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Effective Meetings - part 1

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most people consider meetings a waste of time. When that invite appears in our inbox, is our first thought “hurrah, another meeting?” Or is it more likely that we’re thinking of ways to avoid it?

The more senior your position, the more meetings you’re likely to attend. And, the less time you’ll have to actually manage your team. Less time to plan ahead, improve processes, think about strategy. You’ll always be rushing off to the next meeting.

It’s not like we’re deliberately making meetings inefficient and ineffective. But somehow, they often end up like that. Why?

I’m going to explain a few things you can do to help make meetings worthwhile. Let’s start with what you can do before the meeting. Preparation is everything right? That’s rhetorical obviously.


Then and now

When I started work, we found out about meetings verbally or via a printed memo. No email invites. No app notifications. This lack of technology, created an imperative of sorts. Meetings had to be worthwhile. Inviting lots of people to lots of meetings was difficult. 

That doesn't mean that meetings were always effective. But, I remember there being fewer of them. I also remember them being shorter.

Technology is great. It can save us time and money. For meetings, we can invite lots of people with a couple of clicks and they can attend from anywhere in the world. There’s a tendency to have more meetings because technology makes it easier. But there are downsides; this video does a great job of highlighting this.  

Let's get back to basics. Here are three things you need to do before any meeting to increase its chance of being effective.


1. Set a goal for the meeting

Sounds obvious right? So why do we get so many meeting invites that have no clear purpose? Why should I give you my time if you can’t tell me why?

Determine and communicate the goal for the meeting; what’s it about? If you don't, the meeting will be a waste of time. People will wonder why they need to attend. They’ll have their own interpretation and that will be confusing.

Is it a brainstorming session or do you need people to make decisions? Do people need to do anything before the meeting? Do they need to bring anything with them?

Keep the goal simple and narrow. Trying to do too much in a single meeting is likely to result in frustration. Think about having several shorter meetings rather than a single long one. Try and have one main topic per meeting.

Is the meeting necessary? It sounds like an odd question doesn’t it? A lot of meetings seem to be about giving people information. That can be a good reason for the meeting. Especially, if there’s a lot of backstory or context that needs explaining. But if you can send that information in a short email, do it, and ditch the meeting.


2. Decide who needs to attend

The meeting goal will help you decide who to invite. Don’t invite people if they have nothing to contribute. I read something a long time ago: if someone can’t attend the meeting, for some reason, can the meeting still go ahead? If the answer is yes, then they don’t need to be there in the first place.

How many meetings have you sat through, thinking to yourself: “why am I here?” Maybe people see it as a way of reinforcing their own self-importance by inviting lots of people to a meeting. Don’t be that person. 

Time is money. Having lots of people in meetings for hours costs money. And yes, there is an app for that. Also, while they’re in meetings, they’re not doing other work.

Some other interesting and troubling stats*:

  • 91% of attendees daydream
  • 73% did other work
  • 39% slept (yes… slept)

Please, be kind, and only invite people that need to attend.



3. Create an agenda

A meaningful goal and inviting the right people. These increase the chances of having an effective meeting. But there’s one more thing.

Without an agenda you’ll have a meeting that jumps around, from topic to topic, person to person. You'll end up achieving nothing. Your agenda is your running order. It lets everyone know what’s being discussed. It provides focus.

Attendees will be a mix of introverts and extroverts. At most meetings, extroverts are king. They’re never afraid to speak their mind. Introverts need more time to think. An agenda provides this thinking time. You’ll get better contributions all round by providing an agenda upfront.

Having no agenda will see those that like to talk, dominate and derail the meeting. You might end up having to reschedule it. Many times.


Bonus advice

Time. There’s a limited amount of it. Everyone has the same amount each day. So who on earth thinks it’s a great idea to have a 3-hour meeting? There is a ton of research out there. Google “meeting attention span” and you'll see that science tells us that 30 minutes is pushing it. In fact 15 minutes might be ideal.

Why so many long meetings? I think this is because the key elements explained above are missing. If you have a specific goal, the correct attendees and a tight agenda, you can have a very quick meeting.

Do yourself, and everyone else a favour. Keep every meeting as short as possible.  


Summary points:

  • Tell everyone what the meeting is about (the goal or purpose)
  • Only invite people that are crucial for the meeting goal
  • Stick to a single topic if possible
  • Think… is the meeting absolutely necessary?
  • Distribute an agenda with the invitation
  • Keep the meeting short — less than 30 mins  


In the next article we’ll look at how you run an effective meeting.


Chris Hudson
Client Services Operations Director at Oracle
An early career in Architecture and construction led to seduction by technology and cyberspace. He's a keen problem solver, change agent, generalist and part-time zymologist. Helping teams improve how they work is his legal high.