When you consider how much time you spend in meetings, it’s obvious that eliminating some and increasing the effectiveness of others will give you more time to do your work, develop your team, and build relationships. To be productive, meetings require preparation and active management, just like any other work task.
The most important and often overlooked first step to better meetings is to clarify the purpose of the meeting and determine whether that goal can be met better with a call, memo, or other form of communication.
If you decide a meeting is the best approach, start your pre-meeting planning. Develop a high-level agenda. Determine who needs to be there and confirm their availability. Reserve a place to meet. In some organizations, finding a place to meet needs to happen as soon as possible because conference rooms are in high demand. If the meeting will involve virtual participants, make sure the room is equipped with the right technology and it’s in good working order. If your meeting requires other materials, such as flip charts or whiteboards, contact the appropriate people to reserve them and have them delivered to the room ahead of the meeting time. Depending on your organization, there may be other conversations you need to have before the meeting: Do you want coffee provided? Will office passes be needed for visitors?
With the room and materials secured, return to the agenda and add details. Begin by listing objectives and expected outcomes. Then break down the content into logical segments that need to be addressed in order to reach the meeting objectives. Assign time frames for each segment and identify who will be responsible for presenting that segment of the agenda. Circulate the draft agenda with those who will be presenting to ensure everyone is comfortable with their assignments and their allotted time. Once the agenda is confirmed, be sure to send it to everyone who will be attending well beforehand. After determining what will be presented and discussed, think about how it will be presented. If attendee participation is vital, consider ways to make the meeting engaging and conducive to getting people involved. Some people are reluctant to speak up in front of a large group, so putting participants into small groups to brainstorm will allow for more connection and idea sharing. Including pre-work can be useful to ensure people come prepared, and presenting a thought-provoking and relevant video can increase interest.
It helps to have a facilitator who can keep the meeting moving, monitor time frames, move tangential conversations to a “parking lot” for later discussion, and capture ideas on flip charts. Good facilitators will bring out quiet participants and gently shut down people who are dominating the conversation. They apply structure and discipline to the conversation and can move the group toward decision-making if they get stuck. Choosing a facilitator who is a neutral person — that is, not a team member or someone with a vested interest in the topic — will encourage all the participants to get involved and prevent the meeting from being steered in a particular direction.
Close the meeting when the agenda has been met or it can’t be met within the allotted time frame. If the latter happens, acknowledge where the group is and what is needed to move forward and achieve the meeting’s goals. Perhaps participants need time to review the options suggested with other team members or maybe more data is needed. Before adjourning the meeting, outline next steps and what issues need further resolution. Assign an owner to each next step and note a date for completion.
If possible, save 5 to 10 minutes to debrief the meeting, asking attendees what worked about the meeting and recommendations for improvements. Hearing people say what worked helps to understand what people value and adds positivity to the discussion. Asking how to improve the meeting encourages suggestions, not just complaints. Often the debrief falls off the agenda when time is tight, but it’s important to include it because it provides ways to continuously improve meetings and sets an unspoken expectation that everyone who attends a meeting is responsible for its success.
Handling Difficult Situations
Despite thorough planning, meetings can get derailed. Hope for the best, but be prepared for these common pitfalls and hurdles:
Key people, information, or decision-makers aren’t in the meeting
When you realize that the group can’t move forward because it lacks important information or decision makers, the best approach is to end the meeting and reschedule. Keeping people in a meeting that won’t lead to resolution only makes people angry.
Presenters exceed their allotted time
When there are 5 to 8 minutes left and the speaker doesn’t seem to be coming to closure, the facilitator can remind the speaker that they have a few minutes left and need to wrap up. If they continue past the time frame, gently interrupt and remind them that the group needs to hear from the other speakers.
One individual dominates the conversation
If someone seems to be hijacking the conversation, thank the person for their contribution and say something like, “We want to hear from everyone so let’s hold your comments for now.”
Participants don’t speak up
To make sure everyone contributes, have participants write their ideas on Post-It Notes and, one-by-one, ask them to put their notes on a wall or flip chart and tell the group what their note says. The facilitator (or team members) can group the ideas into themes or major categories for further consideration. Small breakout groups with one member reporting the group’s ideas can also help ensure participation.
Participants become argumentative
When the discussion becomes heated and no longer productive, it’s time for a time-out. Ask the participants to reflect in silence about the situation for a few minutes and offer ideas for moving beyond the argument. To avoid more oral arguments, have participants write their concerns on Post-It Notes and put them on a flip chart. A neutral party should then present the ideas and have the group look for themes. If people are still showing a lot of emotion, it’s probably best to reschedule the meeting.
When people are having side conversations, reading or sending messages on their phones, working on their computers, and doing things that are distracting, it’s time to establish or remind people of standard meeting ground rules. Asking people to suggest ground rules at the beginning of the meeting can be included as an icebreaker exercise.