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Episode 51: 8 Amazing “Hacks” and Practices For Better, More Effective and Efficient Meetings – In Any Organization, Business or Professional Practice
Meetings (in organizations, businesses or even in professional practices and families) are a powerful tool to clarify goals, determine a course of action, and to implement and monitor implementation. They are, however, widely misunderstood, misused, and are incredible opportunities squandered. Like anyone who’s been in business for more than a few weeks, you’ve almost certainly experienced the pain and frustration of poorly run meetings. In fact, I’ve been in and run more than my fair share of disappointment or ineffective meetings. But, through time, and by paying attention to what really works (and what’s supported by real data and experience) I’ve become better. So, I’ll share a few of the best practices, strategies and tactics so that you can skip the long trial and error phase and go right to getting the most out of meetings in every possible dimension ranging from better morale, to faster and better implementation, to higher levels of profit, and client, customer and patient satisfaction and ultimately…referrals. So what are the most common problems? Meeting that never end, meetings that waste time and fail to achieve any results, meetings that lack focus and kill morale. You’ve probably experienced all of these. And the data supports your memory/perceptions. The typical American professional attends over 60 meetings per month (Source: A network MCI Conferencing White Paper. Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs and attitudes toward business travel, teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity (Greenwich, CT: INFOCOMM, 1998) Approximately 50% of meeting time is wasted (same source as above) 39% of people attending meetings doze off during the meeting (source: CBS News). Wow! Whether you are organizing meetings or simply attending them, you owe it to yourself to become more effective at this professional skill. Just imagine the gains you will achieve if you become 1% or 5% better at meetings over time. See http://projectmanagementhacks.com/meeting-tips/ So what’s the cure? How do we go from running uninteresting and perhaps even damaging meetings to a system that produces calculated, consisten, energizing results? Have Clarity of Outcome – Whether you’re running the meeting or attending Never host, facilitate or attend a meeting without clarifying what needs to happen at the strategic and tactical level. Having a clearly defined and written purpose and a list of the intended and needed results of the meeting (prioritized) will definitely change the tone and flow for the better. This can, however, also cause you to close your mind to other alternatives, suggestions, and data from other participants. Solutions? I always make sure that there are reminders in my copy of the agenda to seek input from others and to allow for the fact that they may have more and better data than I do. Along the same lines… Obtain or Create The Written Agenda - In Advance Vague ideas and intentions to have a discussion on a topic rarely end on a productive note followed by specific actions and desired results. The meeting agenda is really the key to clarifying your thoughts AND to getting others to prepare in advance. If you are just getting started with agendas, start with a point form list of topics to be discussed and make sure that material is provided to attendees at least one day before the meeting. For better results, provide background information on the agenda items and specially what is desired and what kind of data, ideas, and information will be useful and what goals have been established for the meeting so that everyone attending has the same information. What about when you are asked to attend a meeting without an agenda? Ask, “Can you please send me an agenda for the meeting so that I can prepare?” Pro Tip: For frequently held meetings such as a weekly status meeting on a project, you can save time by creating a meeting agenda template. Once you have that in place, preparing an agenda becomes a matter of taking time to clarify your specific objectives for THAT meeting and then filling in the blanks. Determine or Review The Attendee List – And Be Sure That The Right People Are There The people in the meeting room make or break your effectiveness. I have been in MANY meetings where the key person – a manager or executive – is not present. As a result, no significant decisions can be made. For Meeting Organizers: limit the number of people attending the meeting. The purpose of meetings is to make decisions and get work done in service of a specific strategic or tactical goal. For the most part, meetings are not the best way to simply share information (exception: meetings are helpful to share sensitive information or information that can be emotionally charged and best not shared by email). For Meeting Attendees: read the attendee list before you walk into the room. Do you see any unfamiliar names? If so, consider Goggling outside attendees or when it comes to “insiders” looking them up in your organization’s directory (or on LinkedIn). Surprises are not your friend when it comes to meetings. Manage The Meeting By The Clock – Respect Others’ Time and Schedules Watching the clock is important in an effective meeting. When nobody takes charge of managing time, it is easy to become careless and unfocused. Remember – when people attend a meeting they cannot do anything else. Make the time count! For Meeting Organizers: starting the meeting on time and ending on time (or a few minutes early!) will quickly enhance