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10 November 2009

Getting to Productive meetings

This topic is perennial... Here are some opinions.  Mr Google has 50 million others.

Meetings fulfil two purposes; solving problems and gaining consensus. When you hold a meeting pick and focus on one of these purposes only.
  • Stand up
  • Start on time
  • Book only the time you’ll need
  • Know how it’s going to end
  • Send an agenda and stick to it
  • Tell everyone what preparation is required
  • Write down what is agreed and share it out afterwards

Stand up
When you stand up you get multiple benefits. They include;
  • People standing up think better that people who are sitting still. Being active helps the brain function. Standing beats sitting. Move around if you can, also.
  • Standing also increases interaction. People get up and write on whiteboards, and are more likely to talk to each other rather than exclusively to a facilitator, thus building a better flow of communication.
  • Lastly, if you stand up in meetings, when you are done, you will walk out. How often have you been in meetings when the content is over but people sit there through to the end of the hour?

Start on time
  • I am almost always late for meetings. On the other hand I am almost always an optional attendee without a need to actually be there.
  • Respect the people who care enough to turn up on time and start on time. This will set up a feedback loop that causes people who want their stake to be considered at a meeting to be there.
  • This isn’t a black and white issue as culture plays a part in time orientation. For example in some companies you stay with the person you are with until they are happy with the outcome of the meeting. But it pretty much looks like a time boxed approach to problems (and meetings) is the best way to go, so maybe give up your bad habits in favour of being on time.

Book only the time you’ll need
  • If you have one question and need to bring five people together to get consensus, how long do you think you’ll need? If it can be done in 15 minutes, book 15 minutes. If t will take 3 hours, book 3 hours. 
  • Don’t book an hour by default. This way lies the path of waste and days of back to back meetings.

Know how it’s going to end
  • I constantly come back to the refrain “Start with the end in mind.” In this context there are many different ends that a meeting can come to.
    • If this is a “decision meeting” you can forecast what the end will be by briefing or polling people prior to the meeting. 
    • If it is a “problem solving meeting” you should have an idea of what the likely outcomes will be via investigation and pre-meeting discussions.
  • I tend to publish a statement of the “Expected outcomes” when I book a meeting. That way everyone knows what I am thinking in advance and has the opportunity to explore my suggestion or other ideas.
Send an agenda and stick to it - mostly

  • Agendas do change and that’s okay, but know the purpose of the meeting and control its scope.
  • You work on projects, right? So you know about the scope control problem. As we have discussed earlier, one of the best ways to manage the scope is by time-boxing the meeting.
A military officer who was about to retire once said: ‘The most important thing I did in my career was to teach young leaders that whenever they saw a threat, their first job was to determine the timebox for their response. Their second job was to hold off making a decision until the end of the timebox, so that they could make it based on the best possible data.’ – Mary Poppendick
  • Use a parking lot for off topic conversations and address them at the end of the meeting if there is time, or let people take their issues with them to follow up in their own time.

Tell everyone what preparation is required and let everyone know the agenda
  • Explaining to people what preparation is required helps get people ready for the meeting, 
  • But you’ll have to remember that several people won’t have time to do their homework. Be ready to give them a 2 minute précis of any background issues at the meeting.
  • And for the millionth time, the agenda should be prioritised by importance. Let the unimportant things fall of the back of the meeting. Try to timebox the agenda items also.

Write down what is agreed and share it out afterwards, on the same day.
  • I remembered something different to you and we need to identify this problem as soon as possible. That means you need to send out notes on the meeting the same day.
  • Same day = same day. While people’s minds are still close to the topic.
  • Be specific about what was agreed, including deadlines for actions. If deadlines were not defined in the meeting give people 3 days.  If these things are important to you, follow them up with a call or personal message.
  • And do me a favour. PLEASE don’t attach a word doc to an email. Include your notes in the email body or hyperlink to it.

There are a billion web articles on how to run an effective meeting. This has been once of them.

Picture by ►Voj► CC via Flickr