Running More Productive Meetings
Merlin Mann | Feb 21 2006
I very much enjoyed Ethan's recent post about avoiding "vampire meetings" and thought I'd share a few of my own tips for getting the most out of your meetings -- primarily from the perspective of being the organizer and facilitator. For the love of God, please respect your poor colleagues' time.
- Circulate an agenda - An agenda should show the planned steps that get the meeting from "here" to "there." It helps the participants prepare appropriately and anticipate the kind of information they might need to produce. Most importantly, it works as a contract with the participants: "here's why this is a great use of your time for n minutes."
- Have a theme - Meetings shouldn't be meandering tours of each participant's frontal lobe (unless -- well -- unless that's the actual agenda). Make it clear why this meeting is happening, why each person is participating at a given time, and then use your agenda to amplify how the theme will be explored or tackled in each section of the meeting.
- Set (and honor) times for beginning, ending, and breaks - There's nothing worse than a rudderless meeting that everyone knows will just prattle on until its leader gets tired of hearing himself talk. You own your meeting by putting up walls -- provide structure and be firm about respecting everyone's time. Give short bio and email breaks on a regular schedule. Honor the time walls.
- No electronic grazing. Period. - Laptops closed. Phones off. Blackberries left back in the cube. You're either at the meeting or you're not at the meeting, and few things are more distracting or disruptive than the guy who has to check his damned email every five minutes. Schedule breaks for people to fiddle with their toys, but fearlessly enforce a no grazing rule once the meeting's back in session. Emergency call to take or make? They have to leave the room. No exceptions. If you're too busy to be at the meeting everyone else has made firewalled time for, just leave.
- Schedule guests - Do not put thirty people in a room for three hours if twenty of them will have nothing to do for all but the last ten minutes. In your agenda, make it clear when people will be needed and you'll encourage best use of everyone's time. It's also extra incentive (or even an excuse) to tick off agenda items in a timely manner. ("Well, it looks like Henderson is here to share his sales report, so let's move on.")
- Be a referee and employ a time-keeper - If you can afford it, have one person in the meeting be the slavish time-keeper so you, as the leader, can focus on facilitating, summarizing, clarifying, and just keeping things moving. Working closely with the time-keeper, you should not be afraid to announce things like "Okay, we have three minutes left for this, so let's wrap up with any questions you have for Alice, then move on."
- Stay on target - Any item that can be resolved between a couple people offline or that does not require the knowledge, consent, or input of the majority of the group should be scotched immediately. Close ratholes. As soon as the needed permission, notification, or task assignment is completed, just move on to the next item.
- Follow up - If you have been utilizing a project manager or note taker (and God knows you should), be sure to use a few minutes at the end for him or her to review any major new projects or action items that were generated in the meeting. Have the PM email the list of resolved and new action items to all the participants.
- Be consistent - Take any of these tips that work for you -- and many certainly may not -- but understand one thing above all; meetings do not run themselves, and if you have any desire to make best use of valuable people's time, you'll need a firm hand and a lot of thoughtful planning. Set a pattern of being the one whose meetings don't suck and you'll start seeing the productivity, tone, and participation in your meetings consistently improve.
Aside: Understand -- this is coming from a man who often was compelled to spend the better part of one day a week on a bi-coastal video conference call with two dozen people. Staring. Wishing death. Listening to the CTO opine at length about how exciting it would be to build and sell a national yellow pages app from scratch. If there had been cyanide capsules on the table instead of M&Ms, I don't think I would have hesitated to indulge. "Boil the ocean" business models and long meetings are the cocktail for making Merlin wish harm upon himself.