your reputation as an organized person. If you are running a large or complex meeting, consider asking a colleague to serve as time keeper. If managing meetings to the clock is challenging for you, the parking lot habit (see #4 below) will be a game changer! For Meeting Attendees: start by arriving early at the meeting (I suggest 5 minutes for in person meetings and 1-2 meetings for conference calls). That means avoiding back to back committments on your calendar whenever possible. Use The Think Tank or “Parking Lot” To Manage Off Topic (But Potentially Valuable) Discussions, Ideas, and Information The Think Tank method is a way to keep the meeting focused without offending participants (and keeping them engaged) with good ideas or information that are not on point. It captures ideas to be added to another meeting or Think Tank process without defeating the original purpose of the meeting at hand. This process, when used correctly, can really perform two useful functions. First, it serves to keep the meeting focused on the stated agenda. Second, acknowledges (and captures) important points, ideas, and information raised by attendees. Warning: The Think Tank must be combined with careful and systematic follow up if you wish to be truly effective and for participants to feel that they are being heard and influential. Otherwise, you are likely to gain a reputation for simply making a show of acknowledging other people. Finally, by failing to follow up you or your organization or team may be missing out on exceptional ideas. Pro Tip: As a meeting organizer, here are a few steps to use the Think Tank concept. At the beginning of the meeting, explain you expect everyone to focus their discussions on the immediate agenda. Further, explain that this rule will help the meeting stay productive and end on time. Acknowledge that other ideas and information may come up and that you’ll be using this process to keep the meeting focused BUT those ideas will be captured and further explored in another setting or meeting. Keep the meeting agenda document in front of you as a guide and stick to it. Go through each agenda item Monitor and contribute to the discussion When someone raises an interesting, valuable or “off topic” or complex point that does not relate to the agenda, thank the person, remind them of the think tank process and why, write down the point, and schedule the best form of follow up. “Count The Votes” in Advance on Important Points and Decisions When a major bill comes to a vote on the floor of the house or senate, the party or bill sponsors try to know in advance what the vote will be. They reach out to influential members to get their vote and to reach out to others. You should be doing the same when you know that a major decision (related to funding, budgets, personnel) will be made at a meeting. Serious decisions like this require building a habit of reaching out to others in advance of the meeting. In essence, you communicate with people one-on-one before the meeting about the decision before the meeting occurs. While time consuming, this approach increases your chances of success (and avoids surprises other meeting attendees). It allows you to determine what needs to happen at the meeting in order for the desired result to be more certain. Pro Tip: For an extended discussion of the “pre-wire” or counting the votes concept, listen to the Manager Tools podcast: How to Prewire a Meeting. Take Physical Notes For Yourself AND Have A Back Up Note Taker or Recording Taking notes in meetings is an essential skill and there is quite a bit of science that supports doing it by hand rather than on a computer. There are a number of reasons to do it including: capture of ideas, creating a record of action items and who will do them, capturing questions that need to be answered or assignments that require follow up by you or another person as well as a timeline of such actions. All are vital so let’s consider how attendees and organizers can act on notes. As noted, take notes in a paper notebook (e.g. a Moleskine notebook or something similar) rather than using a computer, tablet or other device. Even if you have fantastic abilities to focus on the meeting, other people may assume that you are “catching up on email” instead of paying attention to the meeting if you take notes on a computer. Taking notes for Meeting Organizers: if you plan to send minutes or a summary of the meeting to attendees, say this at the start of the meeting and explain what you will include. Sending out meeting minutes, even a few paragraphs or bullet points, is a best practice. Have another person backing you up or record the meeting as you’ll have a number of responsibilities and you don’t want to miss anything. Remember, however, that recording can have a chilling effect unless it’s been established as part of the process. Taking notes for Meeting Attendees: bring a copy of the agenda and use that document to guide your note taking. Focus on the decisions made in the meeting and items that require further investigation or action on your part. Follow Up On The Meeting – Where The Rubber Meets The Road For Real Results. The art and science of follow up is a vital business and professional habit generally and with respect to meetings is essential. When it comes to meeting tips, following up in a timely basis is a great way to manage stress and make a good impression on others. It’s also desirable to make it a system and habit. A best practice is to use the agenda with bulleted notes to follow up be email on the same day. However, (and specifically when ideas and information are put into the “think tank” and are on hold) phone or in person follow up might be desirable.