How much time do you spend in meetings? For me, it’s currently 57% of my working time (yes, I do track how I spend my time as I make it a point to be intentional about where I put my time and energy). Even if it’s not quite as much for you, I’m sure you spend a LOT of time in meetings. As that’s the case, we better make that time count, right!?
How many times have you been in a meeting where folks talked for an hour, but at the end of the allocated time, you were just at the same point where you started from. It was unclear who was doing what next, and after a few days, the memory of whatever was discussed in the meeting faded away as well.
In our roles as meeting organizers or meeting attendees, we are all empowered and responsible for changing that – to make meetings effective, actionable, and worth the time we spend in them. Instead of wasting your time in a meeting that doesn’t drive change and action, you would better spend that time with your kids, puppy, or taking an office nap. Seriously!
Hold yourself and others accountable for more effective meetings, regardless of whether you are the organizer or ‘just’ an attendee. It’s your’s and everyone else’s time – make it count!
You need to make two fundamental changes to get more effective meetings: 1) move from agenda-driven to action-driven and 2) track decisions and progress and don’t let people slip back.
Here is what we all need to do to get there – if you are the meeting organizer, you need to build this into the meeting; if you are an attendee, you need to hold the meeting organizer accountable for these.
- State the desired outcome at the beginning – Most meetings have agendas (don’t even get me started about large group meetings without an agenda). However, agendas only tell us what we want to talk about, not what we want to achieve. And in many of those meetings, there is a lot of talking but not much achievement. Drop the classical agenda and instead list desired outcomes for your meeting. Don’t call out what topic you want to talk about but instead what the group must have achieved by the end of the meeting. If someone submits an agenda topic to you, ask them: “What do you want to achieve with your agenda topic?” Instead of “Discuss project plan.” add “Agreed on and locked milestone dates for Phase 1 tasks.” to your meeting plan.
- Allocate time – Allocate time and manage time for each of the desired outcomes. Drive to and force decision and closure on the desired outcome within the allocated time. Be really, really, really resistant against not achieving a desired outcome in the given time. It should pain you personally. Sometimes it happens, but it should be the rare exception, not the norm. If you didn’t achieve the outcome, you wasted everyone’s time. Having allocated time for desired outcomes will help you reign people back in if they go on a tangent or enjoy themselves on rat-holing or side-conversations on a topic that’s not material for the desired outcome.
- Take action notes – Take action notes during the discussion and share them with meeting attendees in real-time as you take them. Let them watch you type. Action notes are different from verbatim notes – they focus on the critical outcomes of the meeting, not what everyone has said. Focus your action notes on: 1) decisions and decision reasons, 2) action items, 3) follow-ups and open questions, 4) risks and concerns, and 5) critical facts and findings. If you want verbatim tracking, record the meeting. If you want to drive progress, make and share action notes. Always remember: “She who takes the notes controls the meeting!” (trust me, it’s true).
- Close by summarizing action items – Summarize all action items at the end of the meeting. Remember that it’s only an action item if it has an owner and a date. That means one (!) owner and a specific date (not a quarter or month). If an action item doesn’t have a date and owner, it’s not an action item – it’s wishful thinking.
- Make it real – Send out notes and action items right after the meeting. Like culture eats strategy for breakfast (Peter Drucker), timely raw notes beat well formatted but delayed minutes every single time. Remember that it’s not about beauty; it’s about driving action! As a matter of fact, in most cases, less well-formatted notes are more effective than pretty ones in sophisticated templates (however, don’t make them ugly and hard to read either!). You can thank digital marketing for that – it has trained us to ignore emails that look too pretty as they remind us of marketing newsletters and sales pitches right away. If you want to drive action, have your notes and action items directly in the email instead of an attachment and have bullet points for what needs to be done right on the top. You can still add a nicely formatted template attachment if you want, but know that what will drive action is what you put in the body of the email. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of timeliness – to be honest, I never even skim notes for a meeting that has occurred a few days ago – it’s just not relevant to my current context anymore.
- Check back in – All throughout life, the difference between success and failed attempts lies in the follow-through. The same is true for action items – if you don’t follow through on them, you teach people that you are not really serious about them, and they can safely ignore whatever task was assigned to them. Make it a point to revisit project deadlines and action item progress at the beginning of every meeting. If you don’t, you might as well not assign them in the first place. If you have a well-functioning and high-performing project team, everyone will feel accountable for their own action items, and you might not need to check-in anymore. However, be aware that it will take a long time for the team to work together to get to that point.
Walk away from meetings that are not action-driven. Yes, really do! Don’t just pretend to be there while doing something else on the side – that would just encourage the bad meeting behaviors.
In closing, I want to be honest – I’m an introvert, so I really don’t enjoy large groups where everyone is just talking for talking’s sake. That makes me a little biased with regards to meeting efficiency. Just saying…
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