Meetings fill a lot of our working days, yet most people dread them or don’t understand why they have to attend so many. I haven’t confirmed this with Google, but I think meetings are in the running as the subject of the most memes. (Spoiler: None say, “Please schedule another meeting!” without sarcasm.) I have a theory, though, that the people who hate meetings just have not attended many that are well-run and productive.
As a delivery lead and software consultant, part of my job is scheduling and facilitating meetings with clients to gather information, make decisions, review progress, or talk through any issues with a project. It’s important that these meetings are effective so we don’t waste their time. Here are six tips that I’ve found useful when preparing and conducting meetings.
1. Provide an Agenda Early
Offering a preview of the topics before the meeting can help participants know what to expect and come prepared to discuss those items. Our teams are usually working with one point of contact who does not necessarily have all the answers we need. By providing the agenda ahead of time, that person can decide if someone else should attend. This process helps us make decisions faster and bypass the need for a follow-up meeting.
2. Invite Only the Necessary People
There is a common misconception that being in a lot of meetings means you are very important, busy, and indispensable. Some people feel slighted if they aren’t invited to a meeting, but they should be thanking you. Besides an all-hands or a large-format information session, you should only be in a meeting if you are helping to solve a problem or make a decision.
If you are sitting on your computer or on mute, half-listening, you don’t need to be there. I always take time to think about who needs to be in the meeting and try to keep the numbers small (six to eight people max). This is also why I provide an agenda when working with clients, so they can determine which of their team members should attend to make the meeting productive.
3. Keep Meetings as Short as Possible
Sometimes, it makes sense to have a three- to four-hour workshop to discuss an issue or work through a problem. Most times, it does not.
You rarely need more than an hour for any given meeting, and my most productive meetings tend to last about 30 minutes. It’s enough time to discuss one or two items, but short enough to keep people focused. I also like to ask for no laptops during meetings, and it’s much easier to enforce this in a short meeting. (However, this is a much harder cultural habit to break and a different blog post topic.)
My least favorite thing is when people say, “Let’s schedule two hours, and if we finish early, great!” You will not finish early. If there is an opportunity to fill that time, someone will fill it with another topic that most likely does not require everyone in the meeting. Keep your meeting short and on-point. Everyone will thank you.
4. Provide Some Upfront Context for the Topics You Discuss
When we go into a client meeting, it’s easy for our team to assume the client is on the same page with us. In reality, we are only one piece of our clients’ very hectic and busy day. They are most likely coming from another meeting or working on something that has nothing to do with the topics we discuss.
That’s why it’s important to start any topic with a two- to three-minute intro. I like to cover why we’re discussing a topic, previous decisions that led us to that point, and what we’d like to get out of this discussion.
5. End the Meeting with To-dos to Keep People Accountable
The purpose of a meeting is to get involved parties together so that they can agree and move forward with actual work. I have been in so many meetings where people say, “We should do that,” but that never happens unless one person is accountable for it.
If you’re facilitating the meeting, make sure to assign names and due dates to all action items. This doesn’t mean the assigned person needs to do all the work, but he/she needs to be okay with the responsibility of keeping on it and bringing the results to the group. Send these action items out after the meeting, and add your notes to the agenda of the next meeting to check progress.
6. Cancel the Meeting if It’s Not Needed
This one sounds obvious, but it doesn’t always happen. Please don’t keep a meeting just because it is on the calendar. If all participants agree there is nothing to discuss, or if some attendees aren’t prepared to discuss the items on the agenda, cancel or reschedule it.
In the past, I’ve used a shared Google doc to let participants add agenda items to recurring meetings. If I didn’t see anything on the agenda a few hours before the meeting, I’d send an email or Slack message asking them if they had anything to add. If not, I canceled the meeting. Yay, everyone gets time in their day to do actual work.
I hope you find these tips helpful. Using them has improved the meetings I’ve facilitated and the stigma around meetings in general.