9 Secrets for Truly Productive Meetings

Are your team, board, and coalition meetings dynamic and productive? Or do you sometimes see yourself and others:

  • With attention wandering during meetings
  • Walking out of meetings feeling like it was a waste of time
  • Starting to “vote with their feet” by coming late or skipping meetings

People at work spend 37% of their time in meetings. But according to research, up to 50% of that time is wasted.

Famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith actually said, “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Meetings feel like this

Meetings are a huge investment — and too often a huge drain — of human capital. Here’s the first secret: The success or failure of meetings is largely determined before they even start.

In our busy work lives, we very often fail to put in the prep work to make sure our meetings are effective and efficient, or to rigorously consider whether a meeting is really necessary at all. Follow these best practices before you get into the room to avoid the dreaded “death by meetings”:

Best Practice #1: Never schedule a meeting without absolutely clear purpose and outcomes.
Way too many meetings are called without the purpose and outcomes being crystal clear. The solution: use The Fabulous POP Model, one of our most popular, simple, and effective tools.

P = Purpose – What’s the purpose of this meeting?
O = Outcomes – What are the specific outcomes you want when it’s over?
P = Process – In meeting planning, this becomes your agenda.

Best Practice #2: Always re-evaluate whether the meeting makes sense.
After purpose and outcomes are clarified:

  • Calculate how many people would be in the meeting
  • Then multiply the number of people in the meeting times the length of the meeting.

Is the amount of people-hours worth the purpose and outcomes? Do all those people REALLY need to be in the meeting? Are there more efficient ways than a meeting to get the same results?

Having a DARCI Accountability Grid for every project will help you decide who needs to be in the room.

Best Practice #3: Nothing goes into the agenda without a clear POP.
In addition to a POP for the meeting, every agenda item should have its own purpose and outcomes. Empower the person in charge of the agenda to ruthlessly guard the group’s time by not allowing any item without a clear POP.

Best Practice #4: Make sure the process for each agenda item delivers the outcomes efficiently.

  • How exactly will the process deliver the outcomes?
  • Where might there likely be difficulties or breakdowns in the process and how can these be managed?

Best Practice #5: Beware of reports.
Updates are one of the most common and often low-value items in meetings. Really challenge the usefulness of reports. What’s the purpose and specific outcomes of proposed reports? Is there a better way to achieve them? If you do allow a report, keep it brief.

Best Practice #6: Don’t over-pack the agenda.

We almost always try to pack in too much. This leads to failure to complete high-priority goals, last-minute scrambles, and/or inadequate time to address follow-up and next steps.

  • Be realistic in allotting time for agenda items. Rather than low-balling time estimates out of the desire to get everything done, leave extra time. You’ll probably need it!
  • Hold the line when the proposed length of the meeting is inadequate to meet the objectives. Either the goals need to be reduced, or the length of the meeting extended.
  • People need time to process and integrate information (just as we need time to digest food). Without this opportunity, people get “mental indigestion” and brains begin shutting down.
  • Plan for the unplanned. Have a back-up plan: what will you drop if time gets short? Don’t leave the most important thing for last.

Best Practice #7: Think about energy.

Most agenda planning focuses only on content, such as prioritizing what to include and the logical order of agenda items. Real human beings have to live out our planned agendas. Failure to attend to peoples’ energy is a downfall of many meetings.

  • Maximize participation: Research shows that most people start tuning out after 20 minutes of a presentation. Liberal use of dyads, triads, and small groups helps groups sustain energy over long periods of time
  • Shift modes: People can sustain their attention for a long time if there is a mix of activities. (e.g., Presentation. Small group. Presentation. Physical activity. Discussion. Break. etc.)
  • Mornings are best for mental focus; right after meals is worst. Late afternoons can be sluggish. Evenings after a long day are not great for taking in a lot of content.

Best Practice #8: Walk your body through it.

Imagine yourself in the room with the meeting participants. Literally “walk your body” through each step of the agenda. Sense what the flow and pacing will actually feel like. Then don’t ignore this intuitive data because of the pressures to get more done! You will pay the price.

Best Practice #9: The meeting starts before the meeting

  • Clarify expectations: People arriving to a meeting with differing expectations is a recipe for problems. Make sure people understand what will and won’t happen at the meeting. Circulate the agenda beforehand.
  • Engage key stakeholders: Find ways to help them feel ownership over the success of the meeting, such as using their input to build the agenda.
  • Make use of pre-work: Given the actual value of meeting time, how can pre-work help make maximum use of in-person time?
  • Handle potential derailers: Some challenges need to be handled before the start of the actual meeting. For example:
    • A prior conversation with a team member who is likely to be very upset about an agenda item
    • A conflict between two participants that’s best addressed offline

You can learn more about these best practices and use a template to ensure the best possible set up for an effective meeting by downloading our tool, The Facilitator’s Meeting Checklist.

For more in-depth help, check out The Art of Facilitation for an extensive guide to planning and executing successful meetings.

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