And the more senior you are, the more meetings you’re likely to be involved in.
Why then, do they sometimes seem like a chore rather than an opportunity to be creative and get things done?
Partly, this is down to the sheer number of meetings that we’re expected to attend. They all come with agendas, papers and other relevant information (albeit much of it now held electronically), not to mention venues, timings, attendees and actions.
Largely, though, I suggest our view of meetings is clouded by how well they’re structured and run. I’m not talking here about the impromptu meeting but rather the regular group get together to review important business and team issues. In short, a well organised meeting is likely to be a more enjoyable and productive one!
So, why meet at all given that it’s now so easy to transfer information quickly to a disparate group? To paraphrase the late Sir Antony Jay, (one time chairman of Video Arts Limited and writer of Yes Minister), a meeting can:
- Define the team or group by providing a collective identity - you’re either in the group, or you’re not;
- Allow the group to update its pool of shared knowledge, experience and judgement. This can help individual members to do their jobs better and increase the speed and efficiency of communication as much that may not be understood outside the group can be left unsaid or put into shorthand;
- Help individual members understand the collective aims of the group and how their work contributes to its success; and
- Create a sense of commitment to the objectives and decisions of the group. Once a decision is taken, there’s a collective responsibility to support it – or leave the group. This principle of group agreement makes decisions more powerful than those made by a single senior executive.
- In busy business environments, meetings may be the only occasions when leaders can display their people management and leadership skills;It’s also about status. People want to know where they sit in the pecking order, particularly in a newer group or one with a new leader. However, this should dissipate over time as the group recognises the contribution of its individual members and the value of its collective knowledge and decision making.
So, how can we make our meetings more productive? Here are some suggestions. They may seem obvious but it's surprising how many times one or more are missing at even the most ‘high powered’ meetings.
1. Establish a secretariat
The secretariat deals with the logistics of the group meetings, including the circulation of papers and retention of key records. This person is the 'gatekeeper'. If the meetings require a formal minute or note, the completion and (early) circulation can be part of the secretariat's role.
2. Establish ground rules and control the paperwork
To simplify excellent decision-making at meetings, establish some basic ground rules about paperwork. For example, establish a cut-off point for the delivery and circulation of reports and papers (via the secretariat), limit the length of reports or papers or, if that’s not possible, require an executive summary and signposting to key passages. Encourage a 'brevity is best' rule, wherever possible.
Also, look at circulating and storing group papers via a centralised folder rather than email.
3. Use an intelligent agenda
Always circulate an intelligent agenda in advance. This lists not only the business of the meeting with links to relevant supporting papers but also the purpose of each item, such as ‘For Decision’ or ‘For Information’.
Also, incorporate a timetable in the agenda setting out approximately how much time you’ll discuss each item. You may not stick to it exactly but it’ll help ensure all the business gets covered and gives the meeting a professional and structured flow.
4. Think about frequency, volume and attendees
If it's a regular business meeting, how often does the group need to meet? If it meets too often, there may be insufficient time to deal with inter-meeting business or there may be little to discuss. If not often enough, agendas can become bloated and the creative energy of the group lost. It can be a difficult balance to strike so don't be afraid to change the frequency if it's not working.
Linked to frequency is the volume of business to be covered. Be realistic and ensure that what needs to be discussed and decided is allocated sufficient time and priority. It may work better to cover six items in an hour and meet more frequently than cope with a packed agenda every few months.
Think about attendees. The group may be self-selecting but think about the value external attendees could add for specific items if they have technical knowledge not held within in the group where this will aid decision making.
5. Keep a decisions and actions log
While a detailed minute of the meeting may not be necessary, you should at least record what's decided, what actions flow from that decision and who's responsible. You can then circulate the log after the meeting to clarify agreed actions and responsibilities. Don't wait until just before the next meeting to circulate as you'll want to reinforce and remind attendees of inter-meeting actions.
6. Appoint a good chair person
A well chaired meeting is a real boost to its productivity. The chair will ensure:
- Timeliness. Meetings that start late, ignore the timetable and agenda and overrun are time-stealers. A good chair will start on time and follow the agenda timetable to ensure that the business of the meeting is covered, while not curtailing necessary discussion too soon. Where appropriate, overrunning items should be dealt with by carryover to the next meeting or by later discussion by a smaller group with feedback at the next group meeting;
- The contribution of the whole group. Some members will be more talkative than others. The chair will ensure that discussions are not 'hijacked' by a few and that the contribution of the quieter (or less senior) members is heard. The chair plays an important mediating, moderating and summarising role; and
- That a note or minute and agreed actions is drawn and circulated as soon as possible. The next meeting should be fixed, if not done already.
If it’s a regular meeting, think about rotating the chair as it’s a good way to involve the whole group and develop skills – although those less experienced may need some coaching first.
Meetings play an important role in organisations and not just because they can be a highly effective (and enjoyable) way of getting things done. However, they can also alienate attendees and be disruptive. With proper preparation and management they provide a forum to deliver projects and develop cohesion, collaboration, creativity and skills.