How to have effective meetings

As I mentioned in my post on standard work for leadership, meetings at most companies are a mess.  There are too many, they don't accomplish enough, and people dread going to them.  And if they are not productive, they are a giant money pit.  Run Payscale's Meeting Miser for a few meetings and ask yourself if you got your money's worth (or if you are really brave, ask the team).

It doesn't have to be that way.  Here are six tips to improve meetings, and thereby improve your life.

1. Don't have a meeting

Meetings should always involve making decisions or doing genuine work that cannot be done individually.  Ask yourself "why am I having this meeting?"  If the answer contains the words "informational" or "get everyone on the same page" chances are you don't need a meeting.  Other forms of communication (email, phone calls, or conversation) will work much better and take less time.

Before you schedule a meeting make sure that you know what decisions need to be made or work needs to get done, and that a meeting is the best venue for doing that.

2. Send a simple agenda

I know.  Everybody says this, but nobody does it.  Most people have opened up MS Word's Agenda Wizard at least once , filled in all of the blanks, picked a template, saved it to their hard drive, and sent it as an attachment to the team, only to find out that most people didn't read it.  I think this is the main reason most people don't write agendas: its too complicated and nobody reads it anyway.

Keep it simple.  Write the agenda in the body of the email so that folks don't have to open up an attachment to read it, and make it short.  Many of the things normally on an agenda (attendees, time, place, etc) are already included in appointments sent with Outlook or Groupwise.  You don't need to repeat those. So just get to the point of the meeting: 
"we are meeting to finalize the 2009 budget.  We need to decide on X, Y, and Z.  Nancy will email the latest TPS report, John is bringing the bagels"  
3. Start on time

If you are missing people at the start time, start anyway.  They'll be on time to the next meeting.  Skip ahead in the agenda if you need to.  

4. Keep the meeting to 50 Minutes or less

I am amazed at the number people who schedule back to back meetings that last sixty minutes. After the first meeting they run late for the rest of the day.  This is nuts.  By high school most people have figured out that you need five to ten minutes to get to the next class.  This rule also applies to meetings.  

For some reason the default meeting length in Outlook is thirty minutes and Groupwise is sixty minutes.  Have your IT department change this to 50 minutes for the whole organization.  If they refuse, at least change it for yourself. Actually this might be difficult in Outlook, but to do it in Groupwise go to Tools > Options > Date & Time > Default appointment length.  If you are using Outlook you may have to just set each appointment to fifty minutes when you make them.  

5. The HIPPO should keep his mouth shut

Bob Sutton has a great article about the leadership problems at GM.  They have a culture where the top guy at any given meeting talks the most.  Instead of the team actually doing their job, they end up echoing the highest paid person's opinion (HIPPO).  Read Bob's article to find out why this is so poisonous.  The HIPPO in the room should spend most of their time listening and moderating the conversation.  If you are the HIPPO and you need to do all the talking, just send a memo.  You don't need a meeting for that.
6. Send out minutes the same day

If your organization requires that you take detailed minutes of everything said at the meeting, make sure you have somebody there that can do that.  But most of the time all you really need is a record of what decisions were made, what activities need to get done, and who is responsible for them.  Spend the last minute of the meeting reviewing these and making sure everyone commits getting there part done (one minute minutes).  Then email these minutes to the team the same day.  If you don't do this somebody will drop the ball, guaranteed.

The good news is that all of this advice makes scheduling and having meetings simpler (and more effective).  If you are in a leadership position make this the standard by which your organization conducts meetings.  If you are not in a leadership position then lead by example.  Plan and run your own meetings well and forward this article to anybody that needs to read it.

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