7 Steps to a Great Meeting

The writer explains the seven steps while planning a meeting to making it more efficient and effective

We spend a good chunk of our professional life in meetings. Meetings help people collaborate. They
can increase innovation and creativity. They aid information exchange. Leaders can’t communicate strategy without
meetings. Considering their utility, meetings should give great returns on time invested in them. Instead, them returns are poor. A good proportion of meetings are a terrible waste of time. The pandemic has increased the amount of time we spend in meetings. We can plan virtual meetings at the drop of a hat. And we don’t have the constraint of needing physical presence of participants. So, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the meeting pandemic! How much time do we spend in meetings? A great deal! Bain & Company tracked the time spent on executive committee meetings in a large corporate. Their estimate was an eye popping 300,000 hours of organization time! Microsoft estimates that 71% of meetings have no clear outcome. Doodle estimates US and UK businesses wasted half a trillion dollars due to bad meetings. Surprising, only a few corporates focus on saving money by increasing meeting efficiency. Even while cost cutting remains a key focus area for them. So, how do we ensure that we waste less time on meetings? Use the 7 steps below while planning a meeting. It’s guaranteed to make your meetings more efficient!

Step #1: Check alternatives to a meeting
A meeting is often looked at as the only solution to a pressing issue. A silver bullet which will solve the issue. Sure, there are times when a meeting is the best alternative. Onboarding new joiners into an organization, for instance. Or brainstorming meetings. Yet, in most cases, there are alternatives available. Alternatives which could improve outcomes. For instance, a call between two key people. Or a synchronous communication through written communication or a digital team collaboration tool. We often hold meetings as an alternative to perceived idleness. ‘Let’s call a meeting – people don’t seem to be doing too much.’ Even if people aren’t doing too much, a meeting isn’t the solution. An energy-sapping agenda-less meeting might make things worse. Instead, spend the time on training or on team-building activities. Just be sure that everything done has a purpose and plan.

Step #2: Choose participants well
Still feel you need to have a meeting after Step #1? Then the next step is to choose participants carefully. It’s easy to call everybody for a meeting. Even if you aren’t sure those participants will be relevant to the meeting. You never know when they might be needed, the thinking goes. Often, those participants are left twiddling their thumbs during the meeting. Only invite those participants who certainly need to be there. For the rest, seek out information that may be required from them before the meeting. How do you know if you’re regularly choosing irrelevant participants? A great indicator is if everyone seems more interested in their phones than in the meeting.

Step #3: Make sure everyone knows what is getting discussed
Once you have chosen the right participants, circulate the agenda. The agenda should be clear and succinct. If there is any background reading material, circulate well in advance. If participants need to do something before the meeting, let them know. Make sure that the participants do what is expected before the meeting. Else it’s easy to spend an entire meeting going through the material instead of discussing it. That wastes the time of participants who have come prepared. More critically, it leads to sub-optimal meeting outcomes.

Step #4: No open-ended meetings
Don’t keep a meeting open-ended. Where you specify only the start time of the meeting. Or even if there is a closing time, it isn’t honoured. The only time open-ended meetings could work is for brainstorming. Yet even there it isn’t
advisable. Beyond a point, participants will start switching off and stop contributing. Meeting outcomes are then based on the views of a few participants with the most energy. That’s not the way to reach the best outcome.

Step #5: Stick to the point
People don’t like to speak about big and important things. We’re scared of embarrassing ourselves. Yet, we want to appear to take part and contribute. Hence, there is a tendency to spend time on the trivial. The Parkinson’s Law of Triviality can dominate meetings. Where the most time is spent on deciding the least important agenda point in a meeting. As Parkinson put it, “A decision about the construction of a new bike shed, will be debated for an hour and a quarter, then deferred for decision to the next  meeting, pending the gathering of more information”. All while the more important points are glossed over.

Step #6: Make everyone participate
“A meeting moves at the speed of the slowest mind in the room… all but one participant will be bored, all but one
mind under-used,” Dale Dauten wrote. At the other extreme, you have meetings dominated by a single person who wants to push through his agenda. With the other participants nodding (or phone tapping) along. Neither meeting is good. Instead, get everyone to contribute. Meaningfully. And if that doesn’t happen, retrace the steps above.

Step #7: Action points
Even if you’ve had a great meeting, you lose it all without ending a meeting with identifying action points. And assigning people responsible for each of those action points. That makes the discussions taken at the meeting concrete. Else, you’re not too much better off than at the start of the meeting. And we’ve wasted everyone’s time.

Closing thoughts
“Meetings should be like salt – a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too any meetings destroy morale and motivation,” says Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried. Keep those wise words in mind while planning your next meeting. Or better still, your next alternative to a meeting.

(The author runs iv-advisors, a consulting firm helping businesses become bigger and better. Email:sunildias@iv-advisors.com)

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