How to get the most out of meetings

imo-blogMeetings can waste a lot of time. How to get them under control? As Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem.”

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Most meetings suck.  Yours can suck way less.  Here are five structural elements that will make your meetings fast, fascinating, and effective: purpose, desired outcome, agenda, assigned roles, written minutes, and using language of accountability.

Here’s how to implement each one.

The Purpose is the easiest to do, and the most overlooked. As a meeting participant, start your (previously awful) meeting with the question, “What’s the purpose of this meeting?” As the organizer, ask and answer it before the meeting starts by stating the purpose at the top of the agenda, and in the meeting invitation.

Some sample purposes: “Decide on a vendor for the new CRM system”; “Find some possible solutions to the delays in our project, and pick one to work on.”

Desired outcome

Closely related to the Purpose, the Outcome is often some form of Decision, Agreement, Brainstorming, Problem Solving, or Status Sharing. Of these, the most boring is status sharing. You’re better off sharing status via email between meetings, and then touching on only the status exceptions during the meeting, while briefly celebrating the positive aspects. Some sample outcomes:

“Either disqualify this vendor or agree to advance to the next stage of the purchase”“For the widget quality problem, agree on a course of action, an owner, and a due date”
“Either agree on how our two departments will divide the work, or declare ourselves deadlocked and escalate to our boss”

For people used to interminable meetings that accomplish nothing, the introduction of a Purpose and an Outcome can feel shocking and exhilarating.

Agenda – with start times not durations
Create an agenda – in advance or on the fly – that includes four elements for each agenda item:
The start time (and by implication, the time allowed) for that item
The topic or question
The owner or presenter
Desired outcome

Assigned roles
Your meeting will run better when there are clearly defined roles.
Timekeeper – ensures we are staying on time
Taskmaster – ensures we are discussing the issue we are supposed to be discussing
Notetaker – captures major points including minutes
Facilitator – runs the meeting – you might rotate who runs each meeting, so everyone gets a shot

Minutes using the language of accountability
The minutes must be taken during the meeting, as decisions are reached and action items are derived. They must be written very crisply, with concrete nouns, active verbs, and clear results. A bad action item is vague — the person who must do it won’t understand it, and neither will the rest of the team.

Facilitators make meetings run smoothly. The note taker makes the meeting matter. Without written minutes to memorialize the decisions reached, people will walk out having slightly different understandings of what was decided. Within a week those will diverge to be completely different understandings. Only a written version of the decision can prevent that. Action items are if anything even more important to write down. Team members will come to mistrust each other if Joe does what he remembers promising to do, but Jane remembers the promise differently — Joe feels he did it perfectly, while in Jane’s eyes, Joe is a screw-up. Examples of bad action items:

“Talk to Vendor X”; “Resolve Jim’s issue”; “Research customer preferences about colors”

Better action items are:
“Get from Vendor X the pricing and availability of the selected widget and report back at next meeting”;

“Work with Jim to resolve his 7/23 issue re. lock washer quality – have it fixed to Jim’s satisfaction by 9/13″; “Discover top 3 customer preferences for colors for the next generation widget, with input from both marketing and research depts, by 10/10″

The action items in the minutes should be written in “Standard Goal Language” i.e. a clear description of What is to be accomplished, Who owns it, and by When it will be done.  Best practice is to distribute the minutes within one business day of the end of the meeting. (For a template for meeting minutes, click here. Hat tip to Gabe Fasolino.)

Note on problem solving: First, agree on what the problem is.  Do not attempt to solve any problem until there is an agreed, written problem statement.  This one step is the most often omitted and can save your organization countless hundreds of hours.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem.”

Tom Cox is a contributing writer a business consultant.


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