Running Effective Meetings

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I thought I would start off 2012 with a blog post on how to conduct effective meetings. So much time and effort is wasted at every workplace all over the world because very few people know how to run effective meetings. About ten years ago I spoke to a friend of mine who was working at Intel at the time about meeting culture. I was complaining about how meetings were run at Microsoft. She told me that at Intel they took pride in running effective meetings, they had a system with defined roles – one was the timekeeper, one was the note taker, one was the facilitator (who made sure that everyone got proper air cover) and one was the rat hole catcher (the person who stopped conversations that were going off track). If someone sent you a meeting invitation at Intel without a proper agenda, you were more or less expected to decline. I was positively surprised to hear about the meeting culture at Intel and intrigued to learn more about conducting effective meetings. Through the years I’ve come across a number of good resources on how to run effective meetings. I’ve summarized the main points that I try to follow below.

1. Pre-publish an agenda

Every meeting needs to have a proper agenda with timings, agenda items and ownership.

You would think that this is a no-brainer, but you would be surprised to know how many people send out meeting invitations without a proper agenda. If you use Outlook for your meeting invitations make sure to include the agenda in the body of the meeting request. (If you want to know more about using Outlook for meeting invitations please see our video “Share calendars for easier scheduling”.) When you begin the meeting, run through the agenda so that everyone knows what to expect.

2. Start and finish the meeting on time – no matter what!

There is nothing more frustrating than meetings that run over time, and if you start late, you run a larger chance of finishing late, so no matter what – start the meeting on time! Make sure that you are in the room ahead of time and that you are well prepared so that you can begin the meeting when it is set to start. Don’t wait for people who are late – start the meeting anyway. I know that this can be quite difficult sometimes (especially if you are the only person in the room) but you need to send a message that your meetings always start (and finish) on time no matter what. People feel awkward walking into a meeting that has already started so next time you invite to a meeting they are more inclined to be prompt.

3. Take notes and share them after the meeting

Don’t kid yourself into believing that you will remember what has been said and what action items have been agreed upon during the meeting – you won’t! It is necessary that someone is assigned to take notes during the meeting and that that person shares the notes after the meeting. Typing notes on a laptop is not recommended – the typing sound is very disturbing and the person taking notes won’t be able to have eye contact with other people. Personally, I prefer taking meeting notes in OneNote using a Tablet PC. If you don’t have a tablet pc – use pen and paper.

Taking good meeting notes takes some practice. Notes are taken to capture, remember and most importantly to act. It’s important that you’re selective in what you write down. Focus on writing down deadlines, specific dates for deliverables, ownership, actions being taken, etc. To speed up your writing use abbreviations and symbols; arrows, boxes, circles, clouds – whatever helps you remember. There is a great podcast on Manager Tools on how to take effective meeting notes that I can warmly recommend.

4. Assign action items with deadlines

At the end of a meeting, there is usually a list of action items that have been agreed upon. Make sure that everyone is clear on who is responsible for the task, and when it should be completed. It is important to get a verbal commitment from the person who is assigned the task in order to increase the chances of the action being completed. Again, the person taking notes need to make sure to capture all the action items in the meetings notes that are later shared with all meeting delegates. If a follow-up meeting is scheduled you should start the meeting by reviewing the action items from the previous meetings and review the status of the action items.

5. Use a parking lot (or rat hole catcher)

In order to stay on time and to stick to the agenda, you need to be able to control discussions so that you don’t go off topic. At Intel, they referred to this as catching rat holes. Another way to park discussions that don’t have an allocated slot during the meeting is by using a “parking lot”. Park any discussion that has gone off topic and say that this is very important, we need to dedicate more time to discuss this issue and we’ll do that at another time. You can use a whiteboard as your parking lot and just list all of the items that you need to follow up on at another time. Include these items in the meeting notes and make sure to take the appropriate follow up actions.
I know that it can be a challenge to stop a heated discussion, especially if there are managers with big egos in the room that love the sound of their own voice. These situations are difficult, but as the meeting facilitator, you have to park the discussion. Use your emotional intelligence to do it in a smooth way without hurting their ego too much!

6. Be present and respectful

Time is money. If you aren’t present and participating in a meeting you are wasting your own and everybody else’s time. This is totally unacceptable if you are a business professional and in my opinion very disrespectful. When you are in a meeting you should be mentally present in the meeting, – not checking your email, chatting with other people outside the meeting or surfing the web. I’m used to an organizational culture where everyone always brought their laptops to meetings. If you do bring your laptop, you need to be even more disciplined to make sure that you are only using your laptop for taking down notes or gathering information that has been requested of you as input for the current discussion.

It all starts with you

I know that it can be a real challenge to run effective meetings, changing the meeting culture at your workplace isn’t done overnight. Even though changing the culture involves many people, it all starts with you. If you make the effort and follow these steps you will soon realize that it will be easier and easier to run effective meetings. If people notice that you start and finish your meetings on time, you follow a pre-published agenda and that things actually happen as a result of the meetings you conduct, you will see that people will start acting differently at your meetings.

(If you have difficulties reading this article, you can access the full article in pdf here)