How to Have More Effective Meetings30 Aug 2014
Recently I spotted a number of people I’m connected with on LinkedIn and a number of people I follow on Twitter sharing an image about Tips for Running Effective Meetings. Since I’m always interested in ways to improve what I do I gave it a read through. I was surprised to find that as I read it through I found myself having an issue with almost every point given.
In this post I’m going to describe why I have issues with the suggestions and what I’d offer up as alternatives.
After a period of Internet research (i.e. a quick search in Google), I discovered the image was actually the upper portion of an infographic published over a year earlier. The lower portion of the post appears to have more of a marketing slant for a particular solution; the purpose of which is unsurprisingly to assist in increasing efficiency around meetings. It isn’t something I’ve used so I won’t be commenting on that product in any way, but at this juncture I do want to preface the remainder of this post with a few notable points.
- The infographic sets out the tips in very brief points. By their very nature (of being presented in an infographic) they are presented without context and there is certainly a strong possibility of interpreting the points in a way the author did not really intend.
- For the majority of the points I support what I believe to be the intent just not necessarily the statement of how to achieve it.
- The infographic did challenge my beliefs for how to run an effective meeting and is as a result very much the inspiration for this post.
Email an agenda 24 hours in advance
Assuming e-mail is the most valid medium for distribution (which these days it almost always is), then this should be a few working days ahead of the meeting. 24 hours could assume reading e-mails at weekends or assuming that people always have time in the day before the meeting. In my opinion it is better to get the agenda and any supporting documents out to people at least two or three days ahead of the meeting. In fact getting the agenda out as far ahead of time as is reasonably possible will give people the greatest opportunity to read through it and pull together their own information and thoughts relevant to the agenda items.
This point I fully support. I can’t begin to count the number of meetings I have been to where people haven’t read all of the information they have been sent or brought the information they actually require. Meetings are at their heart a way to reach a decision. Be it a course of action to take or even the assignment of an action. If people turn up without everything they require for being productive at the meeting, then there are three options.
- Make the best decision possible based on the information available.
- Postpone the meeting or particular decision until the preparation is complete.
- Discard the decision completely.
Each of these is far from ideal, and in many cases there may be valid reasons why preparation was not carried out - e.g. someone may be ill or over stretched or perhaps the information simply isn’t available by the time the meeting occurs. However it is unusual that such things can’t be raised before the meeting occurs and so in some cases there is preparation for the meeting that might be to postpone it or amend the agenda and attendees. Regardless, anyone attending a meeting should know why they are attending and be prepared to give their contribution.
Share all relevant data
This point again seems sensible and supports the “Come Prepared” item. Being able to share your data and information gives people the chance to better understand the context of any decisions, actions or recommendations being discussed. It also provides you with the chance to get others to validate any conclusions that have been drawn.
What sharing all relevant data shouldn’t do however is be allowed to derail the flow and purpose of the meeting. Unless the meeting is explicitly setting out to analyse a set of data any analysis should be carried out prior to the meeting. If data revelations are observed to be critical to the progress of the meeting then it may be necessary to reassess the agenda on the fly, but if significant challenges or queries can be pushed to a time outside of (either before or after) the meeting then they should.
No side conversations or comments
This is a trickier one. Whilst I whole heartedly believe that the meeting should not be allowed to run off on tangents to the core items, I have attended meetings where connections are made during the discussions that are relevant to the agenda and items being discussed. Instead of no side conversations or comments I would say that any side conversation that comes up should be triaged.
- If the conversation is irrelevant then it should be noted (as it could be relevant for something else later on) and the meeting should set it aside and move on.
- If it is relevant, but not critical to the overall intent of the meeting then it should be noted for follow-up after the meeting - e.g. for a subsequent meeting or “offline” discussion.
- If it is important and relevant to the meeting but not to the current item it should be noted and moved to a later point in the meeting. Either to the discussion of a later item where it is more relevant or to the end of the meeting once all other agenda items have been dealt with.
