Top tips for making your meeting more productive

Every businessman and woman knows the importance of meetings. A necessary evil they may be, meetings are vital for providing and receiving updates, communicating, planning, brainstorming and making decisions.

All too often, however, meetings take up an inordinate amount of time. But by focusing on meeting productivity, individuals and businesses can greatly reduce time wastage. In a business climate where time is precious, that’s an advantage many of us can’t afford not to take.

So how do you make sure every meeting is effective? Follow these simple tips:

1) Always have an agenda with defined expected outcomes from the meeting
Good meetings are managed events, they do not just happen. I am constantly amazed at how many organisations allow their most precious resource - their people - to sit in meetings with no predefined purpose or outcomes. It is akin to letting a machine in a factory run idle or produce parts to no set specification.

Always have a clear agenda and expected outcomes to ensure the meeting stays on track and produces results. This relies on proper meeting preparation, executing the meeting to plan, and then good follow-up. A useful tip in making sure the meeting has been a success, is to simply ask yourself at the end of every meeting ‘did we do what we said we would do?’

2) Assign clear roles and responsibilities
One way to make sure your meeting has an agenda, and achieves what it is supposed to, is to assign clear responsibilities to the meeting attendees. Have an allocated meeting leader to prepare material for the meeting, who is responsible for making decisions and designating other meeting responsibilities, such as taking minutes, and assigning actions as an outcome.

A facilitator or chairperson, whose role it is to assist in the preparation, control the meeting process and keep an eye on the time, should support the meeting leader. It is this person who is responsible for ensuring the meeting stays on course and achieves the expected outcomes. Other meeting attendees will then be expected to generate ideas, provide recommendations, build on the ideas of others and add expertise to the meeting.

3) Ask ‘So what?’
Focus on the presentation of information rather than data. If you include too much data, significant time is lost whilst the meeting attendees try to determine what the numbers mean, or even argue over them.

Use headlines to tell a story and get your point across, and make sure everything passes the ‘so what?’ test, i.e. that it is contributing to the desired outcome of the meeting. If it’s not directly relevant, leave it out.

4) Don’t plan ‘back-to-back’ meetings
The cost of having 9 people sitting in a room for 10 minutes waiting for a tenth attendee to arrive so that a meeting can start will run into £100s.

Multiply that number by the number of times meetings start late in most organisations and the annual ‘productivity opportunity’ is significant. One common cause of late meeting starts I have observed is the scheduling of back-to-back meetings. The larger the building or site in which a business operates, the more problematic this usually is.

For one of my clients it takes 10 minutes to walk from one side of their site to another. Executives with consecutive meetings scheduled at different locations across the site were regularly arriving late for meetings.

The simple solution this organisation adopted was to set their meeting calendars so whilst meetings start on the hour they are scheduled to finish at quarter to the hour, i.e. 9am-9.45am rather than 9am-10am. This allows for the 10 minutes participants may need to get to their next meeting location.

5) Prevent distractions
Unfortunately poor meeting etiquette is common. Mobile phones should be turned off/set to silent and attendees should be dissuaded from ‘multi-tasking’ during the meeting.

It is impossible to focus on a task at hand or to “actively listen” during a meeting if you are typing up an unrelated report or email on a tablet or laptop.

The chairperson of a meeting must take on some responsibility for ensuring all participants remain engaged. If a meeting wanders off track then attendees disengage.

If individuals don’t need to be there let them go and focus on some value added activity elsewhere.

6) Stand up
Where meetings are scheduled for a short period of time, one way to make sure the meeting is as productive as possible is to take away the chairs. ‘Stand up’ meetings are a great way of maintaining the energy in the room. Plus, attendees are unlikely to drag out the meeting if it means standing up for a longer period!  

7) Understand the impact of ‘poor meeting behaviour’ on others
Naturally, meetings are most productive when people practice positive meeting behaviours: contributing, clarifying, mediating, supporting and facilitating.

In a lot of organisations, however, it is fairly common for individuals, including those in very senior roles, to exhibit negative meeting behaviours - to be late, to dominate the meeting, or not focus on the task at hand, for example. Whilst they may not be aware of the demotivating impact this has on their peers and subordinates, it can be very disruptive and counter-productive. This type of behaviour needs to be dealt with in a firm, but friendly manner.

Suggest alternative behaviour, utilise non-verbal contact, i.e. eye contact, and reinforce positive behaviours. If necessary, the meeting facilitator should speak to the individual privately. It can be useful in this instance to reflect on the old adage “treat others as you wish to be treated yourself”.  In this period of increased time pressure, no one wants to have his or her time wasted.

These are simple tips, but can make a real difference to the amount of time spent (and wasted) in meetings, and greatly improve their effectiveness. Can your organisation afford not to follow them?