Business meetings are a necessary evil.
At their best, they are great to discuss ideas, progress projects and deals and get everyone informed.
At their worst, they are more draining and time-consuming than productive. The worst kind of meeting is so poorly organized that it feels virtually useless – causing bad morale among attendees and taking precious time away from everyone’s priorities.
Why Organize Productive Business Meetings?
How to decide if a meeting is necessary
Before you schedule a meeting, carefully consider whether a meeting is actually necessary. Some issues can easily be dealt with outside of a meeting room.
Ask yourself the following questions to remedy the problem of disposable meetings:
- What is the goal of your meeting? If you can’t clearly articulate the objective of a meeting, there’s no point in hosting it.
- Is there an alternative way to discuss this topic? Ask yourself if your goal can be accomplished in a more effective way such as e-mail, a quick phone call or just a small 1-on-1 chat by the coffee machine.
- Do you have all the information you need for a meeting? It’s a waste of time to set up a meeting before you have all the relevant information to discuss a particular matter, take action or make a decision.
- Is this meeting a valuable activity? Meetings take time so only organize those meetings that have a real impact on your organization.
Red flags for organizing meetings
Unfruitful meetings are taking up too much of our time, energy and money. In fact, according to Inc., people consider more than 67% of meetings to be ineffective. But more importantly, businesses are losing more than 31 billion euros per year on unproductive meetings.
Before we dig into a few helpful solutions, we need to understand where unproductive meetings stem from and what the true purpose of meetings should be. Because without a proper understanding of the underlying issues, old habits will start popping up again before you realize it.
There are multiple recurring red flags that can signal a bad meeting. Here are a few of the most common meeting pitfalls:
- No clear agenda for the meeting: no clear thought has been put into what you want to discuss (Is this matter really worth face-to-face time or not?) and for how long.
- Multitasking frenzy: for instance, co-workers are checking emails or chat messages or even doing other work during the meeting.
- Going off–topic: attendees are spending too much time wandering off and you don’t make progress on the topics you actually want to discuss.
- Disengagement of remote employees (working abroad or from home): remote employees don’t feel part of the meeting or neglected even.
Objectives for successful meetings
Each meeting should at least have one clear objective. These are a few possible goals of a good meeting:
- Discuss ideas: heads are put together to brainstorm and give feedback, typically before launching a new project or campaign.
- Consider issues: what potential dangers should you be mindful of and how can they be avoided?
- Overcome obstacles: if a project or business deal has run into some roadblocks, how will you deal with them?
- Touch base: on the progress of a campaign, project or issue and list action items for all involved parties.
6 Tips to Run Productive meetings
Decided that a certain meeting is highly necessary? Then use these tips to make sure you run it smoothly, productively, and with a clear end goal.
1. Start off lightly – really!
Avoid jumping into the seriousness of the matter right away. Use positivity and a feel-good atmosphere to your advantage. After all, how you start your meeting will dictate how the rest of it goes. If it starts with complaining, well, it will likely end that way too. Especially with customers, the key is to not get straight down to business and take the heat off by starting with an uplifting note.
Murphy’s Law might cause you to start the meeting a little bit later than expected. Use this time for some small chit chat to lighten the mood. When remote people join, start with: “How’s the weather over there? How’s your morning been so far?”. While these questions might be a little corny, your colleagues meeting from a distance will feel much more engaged.
2. List agenda topics and the desired outcome
Make sure you have the outline of your agenda clearly done and dusted. If you’re not sure what a good meeting outline should look like, use the following agenda template:
- List what specific topics you want to discuss.
- List who will lead each of these topics.
- Determine how long each segment will take – 1, 5, 10, 15 minutes or more?
- What are the expected outcomes? – list action points.
- Provide clear expectations in the calendar meeting invite.
- A straightforward example:
1. Go over last month’s sales results
2. Discuss current sales forecast
3. Discuss current obstacles
4. Feedback and Q&A
(Image source: Giphy)
Tip: circulate the agenda template a few days before the meeting and ask participants to react and add action points so everyone’s on board.
3. Limit the number of attendees
Lots of meetings are overcrowded. It’s common for people to be invited to a meeting if they are part of the bigger project, but have little or no stake in the outcome of the meeting. Still, it’s definitely not necessary to include everyone all the time.
Restrict the people you add to a meeting to only those who have something essential to offer. The rest can be updated through a concise meeting report afterwards. Also, be clear who is optional (and why), and let a few people decide whether they want to join or not.
(Image source: Giphy)
4. Stick to the agenda
As tip #2 discusses, you need a clear list of agenda topics – but you have to stick to them too. Make sure to eliminate distractions, and stay focused on what you want to achieve during a meeting.
No matter how well you defined the outline, it’s easy to deviate from what you wanted to discuss. A few more tips to stay laser focused in a meeting:
- Schedule shorter meetings: don’t go for 1-hour-long meetings, instead, choose 30 minutes (or even 10-15 minutes if you’re feeling brave).
- Send materials to review in advance. If you want to discuss design work, copy or just a brand-new proposal, give people time to think beforehand and gather feedback during the meeting. It saves time and kick-starts the discussion.
- Start and end on time, without exceptions. Short meetings that end on time get things done.
- Take note of off-topic comments that can’t be ignored: write them down so they’re not forgotten about, but don’t let them slow down the meeting.
5. Convert decisions into actions
The best way to make sure you don’t just talk but actually take action during a meeting is by capturing action items to distribute afterwards. Send out clear and concise meeting notes and make sure follow-up actions are clear for everyone.
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An action item is a task or action assigned to a particular person (or more) in a meeting. The idea is that people report back on it when they’ve completed the task. A well-written one includes enough information on what is expected and isn’t just a reminder: the more specific and action-oriented you are, the better. Instead of saying “List of attendees”, it’s better to say: “Create a list of people to invite to our event”.
A few more tips to make sure action items pull through:
- Always include a deadline.
- Make one or more people “owner” or responsible for it.
- Divide clear responsibilities: make sure the organizer or meeting manager is responsible to check the status of a task and for chasing people down if they need to speed things up. The owner of a task will report to this meeting manager.
6. Keep committing to organizing productive meetings
And last but not least: if you’re really committed to having only effective meetings from now on, you need to put in the work. Your (and your co-workers’) initial motivation might start wearing off. Old habits die hard after all.
Break through that vicious circle, and commit with these useful tips:
- See what is and what isn’t working in meetings: try to get someone to observe a meeting with these tips in mind and record what went right or wrong: did you go off-topic? Were people too distracted? These lists are an agenda for change and will help you figure out what to fix first.
- Make people accountable for the action items: make the success of your meetings a joint effort by giving everyone in the meeting a follow-up action.
Value your and your co-workers’ time. Use these tweaks we’ve laid out here to turn things around and spend your time in meetings that get results. (These tips can also help your agile team conduct effective scrum meetings.)
As Chief Product Officer at Teamleader, Andreas is obsessed with squeezing the most out of his time and swears by productive meetings. Fun fact: he has a keynote speech titled ‘How to squeeze 36 hours in one day’.