How to Plan More Effective Meetings
How many hours in a given workweek do you spend in meetings? And how many of those hours feel genuinely productive to you? If you’re like many professionals, the latter number is probably quite low.
In the UK, the time wasted was counted in days – 13 per year, specifically – not hours, in a 2018 survey. A study by Doodle found poorly organized meetings cost $399 billion in the U.S. in 2019. And a study by Verizon found 91 percent of its thousands of survey respondents admitted to daydreaming during meetings. Thirty-nine percent even confessed to having fallen asleep.
Organizational science professor and author Steven G. Rogelberg wrote for the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Poorly run meetings have a tremendously negative impact on team success, innovation, creativity, and on individuals’ well-being and stress. … My research suggests that only around 50% of meeting time is effective, well used, and engaging — and these effectiveness numbers drop even lower when it comes to remote meetings.”
Ineffective meetings have become such a staple of work life, such a common issue to commiserate with colleagues over, you might just take them for granted as an unavoidable fact of life.
What Makes a Meeting Ineffective vs. Effective?
There is hope, but to understand how to improve the effectiveness of meetings, we first need to identify what makes a bad meeting. Three of the biggest issues with meetings are:
- They are boring. They feel routine and predictable, and not in a good way. These meetings don’t provoke discussion, and they don’t engage the full attention of their attendees.
- They are haphazard. The purpose and expected outcomes of a given meeting are unclear.
- They feel like a waste of time. There is a lot of talking, but not a lot of substance or actual resolutions.
If an ineffective meeting is boring, confusing and feels like a waste of time, then it stands to reason a productive meeting would have the opposite traits. Effective meetings are dynamic, hold a clear purpose, and feel worthwhile because each attendee’s input is heard and valued. When a meeting is effective, not only is it not a waste of time, but it can result in positive outcomes such as increased innovation and improved decision-making.
How to Lead Dynamic, Effective Meetings
Rogelberg recommends adopting a stewardship mindset as the meeting’s leader, that is, remember you are a steward of the attendees’ time. Remember that and respect it during meeting planning and execution. He writes,
“When you adopt a stewardship mindset, you become deliberate in your meeting decisions from start to finish. Being intentional and making smart meeting choices do not take much time at all — with practice, they can take only a minute. These choices span how you set up beforehand, how you manage productivity and presence during the meeting, and how you conclude it.”
So, how can you, as the meeting planner, achieve an effective meeting? First, start strong in the planning phase by using the 4Ps of meeting planning:
Purpose - Why are we meeting today?
The Art of Gathering author Priya Parker wrote in her book, “A category is not a purpose.” It might not be easy, but resist identifying your meeting simply by its topic. For example, consider the following: “Pipeline Review” and “Identify five opportunities for upselling in Q2.” See the difference?
Quick tip: Once you’ve defined the purpose of the meeting, you can also use that to determine if the meeting is really necessary. For instance, if the purpose is simply to share information, sending around a report might be more efficient.
Product - What specific outcome or outcomes are we trying to achieve with this meeting?
Make sure these outcomes are identified in the meeting agenda and made clear to attendees at the start of the meeting. Come back to them often during the meeting; use them as anchor points to keep the conversation from straying.
Person - Who is leading the meeting, and who needs to be in attendance?
Be careful here. Often, meetings become ineffective when there is no clear leader or there are too many people in attendance. If you, as the meeting planner, will not also be the leader, make sure to identify someone for that role. Take care to only invite those who have a specific role, and if decisions need to be made, make sure the relevant decision maker(s) is in attendance.
Process - Exactly how will the meeting proceed toward its objectives?
Are there any ground rules or shared expectations for the meeting? E.g. presenters will have a maximum of two minutes to speak to keep things moving efficiently. Make these rules clear at the start of the meeting, and also assign any administrative tasks, like recording minutes or timekeeping, beforehand.
A big part of the process is the meeting’s agenda. The agenda should lay out what outcomes you are there to achieve and how much time is allotted for each item so attendees know how to prepare. Take care not to plan a longer meeting than necessary – as short as possible is generally best. Check out this article for more about how to create a great agenda.
Let’s assume in addition to planning the meeting, you are also its leader. During the meeting itself, use purposeful statements, meaning be specific about the who, what and when of your points. Here are a few types of purposeful statements and examples:
Summary: The marketing team will share ad data with us on Tuesday, and we’ll go from there.
Transition: We’ll need approval to move forward with this, so let’s move on.
Time: We have about 10 minutes left; let’s check in with the product development team now.
Observation: It sounds like the group prefers Option A over Option B for the cover.
Tabling: This topic definitely needs more time. I’ll schedule a follow-up meeting for Wednesday.
Of course, even the most well-planned meetings can go off the rails in the moment. There are lots of ways this can happen: The group is spending too much time on one agenda item or veering off topic, one or a few people are dominating the meeting, folks are having side conversations or doing other work, or people are just generally not engaged. As the meeting leader, it is your job to keep things on track.
A few general strategies to return to equilibrium include:
- Make an Observation
- Use a purposeful statement to suggest a process or next step
For example, let’s say the group seems to keep repeating itself, and a decision is not being made. Here’s how you can apply the above tactics:
- Make an observation that the group is revisiting the topic. Summarize what has been said so far.
- Use a purposeful statement, like, “Here is what we seem to agree on, and here is what seems to still be on the table for discussion.”
- Determine what needs to happen next to reach a decision, and propose a next step.
At the end of a meeting, make sure to summarize decisions made, review action items/next steps and identify who specifically is responsible. Don’t lose the positive momentum because you fail to clearly define these items. Remember also to share around meeting notes and any relevant resources that were mentioned.
As the meeting leader, you should also consider following up with a request for feedback. This will help you learn ways to improve and ensure your attendees find the meetings productive.
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