Are you stuck on your project? Do you need your peers' support? A group decision in order to move on? Or do you want to update your peers on recent progress? When confronted with these issues, you are likely to make use of a powerful instrument: a meeting. It allows us to build relations, coordinate ideas and opinions, and take important decisions. Inviting people to a meeting also requires very little time, and the benefits for you to advance with your individual work can be huge.
But have you thought about the others? Although scheduling a meeting seems to be the right solution for you, it might not be that convenient for the other attendees. The number and duration of meetings has skyrocketed over the past 50 years: today, business leaders often spend more than half of their working day in meetings, even excluding preparation and follow-up. A real-life example from a private equity firm shows that the sheer volume of meetings kept their leaders from completing their individual work. While some delayed their tasks or spent less time on them, many others used their personal time to get that work done. However, research and practice show that this sacrifice can lead to burnout and turnover. What makes it even worse is the fact that many leaders consider their meetings a waste of time. Too often, participants leave the meeting room frustrated because they are unhappy with the meetings and their outcome.
The reason behind this trend is that most organisations and their leaders lack a clear understanding of how to manage meetings in a productive way. Often, there are no meeting rules in place: anybody can organise a meeting without having first defined a purpose, and attendees come to meetings ill-prepared. Excessive and badly-organised meetings have serious consequences: they waste not only money, but also our precious time. It is therefore crucial to break that cycle of meeting inefficiency. The question is: how?
Organisations and their leaders need to define clear but simple meeting procedures that are more dynamic and focus on the outcome of a leadership meeting. This will allow leaders to become more agile throughout the entire meeting process. Agility in meetings will help you to reduce the number of meetings, lower frustrations, increase productivity, and improve the quality and speed of your decision-making.
The following five questions will help you, as a leader, to start implementing a more agile meeting management. Before scheduling a meeting, make sure to always ask yourself:
1. Is a meeting really necessary?
Before scheduling a meeting and possibly wasting participants’ time, you should first think strategically and identify the next necessary steps to proceed with your project. Meetings are not the only instrument available to share information, get multiple perspectives, discuss a topic, solve a problem, and make a collective decision. Today, technology allows us to work and collaborate in a more dynamic way that takes less of our coworkers’ time. We can easily share and access reports online as well as brainstorm and follow progress on dedicated tools. Most issues that are today covered in group meetings can easily be solved in a one-on-one conversation with a peer (e.g. through email, instant message, phone call, short virtual or in-person meeting). Hence, you should only schedule a formal meeting if real-time, in-person communication is required.
2. What exactly do I want to achieve with the meeting?
If you decide that you really need a real-time, in-person meeting, then proceed with clearly defining the purpose of the meeting. In a few sentences, describe what you want to achieve, what your desired outcomes are, and set clear expectations for all participants. This initial stage is absolutely crucial to ensure that the meeting will be as effective as possible. If you have the end goal in mind, it will be much easier to determine the main focus of the meeting, the meeting participants, and the meeting agenda.
3. Who really needs to be in the meeting?
Once you have decided to hold a meeting and defined its purpose, the next step is to wisely select the participants. Paul Axtell, author of the book Meetings Matter, says that the most productive meetings have fewer than eight people. If there are too many participants present, the quality of the conversation starts to decrease because attendants lose focus and it becomes hard to keep up a fruitful discussion. Hence, you should identify the core group who will make the most valuable contribution to reach the meetings’ objective.
A very interesting concept that allows for more agility in the meeting process is dynamic participation. This means that an attendee participates only for the time needed during a meeting. A leader who is already aware of a project could, for example, join the meeting later when it comes to discussion and decision-making. Or a guest speaker from another team could hold a short presentation on his field of expertise, but then leave the meeting room afterwards.
4. How can I ensure a focused meeting with the agenda?
Now it is time to turn the overall purpose of your meeting into smaller agenda items. Consider the same issues as in question 1: focus during the meeting on those topics that need the participants’ attention and solve remaining issues through other channels before and after the meeting. Prepare a list of topics, prioritise from the most important to the least, and choose up to five items for your meeting.
Subsequently, anticipate how much time the group needs for each agenda item. Try to reduce both the number of topics and the time for each agenda item in order to keep the meeting short and the participants motivated and focused. Include an exact timing of every item (in minutes) and do not overschedule time per item. Once you know the content and how much time you expect the meeting to last, define other important parameters: what is the best date, time, and way (physical location, digital, or both) to hold your meeting?
5. How can I improve collaboration and preparation prior to the meeting?
Preparation is the key to productive meetings. First, define the pre-work for the meeting: this may include the agenda, reports, or presentations and minutes from a prior meeting, for example. Attach these materials to the meeting invitation and communicate how you expect participants to prepare. Also, do not forget to distribute tasks and set clear deadlines.
Even more important than having access to preparation material is to ensure that all participants collaborate prior to the meeting. The aim should be to ask for clarification on the agenda, anticipate discussions, engage in conversations, and take decisions if possible before the meeting even starts. Treating agenda items in advance and eventually even solving them will reduce the meetings’ time. As a result, you can focus better on the most pressing issues during the meeting and save time. Hence, before scheduling a meeting, think about how you can motivate all participants to prepare well and collaborate effectively prior to the meeting.
Meetings are such an important instrument for an organisation that leaders should have higher expectations on the quality of meetings and rethink their meeting culture. After all, excessive and poorly-run meetings cause inefficiencies and frustrations and have high associated costs. These five questions will help you become more aware of how the meetings in your organisation are run and how you can improve the meeting process before even sending out invitations for a meeting. By approaching meetings more strategically, you will realise the potential for improvement throughout the entire meeting process.
The questions will also help leaders move towards a more agile way of meeting management. Agility allows for a more flexible and dynamic meeting process: you should not hesitate to cancel a meeting if it is not necessary anymore, change its purpose, invite and uninvite participants, adapt the agenda, send out additional preparation material, and ask for more collaboration if needed.
Hence, by asking these five questions before scheduling a meeting, you will reduce the number and duration of meetings, prepare and focus better, and eventually improve the entire decision-making process.