How many hours did you spend in meetings last week? Five hours? Ten? Twenty or more?
I run—and attend—a lot of meetings. A recent review of my calendar turned up an average of about 80 each month. Over time, I’ve paid attention to what makes an effective meeting and what makes a bad one. I’ve tried to adjust the ones I run to make them as useful, interesting, and productive as possible. What follows is my list of 7 must-dos for effective meetings.
1. Determine objectives before calling the meeting
Don’t assume that if you get a bunch of people into the same room that great things will happen spontaneously. To make the best use of everyone’s time, you must know exactly where you want the discussion to go and what success looks like for that particular meeting.
- What are the objectives of this meeting?
- Who needs to be there to accomplish those objectives?
- What information, if any, do team members need to bring with them?
- What main ideas or action points should everyone walk away with?
Doing this homework beforehand will help you run a targeted, more effective meeting—or, if you discover the information can better be handled via email or a one-on-one conversation, it may save you from calling an unnecessary meeting at all.
2. Keep the guest list short
Are you interested in a brainstorming session? Then you don’t want to invite all 20 people from the creative and engineering departments. The way that group dynamics typically play out, only 5 or 6 people can actually participate in a discussion at a time. The rest usually stay quiet and don’t typically contribute—or benefit—much.
For discussions, limit participants to 6. For problem solving, you’ll probably need only 3 or 4 people. This may require you to choose representatives from different divisions instead of the whole department.
3. Create an agenda
Once you’ve thought through your objectives and guest list, outline the major points for discussion in a detailed agenda. Consider including time estimates for each point, and plan to hand out copies of the agenda to each participant during the meeting itself. (You may even want to email the agenda to attendees ahead of time.)
Having the agenda in front of everyone keeps you on track and makes all team members aware that there’s a definite purpose to (and time limit on) this meeting. It’s also a subtle way to encourage people to stay on topic.
4. Set the tone of the meeting at the start
Set expectations for the meeting in the welcome. Are you giving directions, making an announcement, brainstorming, or working? How much participation, if any, do you expect from each person? The agenda may cover some of this, but it’s good to verbalize it as well.
You may also want to consider potential misunderstandings or causes for anxiety that could affect the way team members participate in the discussion. If you can clear these up, do so right at the beginning. For example: “I just want to let you know this isn’t a condemnation of your department’s work—each of you has been doing a great job. However there are some problems that are natural to our industry, and we’d like to get your help in finding solutions to the roadblocks you have to deal with.”
5. Schedule follow-up meetings for rabbit trails
Of course, even with a clear agenda in hand, the discussion can easily go off topic.
Some rabbit trails are irrelevant, while others bring up valid concerns or new ideas worthy of consideration.
But unless the issue that comes up is so critical you can’t continue the current discussion, the best way to handle this kind of rabbit trail is to schedule a followup meeting to discuss it in full. This not only brings the conversation back to the agenda, but gives the new idea the proper attention it deserves.
6. Encourage (and even solicit) healthy dissent
If you’ve called a collaboration meeting, chances are you’ve invited team members who are good at what they do and can offer valuable expertise.
So the last thing you want is that expertise to be wasted because everyone feels obligated to agree with whatever you say. It may feel flattering at first, but if team members don’t feel comfortable disagreeing, you’ll get groupthink—the phenomenon in which an initial idea fails to be challenged.
Sometimes team members subconsciously find it easier to agree with one another. Or perhaps they feel—justly or unjustly—that the team leader is intimidating.
Whatever the case, actively encourage participants to test the validity of all ideas, your own included. Of course, this requires humility and tact on everyone’s part. Ultimately this is an office culture issue that has to be grown over time, but meetings are a great place to plant the seeds.
And the end result will be stronger ideas and decisions that are more likely to succeed in the real world.
7. End with clear action items.
Meetings usually generate a host of debate or new ideas—but you don’t want your progress to end there. You need a concrete plan to advance the meeting objectives you set in the first place.
Make sure you can wrap up with deliverables and deadlines. Delegate tasks to specific people, and make sure they are each clear about their responsibilities. You may even want to send a follow-up email to all involved listing these action items out.
Running an effective meeting takes a lot of forethought and intentionality. These steps force you to clear away the mental clutter that plagues so many office meetings, leaving you with purposeful collaborations that are more likely to get results.