How to Improve Meeting Management
by Tamara Martfeld
One of the biggest recognized time wasters in the workplace is meetings. There are many reasons meetings are considered a waste of time including the attendee really not needing to attend, the meeting not really being needed, and poor meeting management. All meetings are not a waste of time. Some can be highly productive and beneficial. Below are some tips to help your meetings be of the productive and beneficial type.
Before you decide to have a meeting, first determine if there is really a reason to meet. If you are simply giving out one or two pieces of information and discussion is not needed it is likely that an e-mail would be more effective. Meeting regularly every week or month is a flag that the meeting may be a time waster instead of productive. If the regular meeting is truly beneficial for progress reports, discussions, or keeping everyone up-to-date on the work, they may be needed. However, many regular meetings take place because someone has been told they are necessary and so the meeting occurs even though all the work is routine with no progress reports needed, nothing is new to tell anyone, there are no projects, etc.
Once you have determined that a meeting is needed create an agenda. Determine what needs to be addressed and how long to devote to each item. Put the time next to the item. If there is a speaker other than you ask that person how long they need to address the topic and allow time for discussion. List the items in order of importance (more on why later). Use the agenda to determine how long the meeting will last. If you cannot create a specific agenda the meeting is most likely not needed. I specify specific because I have attended “regularly scheduled” meetings where an agenda item on a non-changing agenda is something like “update from Mr. X”, and Mr. X rises to speak only to state that he has nothing to say.
Once the agenda is known determine who really needs to be at the meeting and if anyone else might be interested in attending but not critical to the meeting. Find a meeting location which is available when the critical participants are available. Send out the meeting request and the agenda to the critical and non-critical participants. The agenda will help those invited determine if they really need to attend. If someone is vital, for example a person who needs to be present to make a decision, it may be a good idea to ensure their attendance before sending the meeting request to everyone.
If desired, ask if any participants have anything else needing discussion. If additional items need to be added to the agenda, add them and then redistribute the agenda.
Start the meeting on time. Waiting “a few minutes” for those who are late wastes the time of those responsible enough to show up on time and encourages the late-comers to always arrive late. Of course, consider office politics to a degree – you may not want to start on time if you are waiting for the big boss. In general, when those who are late come in don’t stop for them. If they ask and the knowledge is not critical for their participation, let them know they can see you after the meeting to find out what they missed. I know one trainer who started a training session on time to an empty room. When the first participant arrived 20 minutes late she told the person what page of the training she was on. She continued in this fashion for the rest of the late participants. All participants were employees of her small unit. They did not arrive late for her future meetings. The only exception I would give to this rule is if there is a known problem which may cause people to be late. For example, where I work finding parking is a nightmare and public transpiration is not reliable. When we have meetings involving people from outside the area we will generally hold the meeting a few minutes to accommodate late-comers and explain why we are holding the meeting.
Keep to your agenda. The agenda has the times listed. If needed, state that there is only X number of minutes left for that item and then the item will be tabled for the future. On rare occasions you may want to violate this rule because of the importance of the discussion taking place or the realization that your agenda item was far more complex or serious than originally thought (this has happened no more than 5 times in my 30+ years of work). However, you will find that in most instances that holding to the time frame prevents or minimizes the same questions being asked in different formats or a long-winded speaker from taking up all the meeting time on an early topic. Office politics will sometimes have to be considered here. You may not want to cut-off a big boss. End the meeting on time. If something did occur so that all topics were not discussed, schedule another meeting. This is the reason to list items in order of importance. Items rescheduled will be the less important items for discussion. Ending the meeting on time respects the time of the participants. Ending late tells every attendant that you do not value their time.
If someone brings up a topic which is not on the agenda determine if it really needs to be addressed at this meeting. Remember, they had the opportunity to bring it to your attention earlier. Frequently when extra items are brought up at meetings I attend it is an issue which pertains only to the person asking and will not affect anyone else. This type of discussion should be one-on-one so everyone’s time is not wasted.
At the end of the meeting note any items which need to be followed-up on and any tasks assigned to specific individuals. If another meeting is needed indicate the approximate date of the meeting if it is not already scheduled.
If you hold a lot of meetings with the same individuals, pay attention. You may see some recurring topics of discussion. If you do, take a good look at what is or is not happening. Is there an on-going issue that is not being addressed? Are people promising to address an issue and not following through? Do you need to take the discussion to a higher level? For example, I have been a silent participant (only required to listen) of a regularly-scheduled meeting where some issues have been raised regularly for at least two years. The answers have been “we are working on it”. By now these issues should have been raised to a higher level.
Following the guidelines above will enable you to conduct meetings which are worth attending. If you are a successful meeting facilitator people may actually look forward to your meetings instead of groaning when they are required to attend!