In my last article, I looked at the 5 top tips for holding an efficient and productive meeting.
In this article, I drill down into a few less obvious – but no less important - aspects of productivity in this field.
Apply them and you’ll save time, money and effort and ensure your precious time, and those of your colleagues and clients, is not wasted, but used wisely.
1. Decide whether you need a meeting at all
It’s obvious, but often overlooked because of habit: our first instinct when there is an issue to resolve in a group setting is often to reach for the meeting organizer, look at stakeholders’ availability, schedule a time and then press the invite button.
But how often do we first stop to think about whether a meeting is needed at all?
The questions to ask include:
- What is the purpose of the meeting itself: to inform, to share ideas and viewpoints, to discuss, to decide?
- Can I achieve these outcomes some other way?
- Why isn’t input from the stakeholders by email sufficient?
- Why can’t I pick up the phone and call the relevant stakeholders individually?
- Is it really worth the time to organize a gathering, co-ordinate stakeholder diaries that are already full and lose days until all the stakeholders are free at the same time?
- If I get them when they are individually free, can I get the answers I need now and save the meeting for when it is essential?
Carefully think through your purpose and what you want to achieve, and if there is a way to do this that does not involve calling a meeting. Think about whether those other ways are better.
2. Get stakeholder views in advance
We all know the feeling when the person who called the meeting brings it to order and kicks it off with something like: “Ok, to re-cap” or “Ok, so we are here to deal with…” and proceeds to recite conversations that we have heard before and viewpoints we don’t need to hear again, until 10 minutes later, something new is finally said.
Isn’t there a better way? Well, yes, a number of better ways, including a strategy of “take it as read”.
It works like this: for many meetings you can source the viewpoints of your stakeholders in advance and, at the beginning of the meeting, you succinctly summarize the positions. This way, stakeholders don’t give this information talking for too look and giving too much detail that side-tracks or delays the real discussion.
This could be done by email and circulated before the meeting to each of the stakeholders.
In doing this, you are “taking as read” the basis for the discussion that are now about to take place. You are also fast-forwarding to that “10 minute mark” when something new is finally said and the first important question of the day is asked: “Well, how do those competing viewpoints stack up?”
3. Keep control of the discussion as it progresses
This one is hard, but necessary.
Your role as chair or meeting organizer is to keep the discussion on track, ensure they don’t meander or stakeholders go off on tangents.
Sure you don’t want to stifle debate discussion and genuine thinking aloud which will produce ideas that others feed off. But that sort of discussion also needs to be productive.
It’s hard, but the best way to do it is to bring people back to the question actually being asked or the issue actually being addressed at that point in the discussion. Perhaps say (or interrupt to say) “So how does all of that answer the issue [you have gathered to resolve today], namely X” or “How does all of that progress our thinking on Y”. More often than not, this prompts the speaker to say why what she has said matters and how it progresses the issue to a conclusion or resolution.
This technique requires some practice and confidence, but it works.
4. Avoid the discussion taking up all the time allotted
It is a common feature of meetings that discussion will expand to take up the fully allotted time.
Don’t allow this to happen. If people wander, keep them on track. If people digress, interrupt and bring them back to the issue. If people crack jokes, fine, that encourages warmth, relaxation and engagement with each other, but keep it in check so it doesn’t waste time.
With a clear agenda, stakeholder views circulated before the meeting and your tight control, perhaps 75% of the time you allotted originally will suffice.
5. Ensure you prepare, prepare, prepare and consider how long you schedule the meeting to run
Finally, it’s an obvious point, but one you often wish you had remembered when walking out of some excruciating meetings: each of the tips above have a common thread of “preparation”.
You need to have prepared in advance to be on top of:
- the stakeholders views - to ensure you can summarize them accurately and fairly and avoid them spending extra time “clarifying” or re-stating them
- the discussion as it unfolds - so that you can interrupt and bring people back to addressing the issue for resolution
- what you actually need to discuss and resolve in the meeting - so it stays on track and you have called it because it is essential.
If you don’t, time will be wasted.
Which leads us back to the beginning: if you are calling a meeting, consider carefully the actual time you allot to it: don’t just allot 30 minutes or 1 hour because your calendar works in 15 minute blocks. Think carefully about how much you really need and perhaps add a 5 minute buffer.
You expect others to be well prepared to advance the discussion. You need to be too.
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