This is Part 1 of a two part series on running efficient meetings.
You can also read Part 2: Another 5 Secrets to Effective Meetings.
It's just after noon. You're hungry, your glass of water has run out, and you have been sitting in an uncomfortable chair for the past hour. There is a long list of things you could be working on - some of it needs to be done by tomorrow. You have to pick up the kids at 3pm and you probably won't even get to have lunch.
We've all been stuck here - the disorganised meeting. Sometimes more often than we would like.
So what can you do to keep your meetings short, sharp and efficient?
The solutions are easier than you might think...
First, it's important to understand just how much of a problem a disorganised meeting really is.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn't just that poorly run meetings waste time - even though that can be a huge cost if you're meeting during business hours.
Most importantly, an inefficient meeting wastes energy and focus, leaving you drained, frustrated. Even worse, one disorganised meeting can lead to anxiety and hostility about future meetings, causing communication problems that can undermine an entire team.
Let's look at some strategies to help better organise your meetings, and get the most out of your team.
Send out an agenda
As easy as it sounds, having a written agenda sent out to all the attendees before the meeting is a great first step to make sure your meetings are worthwhile.
A clear agenda should set out exactly what you are discussing, and who is responsible for talking on those items. This serves a few important purposes:
- It lets everyone know what is on the agenda so they can excuse themselves if they can see they aren't required. Some groups invite people into meetings just out of courtesy to keep them up to date, but usually these people just have a superficial interest and would rather just read the minutes afterwards.
- It lets people prepare for the items they wish to speak to. If they are presenting, they know when it is their turn to speak, and can have all their information planned in advance.
- It lets people think through their questions in advance, so they can be answered at the right time, without having to jump back and forth through the agenda.
It's amazing the impact a simple agenda has on making a meeting short, efficient and productive. If a meeting doesn't have an agenda? Chances are good it's going to waste time.
Set a hard time limit for the meeting
Meetings should have a hard time limit, that everyone knows about before the meeting. When you reach that time limit, you should wrap up as soon as possible to adhere to the limit. The first few times this may result in having to schedule another time to finish all the items, but it is important to keep with it, as it will improve how your meetings are run.
Having a firm time limit has quite a few benefits:
- It helps attendees schedule their time, helping to avoid them being distracted by other commitments, but also so you can complete the meeting without people leaving half way through.
- Having a time limit also encourages you to keep meetings focussed and on topic.
- It's also an important training mechanism, giving your team a better understanding of what you can actually discuss in that time period. If you're consistently running out of time, perhaps you need to schedule longer meetings, or less content for each meeting, more regularly.
It's good practice to include in your agenda not just an overall time limit for the meeting, but also expectations around how long you will discuss each point. This helps attendees see the level of detail the meeting is at. A 1 hour meeting on 1 topic is obviously much higher detail than a 20 minute meeting on 12 topics, and this lets them come better prepared - regardless of whether they are presenting or listening.
Keep it focussed, and don't let the topic wander
The key to an efficient meeting is keeping it focussed. Keep the meeting on track to just the items on the agenda and leave side issues until the end of the meeting along with general business, if you have time.
When a meeting starts straying into side topics or peripheral issues, a few insidious things start happening :
- Because the information is being raised on the fly, it's often superficial or poorly organised. This increases the likelihood of mistakes, errors or inconsistencies that can tie up a meeting for hours. Better to schedule it for another meeting where all the information can be prepared in advance.
- Attendees recognise the information is off topic, and start to zone out. Once the focus is gone, it's can take a lot of time to refocus and discuss the original issues in the required detail.
- Attendees lose context of the original discussion. Once you start to wander from the original discussion point, the original discussion leaves your short term memory and any information may be forgotten or misattributed. This means action items may be forgotten, left off, or completed with incorrect data.
- It reduces the time you can give to items later in the agenda - items which presumably are important, given they were on the agenda from the start. By getting bogged down in minor side issues, you sacrifice those important discussions for minutia.
If your meeting starts to wander, consider these techniques:
- If the conversation only involves a sub-group, politely ask if the parties can continue the discussion after the main meeting;
- Politely suggest an in depth discussion in another meeting, where all the information can be prepared and made available before hand.
Give people time to prepare
If possible, try to give people at least a few days to prepare once the agenda has been sent out, and avoid sending out the agenda on the morning of the meeting.
Again, this lets attendees come to the meeting well prepared. Otherwise, they might need to rustle up information at short notice, and chances are good that the discussion will be superficial - meaning you are more likely to need to schedule another meeting a week down the track to clarify further.
Remember, the only thing worse than a poorly run meeting is a second meeting to discuss what should have been sorted the first time!
Giving people time to prepare also means that items can sometimes be resolved before you even reach the meeting. If there is a specific item that one party in particular has a vested interest in, chances are good they will spend the few days before the meeting trying to work out a solution or answer, talking to the people involved. Then, rather than a meeting to discuss it all from scratch, it's a chance to discuss something that's already been explored somewhat.
Hold them often enough
Although this sounds a bit counter-intuitive to cutting down the time you spend in meetings, one of the best way to prevent meetings from wandering off track is to hold them often enough.
"Often enough" depends on your group. Some organisations can benefit from regularly scheduled weekly or monthly meetings. Some teams find a lot of value in short 5-10 minute “standup” meetings every single day. Work with your team to find what best suits your needs.
Having a "regular enough" meeting means that attendees are less concerned about trying to cram every single thing into a meeting, because they know there will be opportunities to disucss any new items again soon. This means they will be comfortable leaving less important items to the next available opportunity, rather than steering the meeting off topic.
Try putting some of these ideas into practice for your next meeting, but remember that establishing a culture of efficient meetings may take some effort and practice. Don't give up, though! Make small improvements at a time, and with patience your group will be able to communicate clearly and efficiently.
Interested in how CommitteeManager can help you schedule meetings and organise agendas quicker?
Find out more at CommitteeManager.com
Welcome to the CommitteeManager blog
We are a team committed to helping people work together efficiently and productively.
So much of our lives are spent working with teams and committees; meetings, group emails, conference calls and project planning sessions. But most teams struggle to get the best out of their members due to a lack of organisation and a lack of focus.
This blog has been set up to provide helpful, practical advice on getting the most out of your meetings and groups. We will be covering topics ranging from efficiency tips, new ideas you may want to explore, to long term strategic planning.
When we're not helping provide tips and tricks about efficiency, we build CommitteeManager, an online application that can revolutionise the management of your board, committee and project team obligations.
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