Effective meetings: your step-by-step guide

Effective meetings are a great opportunity to align people around common goals. They engage teams, generate ideas, structure projects, create energy and build forward momentum.

As meeting leader, you also have a great opportunity to demonstrate your leadership and management skills. For example, you can build your reputation, be seen as someone who can get things done, build connections and create momentum behind your critical projects.

And because every meeting is a great opportunity, we have a lot of meetings!

Most Meetings fall short

In research reported in the Harvard Business Review, 71% of executives said meetings are unproductive and inefficient.

Clearly, most meetings are not effective meetings, they are missed opportunities. As a result, there’s a huge cost and a huge opportunity cost.

Because when we should be creating forward momentum, we’re doing the opposite.

We’re draining life out of the business.

Step 1: Planning effective meetings

Most meetings fall short of their potential because barely a moment goes into the planning.

Typically, this is the process: a task springs to mind, more than one person is required, a meeting invite is sent. Then the meeting is forgotten until the day of the meeting.

As a result, valuable time in the meeting is spent discussing the purpose of the meeting, what should be covered, by whom. Then we find we don’t have the right info, or don’t have the right people, or haven’t thought about how we’re going to create value.

To prevent this, there are 5 questions to ask yourself as you plan your meeting.

Is a meeting required?

There are only 6 good reasons for having a meeting. These are:

  1. Generate ideas
  2. Share and discuss relevant information
  3. Have 1-1 performance conversations
  4. Create a forum for discussion and alignment
  5. Make decisions
  6. Strengthen a team’s capabilities

All these outcomes require collaboration and discussion. Bringing people together in a meeting will achieve the task most effectively (if properly managed).

Before you schedule a meeting make sure your goals are aligned around one or more of these 6 outcomes.

What are the specific goals / agenda?

Everyone knows that effective meetings require an agenda. But few people appreciate the real benefits of having a robust agenda. That’s because most agendas are just a list of topics.

This is a good start, but not enough.

A good agenda has several components:

  • The overall goal of the meeting
  • The name of the meeting leader
  • Pre-reading requirements
  • For each topic: the goal, time allocated, desired outcome and responsible person

A robust agenda has many benefits.

An agenda engages everyone in advance of the meeting. This is particularly helpful for the introverts in the group, who benefit most from some time to reflect in advance.

An agenda also maximizes use of time, ensures focus and clarity of who should attend (saving cost). It also encourages self-selection and people learn to opt-out if they have little to contribute. Plus the team comes prepared.

Who should attend?

The agenda also helps clarify who should attend. Remember, meetings can be extremely costly (look at this Harvard Business Review Meeting Cost Calculator for more).

Hourly costs per employee can be surprisingly high. Those team meetings with 10, 15 or even 20 participants represent a huge cost to the business.

Here are three tips to consider:

  1. It’s only the meeting leader that must attend the meeting for its entire duration.
  2. Consider inviting ‘responsible persons’ to their section of the meeting only. Or consider several shorter meetings, (see meeting duration below).
  3. Use the RACI model to consider who to involve. Responsible people must attend. Accountable, Consulted and Informed only need to attend if there are specific agenda items that justify their attendance. Otherwise keep them up-to-date with notes after the meeting. Resist the temptation to invite everyone who is involved in a project to every meeting!

For more, look at cost effective meetings.

What will be an appropriate duration?

Most meetings last 1 hour. The main reason for this? Outlook (and other business calendars) have a default meeting duration of 1 hour and nobody gives it any further thought.

How many of those 1-hour meetings could be completed in 45 minutes, or 30 minutes, or even 20 minutes?

Research shows that we are most productive when we are under pressure, but it must be the right amount of pressure. Too little pressure and we under-perform. Too much pressure, and we under-perform (for more, Google ‘Yerkes-Dobson Law’).

Effective meetings tap into this insight. Get into the habit of evaluating agendas and asking yourself: “To ensure we’re under reasonable pressure to perform, how much time is required to complete this meeting agenda?”.

What’s the prework for this meeting?

Many meetings involve an element of information sharing. One of the common problems with meetings is that they become a monologue, with too much information shared and too little discussion.

This can be overcome in two ways:

  • Get into the habit of circulating information in advance and require that participants do the prereading in advance too, at their convenience.
  • Alternatively, schedule reading time at the start of the meeting. This has the benefit that a specific time is allocated to absorbing the information, before the discussion. This approach is one of three meeting techniques used by Jeff Bezos at Amazon

Effective meeting preparation: In summary

Your preparation for a meeting should:

  • Make sure your goals are aligned to the 6 good reasons for having a meeting
  • Define the goal of the meeting and create a robust agenda
  • Use RACI thinking to invite the minimum effective number of participants
  • Make sure the duration of the meeting creates a ‘reasonable pressure to perform’
  • Allocate prereading or a fix amount of time at the start of the meeting for information sharing

Step two: leading effective meetings

Open the meeting with a ‘hook’

in his book, Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni describes the fundamental paradox of meetings: they are critical, but often painful and seemingly pointless.