- If it is important and relevant to the current item then the discussion should include the conversation but always with an eye to meeting the point of the current agenda item.
Arrive 5 minutes early
Again the principle here I believe is sound, but there are a number of practical elements that can make this tricky.
First of all if I am running a meeting I will always try and schedule in some time prior to the meeting to prepare. Time to review my notes. Time to set-up a projector, meeting room or even virtual meeting room. As far as possible if I am running a meeting I want to be the first one in and the last one out and I want to make sure any technology I’m going to use is working and has time to be fixed if it fails.
If I am attending a meeting I want to make sure that I am prepared and so I do my best to arrive in time to settle in, grab a drink, say hello to colleagues, etc. My aim is to be ready to start precisely when the meeting is due to begin.
However arriving early for some meetings has its challenges. I’ve worked in many offices where meeting rooms were heavily booked and there would be no time to prepare before the meeting and arriving five minutes early would mean you spend five or six minutes stood in a corridor. Along the same lines I’ve had meetings where a meeting finishes in one building and I’m due to start in another meeting in another building a minute later.
The distance being travelled in fact makes a huge difference too. If you are in the meeting room just across the hallway, five minutes may be too much time to arrive in advance. If the meeting is across the city maybe you want to give yourself an extra twenty minutes for any travel delays. Across the country maybe you’re looking to give yourself an hour or two to mitigate any delays.
Arriving late of course can be very disruptive to a meeting and you may miss important information from earlier in the meeting.
So what can be done? Well my advice is for meeting organisers to take into account things such as meeting rooms being booked back to back and attendees potentially moving between back to back meetings in different locations. Review times and locations with attendees to figure out what will work best for everyone in practical terms. It may not be perfect, but if you can set everyone’s expectations ahead of time you can mitigate many of the issues and minimise disruption for all concerned. Similarly if you are attending a meeting and foresee any such issues it is your responsibility to highlight the issues and if necessary make some constructive suggestions.
- Change the start time or location.
- Include a dial-in option for a face-to face meeting.
- Have a backup plan or ICT resource/skills to hand if you need any technology for your meeting that could fail.
Start and end on time
Running to time on meetings is something I think everyone wishes for. Sometimes things may get in the way such as a delayed start or someone needs to leave early to catch a train. But at the end of the day I think this is more about respect for fellow attendees rather than efficiency. An efficiently run meeting could for example start early if everyone was arriving (five minutes early) and wrapping up prior to the end if everyone was fully prepared and no side conversations came up.
If communications ahead of time are clear about the time, location, attendees and aims of the meeting and the offer to address any potential timing issues is addressed upfront then it should be possible to run a meeting within the time frame set out in the agenda. i.e. starting no later than and finishing no later than rather than starting and finishing on time.
This one I probably surprisingly have a bit of a problem with. Whilst I fully agree that meetings are not the best place to take phone calls from colleagues and friends and that people should come ready to focus on the meeting free from external distractions there are a number of cases where I think that smart phones are useful.
- Conference calls can be carried out on smartphones and can enable attendance by in transit attendees*.
- There’s often “an app for that” and many smartphone apps provide streamlined quick access to information - i.e. you can at times be more efficient with a smartphone.
- Recording information from meetings using a smart phone using an audio recorder to capture the details of a key discussion/final review, or taking a photograph of a whiteboard or set of flip chart pages to instantly e-mail out to attendees.
* While I don’t advocate the use of mobile phones whilst driving, attending a meeting from an airport lounge or train station coffee shop can be invaluable at times.
There are also times when an individual may need to take a particular call regardless of the “smart” or “feature” nature of their mobile phone. Expectant fathers may be awaiting that fateful call, senior executives may need to verbally okay a big deal. Life can’t always be conveniently boxed and mobile connectivity is something that is allowing us to make huge advancements in terms of connectivity and efficiency. So at the start of a meeting be respectful and set your phone to silent, but if there is the potential for you to really need to take a call explain to the other attendees the circumstances and should the call come leave the room to take it.
