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How to Run Effective Meetings

2013 January 9
by Greg Satell

Every manager wants to boost productivity.  We invest billions in new machinery and software every year, not to mention a vast array of consultants, management books and other tools designed to increase the efficiency of our efforts.

Yet I’ve found that the most effective way to get results is not to dream up the unimaginably brilliant, but to put a stop to doing the unbelievably stupid and what most companies do horribly is meetings.

A recent Wall Street Journal article points out that CEO’s spend over 30% of their time in ineffective meetings.  A wider survey, covering decades of research, came to even more disturbing conclusions (including that 40% of managers fall asleep in meetings).  Clearly, making meetings more effective is one of the best ways to increase overall productivity.

Great Meetings Start Before Anybody Gets in the Room

Every meeting has some topic to be discussed and, for the attendees to participate effectively, they need to be informed about that subject.  Usually, this is done through a PowerPoint presentation along with supplementary documents.

Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of time is often dedicated to going over documents. Finer points are explained, questions are asked, calls for more information are made before the matter can be dealt with effectively.  Often, an hour goes by before the subject at hand can be broached and by then, a second meeting has to be set up.

So the first principle is that everybody needs to come prepared.  Documents should be sent 24 hours in advance (or at least one hour before if the meeting was called with less than 24 hours notice).  Questions about documents can then be answers and any supplementary information can be prepared before everybody gets into the conference room.

Meetings are an opportunity to discuss issues of import, not an improvised study hall where people sit around a table reading.

Build a Clear Sense of Purpose

A meeting’s purpose should always be clear.  There should be a prepared agenda complete with topics to be addressed along with who is responsible for leading each discussion.  This is absolutely essential if the meeting is to achieve anything.  It should be common sense.

Unfortunately, the research cited above suggests that from one third to one half of meetings have no such agenda, even though that a full 73% stated that such an agenda is “essential” for meetings to be effective.   My corporate experience is very much in line with these findings.

This is a simple matter of a breakdown in discipline.  There are no tricks or techniques that can help you form an agenda for meetings.  You either do it or you don’t.

Following Up With Contact Reports

One thing that I have found disturbingly rare in meetings I have attended is contact reports, which include actions that were decided upon, deadlines for their completion and who is responsible.  Some organizations go further by using a RASCI system (Responsible, Approval, Support, Consult and Inform) to assign multiple roles.

These reports are usually prepared by the most junior person attending the meeting and are approved by the person who called it.  One ancillary benefit of doing it this way is that it is an incentive for senior people to include junior executives more often, giving them exposure to high level decision making and adding transparency to the organization.

As a rule, contact reports should be sent out to all attendees within 24 hours of the meeting.  For all subsequent meetings on the same topic, the contact report can serve as a basic agenda.

The Management Imperative

When I’ve been called upon to turn around failing enterprises, I learned that meeting structure is a good place to start.  People are usually fully aware of the time wasted in pointless meetings and improving them not only drives productivity, it increases moral. After all, few things affect everyday working life to the extent that meetings do.

In a broader sense, it is a managers imperative to make meetings worthwhile.  They are not an opportunity for you to show your staff what a “good guy” you are or simply to get some facetime, they are a forum for getting things done.  Anything else, destroys the basic fabric of the organization.

So get serious about meetings.  Insist on agendas, contact reports and that everybody comes prepared.  While you’re at it, ban cell phones and e-mail for good measure and try to limit them to 45 minutes (the length of an average attention span).

The results will amaze you.

– Greg

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