Time is your most precious commodity, so it's important to hold meetings that make every minute count. Learn how to get more done in less time by creating more effective meetings.
By Kathryn Droullard
“Meetings can be pretty powerful, and they can be pretty successful ways to address business issues, but they need structure,” says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant with Heathfield Consulting Associates in Williamston, Mich., and editor of the Human Resources site at About.com.
Map It Out
When planning a meeting, the first step is to determine its goal—what you hope the meeting will accomplish. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a general topic of conversation is a goal, Heathfield says. Instead, decide what the specific purpose of the meeting is. It could be something as concrete as determining specifications for the next phase of a product, or as simple as completing the agenda.
Creating the agenda is your next step toward an efficient meeting. “The agenda is a roadmap,” Heathfield says. “You build the agenda in such a way that you’ll accomplish the goal you established. In meetings, people tend to rattle on and on, and if there’s not a path to follow, they rattle on and on about nothing and everything, and the purpose of the meeting is never fulfilled.”
In order to maximize your agenda’s efficacy, there are certain pieces of information you must include, says Katherine Green, Ph.D., president of Chevy Chase, Md.-based Green Consulting Group, an organization specializing in leadership training. “What you’re going to do is clarify a couple of things: who is coming to the meeting, what the purpose of the meeting is, what things will be done at the meeting, the length of the meeting, the order of items, what will be covered first, and if possible, some tentative timeframes that each of the topics would occupy,” she says.
Keep an Eye on the Clock
Timeliness is one of the key factors that can make or break a meeting, Heathfield says. Do whatever you can to start and end on time. If people arrive late, don’t pause to fill them in. A good strategy for keeping your meeting on schedule is to send the agenda out ahead of time, allowing attendees to review the items and come prepared for discussion. “Otherwise, they’ll use the time in the meeting to do the review, and then you’re wasting time,” Green says.
To a large extent, how well participants stay on track with the agenda depends on the skill of the meeting facilitator, Heathfield says. “The person who is leading the meeting plays a crucial role in the meeting, [because] the minute they realize that someone is veering off topic or veering off on their own personal agenda, they have to rope them in,” she says.
When someone is monopolizing the conversation or spending too much time on one topic, politely but firmly request that they join the rest of the group and return to the agenda. Sometimes you’ll face the opposite challenge—getting input from someone who is hesitant to speak up. “That requires a little more skill and tact,” Green says. “Find a way to invite their contribution without putting them on the spot.”
You can do so by asking an individual directly if they have anything they wish to add. Or, if you don’t want to call on anyone by name, you can pause the conversation and ask if anyone who hasn’t had a chance to comment would like to do so. That way, “you’ve created the opportunity without anyone having to elbow their way in, because for some people that will be uncomfortable,” Green says.
Leave Room for Flexibility
Occasionally, an agenda item will run long with good reason, or an unexpected issue will come up that merits discussion. In such cases, a good facilitator will check in with the group to see if they wish to extend the agenda, Green says. “Ask if people would like to spend more time on the topic even though we’ve met the time constraints that we put on ourselves,” she says. “Ask, ‘Are we willing to renegotiate the agenda, and give it more time but take the time away from something else?’”
However, be mindful of how often you adjust the agenda or run over the time limit. Take into consideration the quality of the conversation and avoid adding more time for no purpose, Green says. “For example, if you’ve allocated 15 minutes for the first topic and clearly another five minutes would help reach the goal of the meeting, then it’s probably worth asking everyone, ‘Is it OK if we add another five minutes?’” she says. “But if it just means that somebody hasn’t been paying attention, and you’re not very close to the goal, then what it means is someone is not facilitating very clearly or well. So it’s OK to do, but you do it with a reason.”
Ultimately, effective meetings depend on the facilitator’s ability to get everyone on the same page by sending out material ahead of time, planning the course the meeting will take and keeping conversation focused on the end goal. In addition to saving time, well-run meetings foster healthy team dynamics. “People will be pleased and happy if it’s a tight meeting, it’s well organized, it’s well-facilitated, and really does meet the goals it’s intended to,” Green says.