©2003 Esther Derby.
This column originally appeared on Stickyminds.com
If you lead meetings, you can make improvements starting tomorrow. For a small investment of your time, you can return time to your staff by eliminating unnecessary meetings and improving the ones that remain on the calendar. And when staff has more time, it means your group is more likely to meet its goals.
Start with the basics: Purpose, Plan, and People
Be clear on the purpose of the meeting. If there isn’t a goal, a meeting doesn’t usually help. Bring people together when you have a specific goal or purpose for the meeting. My rule of thumb is to have one and only one purpose for a meeting.
If you feel you have to have two purposes in the meeting, separate them within the meeting. Perhaps you want to know what obstacles people are running into and work on solving those problems. Time box each portion of the work: list all the issues and declare that part of the meeting over. Then move onto problem solving. Prioritize the problems and excuse the people not directly involved in the problems you intend to cover.
If you start problem solving on the first issue, you may not surface the most important issues. Most likely, the people not directly involved in solving the specific problem will not feel their time is well spent.
Have a plan. The agenda is the project plan for a meeting. It lays out the steps or topics you’ll go through to accomplish the purpose of the meeting. If the purpose of the meeting is to review and rank vendor proposals for a new CM tool, the agenda might look like this.
- Review decision criteria from June meeting (5 minutes)
- Site visit summary and assessment from Vendor 1, Vendor A, Vendor Q (20 minutes each)
- <break> (10 minutes)
- Review raking process (5 minutes)
- Rank vendors against criteria (60 minutes)
- Next steps — actions and assignments (15 minutes)
- Meeting wrap up (10 minutes)
In the best of all possible worlds, every meeting would have an agenda and that agenda would be distributed well in advance of the meeting. Distributing an agenda before hand allows people time to prepare or to assess whether their attendance at the meeting will add value for themselves and other meeting participants.
Last time I checked, we weren’t in the best of all possible worlds. If you don’t distribute an agenda before hand, make sure the purpose and goal of the meeting are clear to participants and then build an agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Then you can prioritize and assess how much you can reasonably accomplish in the time you have.
An over-stuffed agenda is a common problem. I saw meeting agenda that listed 20 topics for a one-hour meeting. Three minutes per discussion topic might be reasonable or it might not. Thinking through the agenda will help avoid the horrible rolling agenda problem: when we don’t finish the agenda, we roll those items into the next week (so we have an overstuffed agenda again!).
Invite the right people.
Invite the people needed to accomplish the purpose of the meeting. If the goal of the meeting is to make a decision, are the people who have the responsibility and authority to make the decision in the room? Don’t complicate matters and muddy the meeting by including innocent bystanders. But what if people need to know the results of the decision? Ahhh. That’s a different purpose from making the decision, and requires a different sort of meeting (or not).
Once you have these basics down, troubleshoot your existing meetings.
Is a meeting the best vehicle to accomplish the goal?
It really helps to have a group together to understand all sides of a complex problem, reach a group decision, generate ideas or alternatives, and solve problems. Notice that these are all synergistic activities… not one-way communications. If the purpose of the meeting is to disseminate information, an email might suffice, unless the information is emotionally charged.
Trust me, very few people will be upset if you reduce the number of meetings on their calendar.
Some status meetings are essentially serial two-way communication. Each person reports his status in turn, and the manager asks questions of that person. Consider replacing a serial status report meeting with one-on-one meetings. By eliminating the serial status meeting, you’ll free up staff time. It’s true it will take more of your time to meet individually with the people on your staff. However, I can almost guarantee that you’ll hear about problems and obstacles in a one-on-one meeting that won’t come up in a group setting unless there is very high trust in your group.
Is the meeting structured to make the best use of participant’s time?
Brandon, a manager in an internal IT department noticed that people were looking bored in his weekly 2-hour staff meeting. Brandon spent 10 minutes on corporate and department information and then each team had roughly 35 minutes to update him on status. Brandon tried to spice up the meeting with jokes, fun activities, and treats. It didn’t help.
Brandon’s group worked as three separate products with little cross over. Except for the first 10 minutes, the discussion was irrelevant to 2/3rds of the group. Cookies weren’t a big enough pay off to make up for being bored for 70 minutes out of every meeting.
Brandon dropped his weekly staff meeting in favor of an email that outlined important information that all three groups needed to know. And he set up separate 40-minute meetings for each team. This arrangement didn’t take up more of his time and gave back over an hour each week to team members.
Work on improving meeting effectiveness.
If you host an on-going periodic meeting, you have a great opportunity to make incremental improvements. Start asking for feedback on your meetings, and be willing to make changes based on the information you receive.
At the end of the meeting, ask participants to rate their Return on Time Invested (ROTI) using this scale:
|Lost Principle: No Benefit Received for Time Invested Break-Even:
|Received Benefit Equal to Time Invested High Return on Investment
|Received Benefit Greater than Time Invested
The benefit you receive for your time can come in several forms, depending on the purpose of the meeting:
Information Sharing: Did you receive answers to questions or hear information that allows you to overcome an obstacle, move forward on your tasks, or avoid rework?
Decision Making: Did the meeting result in a decision that allows you to move forward?
Problem Solving: Were the people in the meeting able to succinctly state a problem, generate candidate solutions, or decide on a course of action?
Work Planning: Did you leave the meeting with a clear idea of what you and your colleagues will be working on this week? Do you understand the goal your striving for and understand what the priorities are?
As each participant states his/her rating, build a histogram that shows the results. It might look like this.
I’m happy if most people feel the meeting was a break-even investment. Still, there’s almost always room for improvement. Even if everyone rated the meeting at 4, it’s worth doing the next step to find out why the meeting worked well so you can repeat your success.
- Ask the people who rated the meeting 2 or above what specifically they received for their time investment.
- Ask the people who rated the meeting at 0 or 1 what they wanted but didn’t get.
- Then ask what specifically worked, what didn’t work, and for possible changes.
Don’t assume that a rating of 0 means you did a poor job. A zero rating may simply mean that the person didn’t care about the topic. That’s easily fixed by publishing an agenda ahead of time.
I’ve found that these steps make a big improvement in the quality of meetings and reduce the number of meetings. It takes some effort, but the pay off is usually significant.
What do you find makes a meeting effective? What have you done to improve meetings in your group?