Stay on topic
This point for me is intrinsically related to the “No side conversations or comments” item. However, I think this is a better statement as it does allow for some flexibility in what is discussed as long as it is on topic. The only caveat for me would be that as well as being on topic I would expect there to be some measure of importance relative to the desired outcome. Any discussion be it planned or unplanned should be seen to be moving the meeting forwards towards one or more of its objectives.
Be brief and concise
Time is valuable and particularly so in meetings so being brief and concise has obvious benefits. At the same time however some topics require a deeper dive and explanations need to be verbose enough as to not omit relevant information or contain ambiguity. The level of detail will be dictated by the familiarity of the attendees with the subject matter and more specifically that of the attendee with the least exposure to and understanding of the topic.
Bring a paper and a pen
Whilst I always carry a pen (two in fact - one on my key ring and one in my wallet), I very rarely carry paper. After several years of futile attempts to go paperless (having a desk where people could leave paper copies for me to read was the main issue) in my current role I’ve managed to get to a point of only occasionally jotting diagrammatic scrawls to help with complex short term tasks. I simply never take a notepad or paper into a meeting.
Does this make me less efficient? No. It makes me more efficient. I write my notes directly into my laptop or iPad during the course of meeting and within a few minutes of the meeting’s conclusion I will clean up and flesh out the notes into something others can follow and share it on.
For the occasions where a laptop or tablet don’t seem to suffice (a very rare occurrence these days) and where there is no whiteboard or flip chart in the room, I do tend to carry a fold out whiteboard
- but as soon was it has served its purpose I’ll take a snap shot of it with my phone and e-mail it or sync it to some cloud storage to be picked up by my laptop or tablet later.
You should always bring something along with which to make a few notes of your own even if you are not minuting the meeting. This will enable to you to capture any details you think may not have been minuted as well as the thoughts and questions you might have that you want to bring up at a later point in or even after the meeting.
We’re taught from an early age that interrupting people is rude and in the vast majority of cases allowing someone the time and space to talk is courteous and can yield great benefits. However, I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings or presentations where someone has filibustered so that nothing is achieved or someone has ambled around some topic to no sum positive end.
Life is finite and time in meetings even more so. I’m all for giving people space and time to speak, but at the same time if someone’s voice is too prolific to the point of excluding others or if what is being said does not appear to be contributing towards the goals of the meeting then I would say it is not only good to interrupt, but essential.
Of course the way in which someone is interrupted should be courteous. Shouting “SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN” isn’t exactly the done thing in most meetings. Rather a polite cough and a suggestion to park the discussion as time is running short and there is still a good deal to cover is a much more considerate approach. Should you ever have someone who refuses to acknowledge your interruption a more direct action can be to get the attention of everyone they are talking to - after all if no one is listening why bother talking?
Silence = agreement
Again the sentiment here seems to be ensuring people speak up if they wish to disagree. However in some corporate or social cultures this can be difficult to achieve. I believe it is much better to invite agreement, disagreement, alternatives, additional points to consider, etc. At the end of the day silence may even just occur if someone had a monetary lapse of concentration - which seems a harsh was in which to force agreement. Also whilst decisions can probably be boiled down to a decision tree of “Yes” and “No” the decisions we’re often faced with in meetings are more like “which of these five options should we go with?” Silence for agreement simply wouldn’t work for these sorts of decisions.
Some meeting are held to gain a decision by consensus whereas others are to bring decision makers up to speed so they can make informed decisions. In both cases the aim is that anyone involved in making the decision should be able to decide one way or another based on a sharing of information. Should someone not be able to decide on an appropriate course of action this is either through a lack of information or a lack of critical thinking; though the former thankfully covers the majority of cases in my experience. In these cases it is surely better to address the needs of the individual to make a positive decision? In the cases where a resolution cannot be reached then I would suggest an abstention is more appropriate than an agreement.
