Organizing Meetings

Meetings are a waste of time: true or false?

At the start of the day (or even better, at the end of the day before), you have created a list of tasks, to-dos and priorities for the day. Things need to be done, you know what you need to accomplish, you are set. Then, at the end of the day, you go over your list and realize you are nowhere near completing it because you have been sitting in meetings and running around solving crises and emergencies all day.

What happened? Where did the time go? The day is over, you are exhausted and have the distinct feeling of not actually having done anything, other than sit in meetings all day.

Over the past, I have had the “pleasure” of sitting in many meetings, at every level and on every possible topic, which, in my mind at least, led to no result whatsoever. Surely there must be a better way? Meetings must occur, why are they not as productive as one would expect?

I would like to make some simple recommendations on meetings, whether you are organizing or attending, in order to actually make them productive, useful activities and not just sitting around wishing you were somewhere else.

1. Before the Meeting

1.1 The Cost

A meeting is a serious activity and while it does not appear to consume much other than coffee and sandwiches, it is a particularly expensive endeavour. This should never be underestimated. The cost of the meeting, other than consumables and electricity, should be calculated as the time spent for various salaried people.

If 5 people meet for an hour, that is 5 hours of work that have been consumed; now, add to that the time spent booking a room, sending out invitations, preparing material for the meeting, writing up minutes, etc.

A one-hour meeting is a minimum of one day’s work. That is one twentieth of the average monthly salary of the attendees. If you are including some of your senior executives in the meeting, that can be quite a cost.

1.2 The Plan

A meeting is basically a project. Sure, it is a short project: Crossrail is a big project (the new 118km train line that crosses under central London, was initiated in 2007 and the first portion is scheduled to open end of 2018, at a cost of GBP 15.9 billion [€16 700 000 000, USD 19 300 000 000, approximately 600 000 years work for the average British salary), your meeting is a tiny project.

Like every project, it should have the supporting documentation, starting with the plan.

1.3 Purpose Statement

What is the objective of the meeting? Why are you organizing a meeting? There are a number of reasons to hold a meeting, but frequently, no one is really sure what the purpose of any give meeting is.

  • Communication: this meeting is there for one person to tell something to the others. No debate is expected, potentially there may be some questions and answers at the end of the meeting.
  • Brain-storming: this meeting is to discuss original and various options to resolve a given issue. We expect lots of interaction, new ideas to be floated and people to treat each other with sufficient respect.
  • Decision making: two or more options are presented to move forward, we need people who have insight and understanding to come together and discuss why one option might be better than the others.
  • Consensus building: the decision has been made, we understand that some people might not agree or understand, so we need to make sure that we clarify the concepts and reach a common agreement.
  • Team updates: every team member is coming with a brief update on their work, sharing the good news and the bad and presenting the main issues that need to be discussed – long discussions are not expected in this meeting, but follow-up meetings will be planned.
  • Resolution: we have a problem that I cannot resolve on my own, I need to discuss this with someone who has more knowledge about the issue than I do so as to reach a agreement or (better) concensus of what can or should be done.
  • Review: typically a manager or client and a team member will review the status of a particular piece of work, establish goals and decide on whether current results are satisfactory or not.

1.4 Participation

It should be clear, when someone is invited to a meeting, why they are being asked to attend the meeting, what their role is expected to be and what preparation is required. People should never attend a meeting unless it is clear from the start what their role is going to be.

Part of the meeting invitation should clarify this information, not just for the person being invited, but for the other participants. The invitation should include a complete list of expected and requested attendees, clearly stating

  • The name of the person invited
  • The reason for which that person is invited (this may be their job, their title or a particular set of skills or knowledge that may come in useful)
  • Whether the presence of the person is required or not – it is understood that if a person is required, the meeting will be cancelled should that person not show up
  • The role the person is expected to fulfill: what are they expected to bring to the meeting, how are they supposed to act
  • The preparation that is required for the meeting by each individual

The invitation also clearly states who will be taking notes and producing the minutes of the meeting.

1.5 Schedule

The time table should be set up for the meeting. It is strange that management expects detailed schedules and plans from projects, but believe that their own meetings can just proceed without structure.

The meeting is scheduled to start on time, there are some clear steps that need to be respected in the conduct of the meeting; these may include time planned for an introduction, for a review of the current status, for a presentation of concepts and ideas, for discussion, for questions and answers, for wrap-up and conclusion.

The meeting is scheduled to finish on time.

It is clearly understood that everyone in the meeting has other places to be and other things to do. Respecting that time is a basic rule of politeness. Even if you are the president or the CEO, you should respect the time that people are giving you: it is not acceptable to be late or to drag on a meeting longer than necessary without a very sold reason and excuse, which is presented and explained to all those affected. Tardiness is expensive and shows a total lack of respect.

1.6 Location

Obviously, it is important to identify where the meeting will be held and to ensure that the location is known to all team members, of a reasonable size for the number of attendants and the duration, and available for the meeting.

It is always surprising when turning up for a meeting only to find that the room is no longer available. Many senior managers and executives seem to believe that their meeting is more important and so they can throw out, without asking, warning or explaining whoever has booked a meeting room, and take it themselves.

If you need a room urgently and the only room you believe you can use is already reserved by someone else, it is your obligation to ensure that the people who are going to show up have advance notice that their meeting has been cancelled, postponed, or moved to an equally suitable location.