His antidote is a ‘hook’ at the start of the meeting.

Participants need to be jolted a little during the first ten minutes of a meeting. When they are, they understand and appreciate what is at stake.

Employees aren’t expecting Hamlet, but they’re certainly looking for a reason to care. And that’s what the leader of a meeting should be giving them. Patrick Lencioni

A hook should be short, sharp and pull people into the content. Good hooks dramatize the need to achieve the goal of the meeting. Short stories, anecdotes, news, facts and figures – they can all make good hooks.

Allocate appropriate roles

Meeting leader: Let’s assume you’re the meeting leader. Effectively you’re the ‘CEO of the meeting’. You’re responsible for achieving a return on the investment. And you’re responsible for planning the meeting and accountable for its success.

As the meeting leader you may also fulfil the roles below, or you may choose to allocate them as appropriate.

Facilitator: It’s rare that a meeting has a facilitator who is separate from the meeting leader but this arrangement can be very helpful. Meeting leaders usually have their own strong opinions on each topic and the desired outcomes. As a result, it can be difficult to balance advocating for a solution, encouraging other voices and achieving the best outcome. If you have an appropriate member of the team who can facilitate this can also be a great development opportunity for them too.

Time keeper: The time keeper is not responsible for keeping the meeting on time. This is the responsibility of the meeting leader or facilitator. However, it can be useful to have someone keep an eye on time and provide ‘alerts’ (for example, 5 minutes before a topic is due to be concluded). It’s then the responsibility of the leader or facilitator to conclude the discussion within that time.

Note taker: The note taker will at least document the key decisions made. In addition, they may also maintain a ‘parking lot’ of items that are not directly relevant to the goals of the meeting but need further attention after the meeting. Because of their role in documenting decisions they can also play a role in ensuring that decisions are ‘SMART’. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound – by querying and clarifying before documenting.

Use the agenda effectively

The value of a robust agenda is not just in the planning, it must be used effectively through-out the meeting:

  • The overall goal of the meeting helps set-up the meeting and identify an appropriate ‘hook’
  • The time allocated is a signal to everyone in the meeting and a guide to the time keeper
  • The desired outcome for each topic guides the discussion and provides a basis for evaluating the agreed actions
  • The responsible person must agree the SMART action

Put it like this and it’s difficult to imagine a meeting without a robust agenda!

Maintain ‘productive pressure’ through-out the meeting

Whether leading or facilitating effective meetings ‘productive pressure’ is your guiding principle. Too often meetings become slow and tedious because there’s no pressure to be productive. The skill is to maintain this pressure while also encouraging participation. Part of this is to ensure that participants stay on topic, with a focus on the outcomes.

Encourage participation

Encouraging participation requires great meeting facilitation skills. To facilitate literally means ‘to make something easier’. In this case to make it easier for everyone to contribute fully to achieve a successful meeting.

The facilitator also needs the right mindset: curious, willing to suspend their own agenda when required, able to accommodate ‘controlled chaos’ and focused and disciplined om achieving the desired outcomes.

Drive to SMART decisions

One of the forgotten skills of facilitation is closing out topics effectively. We all know about the importance of encouraging participation, but to be productive it’s also important to be able to drive to a decision. This involves being able to summarize the conversation, highlight areas of agreement, recognize outstanding issues and bring the topic to an outcome.

Leading effective meetings: In summary

Your leadership of a meeting should:

  1. Open with a ‘hook’
  2. Allocate appropriate roles
  3. Use the agenda effectively
  4. Maintain ‘productive pressure’ through-out
  5. Encourage participation
  6. Drive to SMART decisions

For more, take a look at our ground rules for effective meetings.

Step 3: The ‘After Action’ Follow Up

This is basic common sense, but often forgotten.

Action items / minutes

Ensure SMART decisions are documented during the meeting and circulated after the meeting. CC anyone who was not at the meeting and needs to be ‘Informed’ using the RACI model.

Reflect on lessons learnt

Take a few minutes to reflect on lessons learnt during the meeting.

Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action. Peter Drucker

Good advice from the management guru who wrote ‘Managing for Results’ amongst many other great books.

Find as little time, as soon as possible after the meeting, to reflect on the 4 following points:

  1. What did I do well?
  2. And what could I improve?
  3. What will I do differently next time?
  4. And what should I stop doing?

And come back to this guide to effective meetings to plan your next meeting!