By Sophia Bennett
Meetings are a necessary evil. But what if there were ways to make them shorter and more productive?
C. Terrill Thompson, MSOD, founder and principal of Banyan Coaching and Consulting, has been providing customized facilitation, consulting and training support to mission-driven organizations for over 15 years. Over that time, he’s learned more than a few tricks for leading more productive meetings. He shares 10 tips for organizing meetings that can help you accomplish your goals in a shorter period of time.
Do: Plan ahead
Having an effective meeting starts long before the first person sits down at the conference table.
“The most important thing is to figure out what your goals are for the meeting,” Thompson says. “What are you trying to accomplish?”
Do you want to get people’s input? Are you about to make a decision about something? Do you want to plan for a future activity? Be sure you know what you want to have accomplished by the end of the meeting before you set the agenda.
Do: Make sure you have the right people and the right information
“One of the typical concerns about meetings is that people want to make a decision, but the right people aren’t in the room,” Thompson says.
As you start sending out meeting invitations, identify who must be there to accomplish your goals. It may be helpful to check with people (or their assistants) in advance and ask what times are best for them. You can base potential meeting dates on that information.
Also, if you’ll be asking people to make decisions, make sure they will have all the information they need to reach the best conclusion. If you’re meeting to plan the budget for the coming year, has your chief financial officer or accountant provided you with the company’s financial details? If you’re meeting to gather feedback on options for a new website or printed materials, do you have rough drafts to show people? If the answer is “no,” it may be better to cancel the meeting so people don’t feel like their time is being wasted.
Don’t: Try to accomplish too much in too little time
“People often try to do four hours worth of work in a two-hour meeting,” Thompson says. The result? You either race through important topics so you can get to everything or leave vital discussions for a future gathering.
“You’ve got to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a given period,” he says. After you’ve determined your goals for the meeting, consider how long each discussion will take and set the meeting time accordingly. If you know you only have a certain amount of time for the meeting, prioritize which tasks must be accomplished right away and which can wait.
Do: Create an agenda
Once you understand the goals and proposed outcomes for your meeting, craft an agenda that clearly communicates them. It will help everyone stay focused on what you need to accomplish. Setting a time limit for each discussion can also help keep the meeting on track.
Do: Start the meeting by making sure everyone understands the goals and the process
It’s best to send out the meeting agenda ahead of time so everyone knows what will be discussed at the meeting. But once everyone has arrived, “Go over the agenda in the meeting to make sure people understand what you want them to come away with,” Thompson says.
It can also be helpful to review your process for the day, especially if it’s a group that’s never met together before.
“What the structure of the meeting? How are people invited to participate?” Thompson says. “Be really clear about the process for people to give input. If you’re trying to make a decision, the process is probably going to be something like share information, discuss and take a vote. Make sure the process is clear, so people know what stage you’re in at each moment.”
Don’t: Skip lunch
“If you’re having a longer meeting, like a half day or full day, remember that breaks and mealtimes are a productive use of time,” Thompson says.
People need time to mull over what they’ve learned outside the intensity of a meeting. After they have a break, they’ll come back with a fresh perspective that can be invaluable to your decision-making process. These unstructured times can also serve as terrific opportunities for team building and networking.
Don’t: Make decisions multiple times
We’ve all been there: the meeting where someone says, “I thought we already agreed on that,” and someone else says, “No, we didn’t.” Rehashing previous conversations can eat up a lot of time.
“It’s really important that you’re clear when the decision is reached,” Thompson says. “Say, ‘We’ve reached a decision and here’s what I think it is,’ then make sure everyone agrees. Have someone take notes so the decision is recorded and share the notes with the people who were there so there’s a record.”
Do: Note any follow-up needed after the meeting
“Most meetings have a next step,” Thompson says. “Make sure people know who is responsible for what.”
For teams that have weekly or monthly meetings, start each one with a review of the to-do list generated at the last meeting. Ask each person if they’ve accomplished their tasks. If yes, what was the outcome? If no, why didn’t they accomplish it? Does it need to be abandoned or assigned to someone else? What is new deadline for completing the task?
Do: Try to make the meeting fun
“There’s no reason all meetings have to take place sitting around a table and talking,” Thompson says. “There are a lot of creative activities and designs that can bring out better thinking.”
Can you hold meetings outside in the summer? Can you start each gathering with a game or questions designed to get the creative juices flowing? Can you turn problem-solving into a game by using sticky notes or other office supplies?
Don’t: Have a meeting if you don’t need one
Sophia McDonald Bennett is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Eugene, Oregon.