had trouble running effective meetings in the past due to the behavior of participants, you should establish clear rules right from the outset. It’s often necessary and helpful to remind participants to let others speak, discuss topics objectively and stick to the topic at hand, even if you think adults shouldn’t need such reminders.
Step 4: Moderating
Knowing how to conduct a meeting involves more than just welcoming everyone, presenting agenda items, and making closing remarks. As the leader of the meeting, you’re also the moderator. You monitor the structured process and ensure that as many participants as possible are involved in discussions. With the right moderating skills, you can ensure that speaking time is divided up fairly and everyone gets to have a say with due respect for individual personalities (compulsive talkers, disinterested individuals, or shy participants, etc.).
Techniques such as brainstorming or mind maps can also help to gather ideas from more reserved participants. You can rein in colleagues who like to hear themselves talk by gently reminding them of the schedule.
Step 5: Delegation of tasks
The most important part of conducting effective meetings is making sure that discussed plans are put into action. All too often, participants decide on an action but never specify who will do it and by when. Before the meeting ends, you should assign an owner and a deadline for every action discussed during the meeting. That person will then be the point of contact for the topic and will report on its progress at the next meeting.
Step 6: Minutes
Someone should take down all key points in the meeting minutes so that a few days later everyone remembers what was discussed and what they have to do. An outcome report is ideal for team and project meetings. This report is a table of meeting outcomes as well as planned actions, including owners and deadlines. Unlike the meeting minutes, the outcome report is not a detailed record of the entire meeting. The person doing the recording can simultaneously take part in the meeting and discussions. Another advantage is that colleagues who were unable to attend the meeting can read the report and quickly get up to speed.
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