Silence should not equate to agreement but should trigger some discussion as to why a decision cannot be made.
Disagree without being disagreeable
Disagreement is a natural aspect of meetings. Not everyone will agree on everything and nor should they. Individuals have different likes and dislikes, skills, experiences and insights. As a result we each see the world differently.
When there is a disagreement that looks unlikely to be resolved meeting attendees do well to acknowledge each other’s position and that there may be more than one way to approach the situation. There are a variety of option that could be used to address an impasse (mediation, side-lining for deeper review or until more information comes to light, passing to someone else to decide), but when two parties can disagree and mutually respect one another’s position then it can prevent any adversarial posturing from carrying over into other decisions and tainting them.
When the meeting chair or their aide invites people to a meeting they should be inviting them based on some need for participation - not simply because they think they should hear what is said in the meeting (that’s what minutes are for). But in reality people do get invited to a meeting and they might not be able to contribute much or at all. The agenda may even shift during the course of the meeting as additional critical information comes to light.
Rather than requiring everyone participates I think a broader approach should be adopted. Attendees should attend with the intention of making a positive contribution to the meeting and they should be afforded every reasonable opportunity to participate. If it becomes clear that someone is not going to be able to actively participate and contribute then they should at that point be permitted to be excused from the meeting.
Challenge ideas rather than people
Challenging people directly is a sure fire way of building tension which is counter productive to reaching the goals for any meeting. The idea or challenging ideas rather than people is certainly a better approach, but I would perhaps soften this further still. Many people are passionate about their ideas and they have a sense of ownership such that they can really believe in an idea - ask any entrepreneur. When you challenge those ideas directly you may as well be challenging them in person. They are their idea and their idea is them. So what’s the alternative?
I think the principle is sound but to mitigate this deep belief scenario I’d consider it more like exploring the ideas of others. By asking them ‘if they have considered yet what would happen if’ and the like you can potentially help them create a better idea or simply help them understand where it perhaps falls short of what is actually required. Something along the lines of a SWOT analysis is ideal.
Follow-up by e-mail within 24 hours
Like the first point about e-mailing out an agenda I think mailing out a follow-up (presumably containing things such as minutes, actions, updated risk log, etc.) within 24 hours is not always practical. For example a late Friday meeting in 9-5, Monday to Friday, kind of organisation simply doesn’t lend itself to such a distribution. Whilst I agree follow-ups should be soon after the meeting I think the imposition of 24 hours is too strict. I would suggest to simply follow-up in a timely manner as soon as is practical after the meeting would be a better statement.
Here’s my quick run-down of how I would describe the ideas for running an efficient meeting.
- E-mail your agenda as far ahead of the meeting as is reasonably possible.
- Prepare enough so you can fully contribute to the meeting.
- Share all of the pertinent data and information at the most opportune time.
- Additional discussions during the meeting should relate directly to achieving the goals of the meeting.
- Plan meetings and attendance to ensure the meeting starts in a timely manner and complete in the agreed time frame.
- Be courteous and professional in your use of mobile devices such as phones, tablets and laptops.
- Be able to clearly explain your point to the least experienced attendee in the shortest amount of time.
- Bring the tools you find of most use for meetings.
- Ensure decision makers have everything they need to make an informed and well-reasoned decision.
- Appreciation and acceptance of another’s position is the respectful way to disagree.
- Attendees should seek to actively participate and be offered the opportunities to do so.
- Help others explore ideas to identify areas for further development.
- Post-meeting follow-ups should be carried out as soon after the meeting as is practical.
Obviously these don’t quite fit to the format of being squeezed into the top of an infographic, but then again infographics aren’t always the best way to state something.
Once again I would like to highlight that these are simply how I would reinterpret the original ideas and I’m sure there are ways that my interpretations could be improved upon and a great number of other ideas that could be added to the list. So why not share your changes and additional ideas in the comments below? I’d love to hear what others have to say on the topic - I’m always interested in better ways to do things like run meetings.