Meetings can be one of the biggest time drains for you as an individual and for a business. A meeting with 7 people all making $20 per hour costs a business $140 per hour. If it is a once-per-week meeting and there are 15 minutes wasted at each meeting, the total yearly waste comes to over $1,800. I don’t know about you, but a one hour meeting with only 15 minutes wasted is actually a pretty good meeting, in my experience. Half of a meeting being wasted is more par for the course, and entire meetings that are unproductive is fairly common.
Here are some ways you can facilitate more effective meetings and hopefully get more done in less time.
1. Make people show up on time
If people trickle in over a 10 minute period, that is a lot of wasted time. Often people come late because they know the meeting isn’t going to start on time, anyway. This is kind of a “catch 22,” because if you start the meeting with no one there, it is hard to get anything done. If you wait for everyone, then you make it likely that people will come late to the next meeting. Here are a couple ideas:
- Email everyone to remind them a few minutes before the meeting starts.
- Call or run by the office of people you know are often late.
- Go ahead and start the meeting without everyone. When someone comes in late, ask that they catch up with someone else in the group to find out what they missed.
- Hold the meeting somewhere that being late will make them look bad or at least be more noticeable.
- Ask people to come on time. Depending on your role, this might be as simple as making a request, or a bit more strict, like pointing out that they are being rude to everyone else who came on time.
You can find creative ways to help encourage people to come on time, as well. Once I was having problems with a particular individual who always showed up late for our meetings. At one meeting, he was late again. I took everyone that was there down to the cafe, bought everyone a drink and we continued our meeting there. The late individual came in and didn’t know where everyone was. The next time, he showed up on time.
2. Always have an agenda
Ideally, you want something with a specific amount of estimated time allocated to each item. This makes it easy for you to identify things that are starting to drag on longer than they should. Use the agenda to make sure you stay on track. This doesn’t mean you can never discuss something that isn’t on the agenda, but the agenda helps tell you where you should pick back up if you get side-tracked.
Give people the agenda ahead of time. For short meetings, it is probably best to have it in the body of an email. If you send it as an attachment, there is a good chance people won’t read it before the meeting. If you have it in the body, they will probably at least skim it. At the very least, you want to get the meeting agenda into their subconscious mind before they show up.
Having an agenda also helps show that you are organized and have a plan. It sets the expectation that your meeting isn’t going to be a waste of time. It helps put the meeting in the right perspective and makes it carry a more valuable perception.
3. Invite the right people
It is easy to get so many people involved that you can’t get anything done. On the other hand you can’t have an effective meeting if you don’t have the right people there. If you are talking about something that needs to be approved by a number of people, it may be good to have meeting with a small group of people to hash out the ideas and recommendations for the decision makers to look at.
The number of people in a meeting is tricky. You want to avail yourself of everyone’s talent, but you don’t want to have a bunch of dead weight, either. Still, there are other considerations beyond just the contributions of people to the meeting:
- Political – Sometimes you will need to invite someone so they feel important. You can potentially make them feel important without inviting them by scheduling the meeting for a time when they have another meeting scheduled.
- Buy in – Related to the political point, sometimes you have to have people in a meeting because they won’t support your conclusions unless they feel like they were part of it. Sometimes you can get around this by having a one-on-one session with them ahead of time to hear their concerns and make them feel like they were part of the process.
There are also some people you want to make sure you don’t invite. I’ve worked in organizations that had high-level employees who never seemed to do much of anything. They seemed to feel that their sole responsibility in life was to play the devil’s advocate and tell everyone why their ideas wouldn’t work. These types of people can’t make a decision, themselves, and usually have nothing to add. Occasionally they will help you steer clear of a potential pitfall, but the signal-to-noise ratio is so high that their input is worthless, for the most part. These are people you don’t want to have at your meetings.
4. Use email effectively
Don’t have a meeting for something that can be better communicated via email. If you just need to distribute facts, use email. If you need to argue about the best way to do something, don’t try to do this in your inbox–hold a meeting. Some people try to avoid distributing information via email because it makes them look more important to do it in a meeting. Giving the statistics from last month isn’t the type of thing everyone needs to sit in a room to listen to. It might make someone feel important, but it is pointless unless the numbers are generating a lot of questions–even then email may be a more effective communication medium.
Have you ever noticed how science fiction shows have someone on the space ship whose job appears to be to repeat whatever the captain said to the computer again? Reading numbers off a spreadsheet is usually just as pointless.
5. Use meetings to argue
This sounds bad, but really, this is what makes an effective meeting. Meetings let you get people together and work through differences in person. You can pit various ideas against each other and come up with the best solutions. If you don’t have any arguing going on in your meetings, then you are probably having meetings for the wrong reasons.
You have to learn to argue fair. You are discussing ideas, not personally attacking people. It may take a bit to get a team to open up to the point where they can passionately express their views, but that is what you need for meetings to really become productive.
One common problem is having someone at a meeting that is so important that no one will disagree with him/her. If no one is going to disagree, you might as well just let that person make all the decisions. I had a graphic designer working for me once who would never disagree with me when we were having meetings. I finally asked her about this. She said she didn’t want to argue with her boss. I explained that I was paying her to disagree with me! If I didn’t want her opinion, I wouldn’t have hired her in the first place.
6. Record your decisions
Often decisions are made at meetings, but within a few months, no one remembers why. Taking good notes will help you easily remember not only what was decided, but why it was decided. It also makes it easy for new people to easily catch up and understand the history of a group. For taking notes, I like tools like SubEthaEdit or EtherPad that let multiple people edit the same document simultaneously. I like these tools because they help keep everyone engaged and don’t require a bunch of time creating “minutes” after the fact.
Another advantage of having good notes is that it gives you a way to pass on the meeting’s contents to people who need to know about the discussion, but can’t come (or you don’t want to come). Ideally, having the notes stored somewhere that everyone can search them is a valuable method of knowledge management for your entire company.
7. Kill the Powerpoints
Powerpoint can be a useful tool for doing training, but if you are spending a lot of time with someone at the front of a room flipping through slides, it is a sign that your meetings aren’t very efficient. Powerpoint can be a good way to make sure everyone is looking at the same thing as the starting point for discussion. A good rule of thumb is seven minutes. If the person controlling the Powerpoint is talking for more than seven minutes without being interrupted or asked a question, then the information probably doesn’t need to be presented in the meeting.
8. Get everyone talking
Don’t let people be silent participants. If someone isn’t participating, they may not be comfortable with the format–everyone else may be jumping in but they feel like they need to ask permission to talk or prefer something with more structure. These people need to be included. Usually it is just a matter of saying, “Joe, what do you think?” The point is, you need to make a conscious effort to include everyone. If they aren’t being heard, then it is probably a waste of money for them to be there.
9. End on time
You want people to show up on time for your important meeting. You need to give them the same level of respect and end when you say you will end. If you keep on top of your agenda’s time schedule, ending on time shouldn’t be too difficult and ending early is always a good thing, too.