1.7 Refreshments

Before booking a meeting, one should consider the time of day and its consequences. If it is first thing in the morning, consider hot drinks; if you are meeting at lunchtime, refreshments are welcome – even if it is just a sandwich. It has been said in many companies that if you want better attendance at your meeting, you need to provide food.

This has an impact on all sorts of other areas of the meeting organization. You may need to make sure that the room is suitable for people to have a cup of coffee (or a glass of water) as well as a notebook or laptop. Think about whether you want them to eat sandwiches, while having to continue typing on their laptops, or continue arguing with their mouths full. You may need to schedule a short lunch break in the meeting.

2. During the Meeting

2.1 Attendance

It is a common problem that people are expected at a meeting and do not arrive on time, or do not respond and confirm that they will attend. This is a nuisance to the organizer of the meeting as well as the people who are confirming and attending as requested. If you cannot attend or are running seriously late, you must inform the organizer as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made accordingly.

It is difficult to change this habit in many people, because this is a profound cultural issue. For some, they believe that they are so important that the world should wait on them, this is typical of some senior executives as well as former ranked members of the armed forces. Some tricks exist but, first and foremost, this is a question of education; first, senior management needs to show the right attitude and enforce it internally – as long as the CEO or MD does not respect the time of the people in their employ, it is a clear signal that it is not necessary to respect commitments.

  1. Penalties: get attendees to pay a fine, financial or other, proportionate to the delay they generate.
  2. Rewards: provide snacks to those who arrive on time, remove them before latecomers arrive.
  3. Information: display or explain the cost of the meeting per minute.
  4. Priorities: key bits of information are communicated once, at the beginning of the meeting.
  5. Timing: start your meeting 5 minutes after the hour, allowing for other meetings to finish on time and attendees to come over.

Other ideas exist, none of them will work for some people. I would be happy to hear your additional suggestions.

2.2 Timing

The meeting needs to be timed. In order to do this, consider the order in which things are going to be discussed or presented.

Frequently in the past, I have organized meetings to discuss “lessons learnt” (post-implementation reviews, post-mortem reviews, retrospectives…) in which we start by discussing the things that went wrong. Most people are so happy to be able to publicly complain, that the first 55 minutes of a 60 minute meeting are taken up by this activity before we can move on to the rest. Timing is critical: if the components of the meeting are not held to their time frame, the whole meeting can only over-run or finish incomplete and inconclusive.

A countdown timer is useful for this, whether this is a specialized item (there are some good products specially made for this available called “Time Timers“, but a simple timer on your phone with a sound to say time is up works just as well. I have even used my watch and a whistle in the past.

Of course, some people will continue talking past the bell – these are typically people who have little to say, but don’t want that to be apparent; they will repeat the same thing over and over again, or are determined to make sure that no one else has time to speak (this is just what the American politicians do when they use the technique called “filibustering”). Once that is understood, it can become clear to everyone else in the meeting that maybe … but I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.

2.3 Minuting

It needs to be understood that every meeting, whatever the purpose, should be minuted. If there is no trace that the meeting was held, who participated, what information was communicated, what decisions were made, etc. you can safely assume that the meeting did not actually occur or that it was just wasting time.

The minutes do not need to be extensive, they can refer to items without giving all the details, but they do need to be complete.

  1. The person chairing the meeting (usually the one who called the meeting), does not have time to present, facilitate, reprimand those who go off topic, etc. and take notes at the same time. This needs to be done by someone dedicated to taking the minutes.
  2. The person taking the minutes needs to focus primarily on the notes, but can participate and give opinions during the discussions – the point is not to capture everything that everyone said, but to capture the conclusions.
  3. The minutes need to be distributed to the participants for approval very rapidly after the meeting, so that they can still remember enough to accept the contents; I have seen too many minutes that are distributed only at the next meeting, not giving time to participants to review and commit appropriately.

The minutes need to include a clear list of the decisions made and the tasks attributed to participants. The participants need to get that list rapidly so that they can perform the tasks or communicate the decisions as needed, without having to concentrate on taking their own notes during the meeting.

One strongly recommended approach to minutes is one that I learnt from the Quakers. Each meeting for business in this community with no hierarchy is attended by all those who wish to attend, there is no leader to dictate the structure, but there is a “convener” who calls the meeting and distributes the agenda, and a “clerk” whose main job is to prepare the minutes. They follow some strict rules:

  1. Everyone may speak
  2. One person speaks at a time
  3. You do not interrupt other participants
  4. You are not allowed any personal or antagonistic statements that are off topic
  5. When a decision is reached (either there are no objections, or there is agreement that nothing better will come out of further discussions), the clerk reads the proposed sentence or paragraph that explains the decision made
  6. If the minute is agreed, the next item is closed and the next one on the agenda can begin
  7. Minutes are typically cleaned up and communicated within hours of the meeting being concluded.

This simple approach allows for a structure to the meeting and the approval of the minutes in real time.

3. After the Meeting

As stated above, the minutes should be distributed rapidly, and all agreed tasks need to be completed before the next meeting is called. The minutes of the meeting should be classified in a formal manner, this can be a binder if they are on paper, or an electronic storage system (Microsoft “Notes” is a very good product for this as it integrates with the calendar in “Outlook” and keeps track of participation).

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