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Want More Productive Meetings? Take 6 Simple Steps

Sarah Schott •  October 11, 2016 | Business and Careers

SchottbHow often do you leave a meeting at work thinking it was the best possible use of your time?

Meetings are supposed to be an efficient way to get things done, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. And when meetings are unproductive, business pays. One estimate puts the cost of unproductive meetings in the U.S. at $37 billion dollars annually.

One of the reasons meetings feel unproductive is that they’re often held unnecessarily, such as when a simple phone call or email would have sufficed. But even if a meeting is, in fact, the most effective way to get something done, it won’t be productive unless it’s well planned and thoughtfully executed.

So the next time you lead a meeting, consider taking these six steps. They can help to ensure that you get what you need from your meeting and that the people you invited feel that their time was well spent.

1. Communicate your goals and expectations for the meeting. Are you going to inform people about something? Do you want to solicit their ideas and opinions about something? Or are you going to ask the attendees to make a decision during the meeting? Let them know up front—preferably in the meeting invitation and certainly as you kick off the meeting—what needs to happen, how you expect them to participate and why their participation is important.

2. Make your meeting attendees feel welcome and included. When I lead a meeting, I like to establish a sense of camaraderie in the room. A little pre-meeting banter puts people at ease, which can be especially helpful if there’s a junior person in a room of senior leaders; a little chit-chat helps them see that we’re all just normal people. And if there’s someone who’s new to me in the room, I will usually welcome him or her and say something nice about that person or his or her work. And if I don’t know anything, I’ll say, “We’ve got expertise in from department XYZ today. This is Jane Smith, and she’ll be giving a presentation later on the topic of X.” Bottom line: Do what you can to make sure everyone in the room is recognized and feels comfortable as you get started.

3. Have an agenda, and position the most important topic first. If you want your meeting to be productive, establish an agenda. It’ll help you keep the discussion focused, and you’ll be better able to stay on track. Plus, it signals to your meeting participants that you’re organized and serious about making progress in your meeting. As you develop your agenda, keep this in mind: Put the most important topic at the top of the list. The last thing on the agenda can get bumped for lack of time.

Term or Permanent Life Insurance: Which Option is Right for You?4. Draw out participation to make it a high-quality conversation. We’ve all been in meetings in which one or two people dominate the conversation and others sit idle. So when you call a meeting, it’s your responsibility to enable everyone to participate. After all, there’s a reason why you invited each one. And that means you may have to lead the way to help some participants (introverts especially) to open up. “John, you and I talked about something similar last week. Would you share a little bit about what you’re working on?” With a gentle nudge, introverts don’t have to think about what they should say or whether they should contribute. Alternatively, you may choose to go around the room and ask each person for his or her perspective so everyone has an experience speaking up in the group. In some cases, I’ll even talk to people in advance of a meeting and let them know that I want them to share their experiences or opinion, so they shouldn’t be surprised.

5. Be mindful of your pace. If you get close to the 30-minutes-left mark and you’re not on pace to get through the entire agenda, acknowledge it by saying something like, “We’re behind schedule on our agenda, and it seems like there’s more energy around our current topic that could be addressed. Would people feel comfortable spending another 10 minutes on this topic? If so, we’ll have to make some adjustments to what’s coming up next.”

6. Wrap it up neatly. Most people understand the importance of ending a meeting by summarizing what happened or what was decided and talking through next steps. In meetings that I lead, I like to make sure the people I’ve invited feel like they’re part of that process, too. I might say, for example, “I’m going to summarize the high points of our discussion today in a follow-up email, but let me give it a first crack here. This is what I heard. (Describe highlights of the meeting in a few bullet points.) Keep an eye out for the email, and let me know if you have any additional feedback.” Not only does this approach help to ensure everyone’s on the same page, your meeting attendees may actually—with a little time to reflect—come up with some good ideas or points to consider beyond what was discussed as a group.

Every meeting has a beginning, a middle and an end. And I’ve found that if you’re not intentional about all three components—if you fail to set the expectations up front, for example, or forget to summarize at the end—you run the risk of having a less than productive meeting. A carefully planned and executed meeting will lead people to leave feeling a sense of accomplishment, and they will be more likely to show up the next time you call a meeting. 

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