A structure for creating Meetings That Matter

Ron Ashkenas, author of The Boundaryless Organization reports that most managers believe that the majority of meetings are inefficient. Despite ‘knowing’ how to conduct effective meetings they continue to practice ineffective ones.

Ashkenas offers three reasons for this behaviour:

  1. Meetings offer the opportunity for social interaction
  2. Meetings are a practical way of keeping everyone in the loop
  3. Meeting can represent a certain level of status having been attained

He provides the basic tenets of an efficient meeting to be:
“Be clear about what you want to accomplish; invite the right people; send out pre-reading in advance; have an agenda and follow it with discipline; send out notes with key decisions and action steps.”

From my experience one of the problems with the prescribed successful meeting process is that people are too busy to do the required pre-reading. In fact, most managers have reported to me that they don’t have the time to pre-read the prescribed agenda. This is something they do on the way to the meeting or when they first get there.

Managers have also reported to me that they don’t focus on the content of the meeting “…until I am there.”, especially when they are travelling from one meeting to the next.

In this context it seems near impossible to create efficient meetings. Thankfully there is a way, but it will take some of you some time to get used to the ‘instant formality’ that the process creates.Organisations That Matter, Gary Ryan, Yes For Success, Leadership, Plan for personal success

Step 1: Provide an opportunity for staff to ‘check in’ at the start of the meeting (keep it short)
Efficient meetings require all present to be ‘present’ during the meeting. Wandering minds don’t aid efficiency. The purpose of the ‘check in’ is to allow team members to psychologically separate from what was going on before the meeting to focusing on the meeting that is happening ‘now’.

A ‘check in’ can be a single word where everyone is asked to share how they are at that moment through to just those feeling the need to share a recent experience that may be on their mind (e.g. I nearly had a car accident on the way here).

Step 2: Clarify the purpose of the meeting
Even if this is a regular meeting, remind people why it still matters. If the meeting no longer matters then you shouldn’t be wasting your time conducting it!

Step 3: Collectively set the agenda
Publicly create the agenda. A whiteboard is perfect for this task (remember there is power in the whiteboard marker, so while you are teaching people this method it is best to be the ‘scribe’).

Accept all suggestions from all team members. Then select the most important items that need to be addressed today. It is okay to use your positional authority as necessary when completing this task.

Literally place numbers beside each item as you prioritise them.

Next allocate approximate time slots for each agenda item that you have agreed to talk about. These time slots do not need to be equal – they need to be relevant to the importance of the agenda item and how long (in the available time) you have to discuss the item.

Step 4: Set a time-keeper
A team member will need to take on the role of time-keeper. It is amazing how often the simple statement that we have used our available time on an item results in the discussion ending. Please note that this role can (and probably should) move around the team members from one meeting to the next.

Step 5: Make a record of the meeting
Create meeting notes that highlight the agreed agenda and any actions that result from each item. This can be done by using the left hand side of the whiteboard and recording the actions as they arise throughout your meeting. Share the meeting notes in a timely fashion. This can be done by using your smartphone to take a photo of the Action Items and then immediately distribute the photo to all team members. You can leave the meeting without any extra administration tasks to be completed!

Step 6: Reflect on the meeting skills displayed throughout the meeting
This step spends a few minutes providing the opportunity to team members to talk about their thoughts about how well meeting skills were displayed by the team members. Comments such as, “Joan asked a lot of powerful questions today. Especially when she asked me about the most powerful benefits for the organisation that my suggestion would provide. It really made me stop and think more clearly about why this project matters.” provide an example of what might be said during the reflection.

That’s it. Like anything new this six step approach will feel strange at first, but you will get used to it.

Please feel free to ask questions about any of the six steps outlined above.

Please note that this article was catalysed by a recent conversation with one of my Executive Coaching clients. Thanks Elise!

Gary Ryan enables talented professionals, their teams and organisations to Move Beyond Being Good.
View a TedX Talk by Gary here.