9 Simple Steps To A Productive Meeting

By Julie Rains on 11 May 2011 0 comments
Photo: shironosov

I hate long, boring, and unproductive meetings as much as you probably do.

Many business and organizational meetings seem to be populated with people who derail and prolong discussion and who then wonder why nothing ever gets accomplished. Dealing with these offenders requires playing a strong offense, rather than relying on defense. Good meetings don't just happen. They must be actively planned for and managed.

Before the Meeting

  1. Set goals for the meeting whether it is a standalone session, weekly or monthly review, or one in a series covering an ongoing project.
  2. Prepare an agenda. Ask key players (or participants) if they have agenda items so that you can plan the meeting content appropriately. If urgent items mean that your meeting may be hijacked or diverted, revise your meeting goals and plan another session.
  3. Send out the agenda before the meeting. Provide background information that participants need in order to engage in productive discussion. Give specific instructions on actions that participants need to take before arriving at your session. For example, ask them to brainstorm ideas on a certain topic, gather information for presentation, or send reports for review.

During the Meeting

  1. Start on time, explain ground rules for discussion (limiting times on certain topics if needed), and remind participants of your desire to keep the meeting short but productive.
  2. If effectiveness stalls, quickly identify those topics that need further discussion so that time is not spent on one topic at the expense of more matters pertaining to meeting goals. Interject that you or someone you nominate will plan a smaller-group session to explore these issues.
  3. Model appropriate responses that encourage fresh ideas while avoiding off-topic rambling, irrelevant stories, and philosophical musings. Ask for input from specific people who should have the most pertinent insights.

After the Meeting

  1. Prepare and distribute follow-up notes that include action items required of participants. Reiterate specific assignments and their due dates.
  2. Encourage participants to ask questions. Respond promptly to any concerns and give guidance as needed, further elaborating on your expectations for participation.
  3. Clarify points of discussion as needed. If you discover that anyone was confused about decisions made or action steps after the meeting, promptly correct any wrong thinking. This approach will help avoid rehashing problems at subsequent meetings.

Meeting Disruptors

I have found that these nine steps can mitigate the impact of the few participants who tend to dominate and drag out meetings. Who are they?

The Storytellers share a story that conveys a concept in a way that traditional methods, such as an analytical report or presentation, do not. But they tell and retell the same story, making the same analogy to every new situation that arises. Over and over, they offer one-insight-fits-all solutions to complex problems, squelching imagination, and dampening productivity (See 4-6).

The Unprepared give little consideration to meetings except to show up. They assume the same unpreparedness from others. Their job, they think, is simply to respond to points in the meeting without forethought. They mistakenly believe that gut reactions are the best and that thoughtful reflection has no place in an action-oriented world. Their comments are irrelevant and often derail progress on topics (See 1-3 and 7-9).

The Point-Makers make strong, well-reasoned cases for certain ideas. Their points could benefit productivity except that they are asserted and restated over and over, over and over. Certainly, the first explanation is beneficial; the second reinforces the idea and reaches those who may not have fully grasped the original explanation. Further elaboration, though, prolongs discussion and contributes to deteriorating concentration among meeting participants (See 1-3).

The Complainers bring up a past mistake or problem, which may have been relevant at one time but is not pertinent to the discussion at hand. The wrong occurred years ago and root causes that led to the problem have been addressed. These folks drag down progress with an emphasis on the past (See 5 and 9).

The Detailers provide minute details of their work areas at every single meeting. They anticipate and then answer questions that will never be asked. Such details may be of value in certain (rare) cases but tend to lengthen sessions with no added value (See 3).

The Question-Askers combine the worst of the unprepared and the detailers as well as the point-makers and complainers. These people seem to be a blank slate in terms of organizational experience and domain knowledge. They revel in conducting lengthy, detailed discussions about every line item on the agenda (See 1-9).

This Meeting's Takeaway

Engage people outside of the meeting, before and after, to deal with tangential ideas and topics that may slow progress. Be clear, specific, and firm about what you want to accomplish in each meeting. Model brevity (that is, stop yourself from relating another story or giving your two cents after others have contributed theirs). Finally, let participants know that you will keep meetings short if everyone stays focused.

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