By Mark B. Henson
Being in the meeting business for more than a dozen years has taught me one thing:
Most meetings suck.
But they don’t have to.
Having witnessed over 5000 meetings at our retreat center so far, I’ve seen about 4900 that could have been improved by following a few simple tips:
Know Your Purpose
No, this isn’t about climbing to the mountaintop to ask the wise man why you were put here on this earth. It’s about understanding WHY you’re having a meeting. There are dozens of legit reasons to call a meeting. Project status reports, brainstorming, strategic planning, and reviewing new business are all absolutely acceptable… as long as that’s ALL you do during the meeting. But you need to pick one. The biggest mistake most people make is trying to cover too much ground in a single meeting. 99% of all meetings should have a SINGLE PURPOSE. If you’re asking for reports, call it a reporting meeting and make sure everything in that meeting relates to sharing reports. If you’re having a brainstorming session, don’t include 20 minutes of reports, too. You’ll find that you’re much more focused, you reach solutions much faster, and you might even end on time or — gasp! — early. I’d rather have 3 focused, productive meetings than a typical unfocused, schizophrenic meeting.
Be True To Your Purpose
In other words: create an agenda. Most meetings wander all over the place because they have no plan. I bet a bunch of people read this point and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Create an agenda. Tell me something I don’t already know.” BUT DO YOU ACTUALLY DO IT?????? Um, no, no you don’t. I’ve watched. Most meetings operate like a really bad improv group. They’re a joke, but they’re not funny because they are too painful to watch.
Publish Your Purpose
Send your agenda out ahead of time so people know what to expect in the meeting. If specific people are responsible for specific parts of the meeting, make sure that’s noted on the agenda to remind them to be prepared. Sending our your agenda ahead of time gives you and the participants a chance to provide background info, ask clarifying questions, and have their head in the game before they walk through the door.
Put Someone Else In Charge
Let me be very clear about this. The boss should NOT run every meeting. You want to really keep your meetings in line? Assign the duty of “running” the meeting to your most organized, rules-based thinker and tell them their duty is to stay true to the agenda and not let the meeting wander off track. This has the added benefit of actually allowing the boss to be a participant instead of “the boss.”
Simply put, not everybody needs to be in every meeting. Ever see a NASCAR race car? One reason they go so fast is because they keep the car to an absolute minimum to keep the weight as light as possible. There are no extra seats! When you create your agenda, really think about who needs to be there and who doesn’t. You can always fill people in later. In fact, at the end of each meeting, you should always ask “Who else needs to know this stuff?” Then, make it an action item to share the right information with the right people. Once this becomes part of your culture, people won’t feel left out, they’ll feel, what’s the word? Oh yeah, PRODUCTIVE.
Meet Like There’s No Tomorrow
If you knew the world was ending tomorrow and you HAD to have a meeting today, you wouldn’t waste any time, would you? You’d watch both the agenda and the clock and you’d make the most of your time. Unless you’re having a free-flowing, blue-sky brainstorming session, most meetings should be short, sweet, and always, always, always start AND end on time. Oh, and those free-flowing sessions should end on time, too. They just have a more loose agenda (but they still have an agenda, right? Right.)
Be An Action Hero
A meeting without action is ___________. What did you fill in the blank with? “Boring?” “Typical?” “Frustrating?” “A waste of time?” Every meeting should end with a review of action items. The best approach is to capture action items as you go, then review at the end of your meeting. At the very least, set aside the last few minutes to identify action items, assign an owner for each item, and a timeline for the start or completion of the action.
As compelling and exciting as I’m sure your meetings are, I’m willing to bet that not everyone gives them their 100% focus and attention. One way to make sure everyone understands the big ideas and action items is to send out a follow up email after the meeting. Repeating these items may seem silly and unnecessary, but you will find that a documented follow-up will increase the success of moving the action items forward. And it serves as a reminder for participants to put things into their calendar when they’re back at their desk. By the way, the follow up should simply be bullet points. Very simple, very quick. Make it too complicated and it will actually defeat the purpose.
The above ideas can be applied to almost every type of meeting. Now, here are a couple of “bonus ideas” that can help improve two different aspects of your meetings. These are particularly good for regularly scheduled meetings, like weekly staff meetings.
Pass The Pad
Do people always show up late to your meetings? Jon Petz, author of the amazing book, Boring Meetings Suck, suggests handing a notepad to the last person in the door and making them responsible for taking the notes. If someone comes in even later, the pad gets passed to them to continue taking the notes. After a few meetings using this technique, people start actually showing up EARLY! Imagine that!
Ask A Challenging Question
Since our staff gets together once each week, I realized it was a great opportunity to reinforce our brand values, service standards, and the “way we do business.” So each week, I send out a “challenging question” when I publish the agenda. I recently asked “What 1-2 things keep you from being the absolute best in the world at what you do?” The answers forced all of us to think about areas we could improve personally and professionally and led to some nice improvements.
Meetings are a necessary part of most companies, and they don’t have to suck. In fact, meetings can actually be a productive use of time… if you take a few simple steps to make sure it’s time well spent.
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