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Productive Meetings Don’t Have To Be Purple Unicorns

As more and more of our work time is spent in meetings, it's worth examining how to make them better. This time management and productivity expert shows you how.

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Photo by Headway on Unsplash
Photo by Headway on Unsplash

It’s rare, it’s elusive and when you see it (or are part of it) it can be downright beautiful. That’s right, I’m talking about…actually productive meetings.

Many of my clients, when we start working together, have upwards of 30 hours of meetings on their calendars each week. Sometimes far more than that. Now, of course we work to reduce some of those meetings, but there’s another lever we can pull, and that’s about what happens in the meetings.

Last week I wrote about how to determine which meetings should be on your calendar (and how to arrange those meetings in your schedule). This week, let’s talk about how to run those meetings so that we can eek the most value out of them.

Even when you’ve decided a meeting is valuable, and therefore needs space on your calendar, you can still leave that meeting feeling incredibly frustrated. You went in with certain expectations, and they weren’t met. You leave annoyed, no further along in the project than before the meeting. Maybe you even need to reprioritize your work because you don’t have the information, or decisions, you need to move forward with a project.

Here are some tips for ensuring that your meetings don’t waste your time, or anyone else’s:

ENSURE EVERY MEETING HAS AN OWNER

The owner of the meeting is responsible for: 

  • setting the agenda
  • scheduling the meeting
  • facilitating discussions to keep the meeting on topic and on time

INCLUDE ONLY WHO IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY

If you’ve ever left a meeting thinking “why was I even there?”, you’ll know what I’m talking about here!

  • Only include attendees are who are necessary for the purpose of the meeting (subject matter experts, decisions makers, etc.).
  • But make sure to include key stakeholders. If a key stakeholder is missing, better to reschedule than to have 2 meetings!
  • But what if there are folks who need to be kept in the loop? Information can be disseminated to, or feedback solicited from, others via other means (email, Slack, etc.).

KNOW THE GOAL/PURPOSE

This one sounds silly, but if you think about it, I bet you’ve been invited to (or even organized!) a meeting where the purpose is not entirely evident. To combat this:

  • Define the goal for the meeting.  If you don’t know what the goal is, don’t schedule a meeting.
  • Ensure that all attendees are aware of the goal or purpose of the meeting…before the meeting. People do their best work when they are prepared.

KNOW WHETHER IT’S A “DECISION MEETING” OR A “DISCUSSION MEETING”

Part of knowing the purpose of the meeting is knowing whether the point is to make a decision or not. How many times have you walked out of a meeting frustrated that no decisions have been made? Or feeling like decisions were made too fast, before all the options were vetted? The likely culprit in both cases is a mismatch of expectations around the end result of this meeting. Sometimes we need to meet to simply hash things out; at other times, we’re aiming for a decision. Stating the goal in advance allows expectations to be set, and met.

  • Decide whether the purpose of the meeting is for decision making or discussion.
  • If the meeting’s purpose is to make a decision, make sure that the meeting is not concluded until the decision has been made.

ALWAYS HAVE AN AGENDA (AND STICK TO IT!)

“But agendas take time!” I know, I know, it does take a few minutes to put this together. But think about it this way: if you can’t put together an agenda in a few minutes, should you really be having this meeting? If the purpose is clear, the agenda should be pretty easy to put together. Additionally:

  • The agenda should be sent out in advance to all attendees (or included in the meeting invite) and should clearly state what will be discussed. It doesn’t have to be fancy; a few bullet points will do.
  • Off-topic discussion should be tabled for another time. But you want to aim for “gentle redirection”. Try the following language the next time you need to politely redirect the conversation::
    • “I want to make sure we have time to cover everything on our agenda for today, and it seems like we might need to devote some extra time to topic X.  Would it be alright if we table this discussion for now? Let’s come back to this at the end of the meeting if we have time, and if not I’ll reach out to you after the meeting to address.”

ENSURE ATTENDEES ARE PREPARED

If there’s pre-reading, pre-work or brainstorming that needs to happen, make sure your attendees know what’s expected. It’s a giant waste of time when we have to spend the first 15 minutes of a meeting simply catching people up. To increase the likelihood of people being prepared:

  • Send out the agenda (as far in advance as possible) and any materials that need to be read in advance of the meeting.
  • Set expectations that attendees are to come prepared.

FRAME THE MEETING AT THE TOP (TO SET EXPECTATIONS AGAIN)

At the start of a meeting, even if we give people every opportunity to be prepared, they might not be. So give ‘em a little grace and start the meeting off by resetting expectations.

  • Provide intros if necessary
  • Review the agenda (briefly)
  • Ask if anyone else has anything they wanted to discuss in the meeting (in case there is time, or so you know if you’ll need to schedule a separate meeting).

END THE MEETING WITH A RECAP

Sometimes, even when we’ve done everything right, there are misunderstandings. About who will do what. About timelines. About decisions. To help ensure that everyone is on the same page, a meeting recap is crucial. Here’s how:

  • At the end of the meeting, verbally recap decisions made/action items
  • Ask: “Is there anything else that’s on your mind that we didn’t cover today?” (so that you know if additional meetings or follow up are required)
  • The meeting owner (or designated person) should follow up with a written recap as soon as possible stating:
    • Decisions made
    • Next actions (including both responsible person and timeline for each)

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE A LOT OF WORK? CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES OF NOT PUTTING IN A LITTLE PREP. LIKE A LOT OF THINGS IN LIFE, A LITTLE PLANNING UP FRONT SAVES YOU TONS OF TIME AND FRUSTRATION LATER.

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