A Guide to Effective Meetings
By Kiley Skadburg on August 20, 2018 in Digital Marketing
Working in client services, my schedule can often get a little crazy. Team members frequently look to schedule a meeting with me and say something like, “Yikes, your calendar looks scary!” Hey, it happens, and it’s part of the gig! But there have been many instances over the course of my career where I sit in a meeting and think, “Why am I here?”
If you’ve ever wondered that to yourself while sitting in a marathon session of meetings, ask yourself this question: what is this meeting lacking?
Common Pitfalls of Unproductive Meetings
The first step to solving unproductive meetings is diagnosing where it is going wrong. Here are five reasons a meeting may be unproductive:
- Lack of Structure: There is no consistent structure to the meetings. Sometimes, agendas are provided; sometimes, they aren’t. Sometimes, you recap things and identify action items; sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes, there are tasks assigned; sometimes, there aren’t.
- Too Many Attendees: Teams and clients often bring multiple people to the meetings, which is likely not always necessary. Maybe people are invited to meetings where they only participate for about five minutes and spend the next 55 minutes uninvolved in remaining discussions.
- Lack of Focus: Because of the wide variety of team members involved, you end up discussing the distribution of specific tasks that most people at the meeting don't need to be involved in.
- No Actionable Follow-up: Meetings rarely end with a recap of what was discussed, and there are no clear action items and takeaways for most of the attendees, with the exception of a few who used the meeting time to discuss task delegation.
- They’re No Fun: Want people to keep coming to your (hopefully now more effective) meetings? Make them enjoyable, for crying out loud! But not too much fun, okay? Otherwise that would be counterproductive. (Unless fun IS the agenda...)
In an attempt to educate our team (and you) on better practices for running effective meetings, I looked at tips from consultants and sources from Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, and Forbes Magazine, among others. I also asked some of our own team members who I very much enjoy sitting in meetings with. Below, I have outlined some key learnings that I hope help you in your quest for more effective meetings.
5 Steps to More Effective Meetings
The first step to creating a more effective meeting structure is getting organized and identifying the issues which you most commonly meet on. For example, if there is a weekly operations meeting, perhaps providing more organization to those meetings might lead to more productive meetings when other departments need to be involved. Obviously, this is going to vary depending on your organization, but an example meeting structure could potentially look like this:
- Leadership Meetings: Meet once weekly. Have each department leader share any new issues or focus areas. Topics should be listed, then prioritized based on urgency and gravity to the business. It will be important to identify leaders of each topic who are responsible for arranging additional meetings to get the issue resolved or have further discussions. It is up to the leadership team to determine who should be involved in these discussions in advance to avoid having multiple people involved in discussions that aren't relevant.
- Operations: Meet once weekly. This would be attended by the operations manager and their team. They should use this time to discuss issues, solutions, and who is responsible for any takeaways.
- Business Growth: Meet once per month. This would be attended by key people involved in ways to grow our business, such as product managers, sales, and marketing. Or in our case, senior strategists and those involved in business development.
- Strategic Direction: Meet twice per year. This would be attended by leadership. You would use these meetings to discuss bigger picture items, such as new revenue streams, product expansion, or even future cost-cutting measures.
When you identify an issue that requires cross-departmental input, the identified leader of the project should determine the purpose or objective of the meetings and then determine the frequency in which the team should meet — a key component that I think is often overlooked. Having a clear objective helps you understand how much time will be required for proper resolution or discussion and helps ensure you don't allocate too little or too much time for said objective.
Every meeting should have an agenda that includes topics to be discussed and any helpful context to the situation. Annette Catino, chief executive of the QualCare Alliance Network once said: “If I don’t have an agenda in front of me, I walk out. Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting. It’s very important to me to focus people and to keep them focused, and not just get in the room and talk about who won the Knicks game last night.”
I think this quote is especially relevant for many organizations. All too often, people find themselves in meetings where they don’t understand the context of the situation, don't understand what the purpose of the meeting is, and/or what the expected outcomes are. Having this defined upfront will help keep the group focused on the objective of the meeting.
In addition to organization and proper preparation, setting expectations both for the meetings (based on objectives) and of the participants is an important step that should be implemented.
I like this idea from Harvard Business Review: "I highly recommend that you assign one team member to be the sponsor for each agenda item. Make the sponsor accountable for the quality of the discussion, including getting the facts and information required to support an effective discussion distributed in advance."
By implementing this idea, you give people responsibilities and establish clear expectations up front as to what their role will be for the meeting. This will prevent people from disengaging during the course of the meeting and ensure you have stakeholders in the matters discussed and outcomes.
In order for meetings to be productive, it is important that each meeting ends with enough time to adequately recap the meeting. This should include identifying topic owners and next steps and documenting any decisions that were made, as well as how they will need to be communicated to the organization (if required). Spending a few minutes at the end of the meeting (rather than trying to do this during the course of the meeting) is extremely beneficial to make sure everyone understands their role and next steps. Having the sponsors go through their action items is also helpful in ensuring tasks and expected outcomes are properly aligned by all parties.
Making It Fun
Last but not least, it’s important that you don’t forget to have a little fun! You spend way too much time at work (and in meetings, apparently, if you’re reading this), so why not enjoy your time together? I asked my team for some ideas on ways to liven up your meetings and, in true Spinutech style, here’s their feedback:
“Nerf guns - never point them at your boss!” — Kiley Skadburg
“^^^^ (unless they’re looking the other way and won’t know who shot it...depends how well you trust your coworkers). Also, mimosas and breakfast food!” — Alyssa Wilson
“Have Prison Mike facilitate the meeting and teach people lessons. ‘You got a good life…’” — Tyler Rayome
“Pants optional. But seriously, have an agenda (this will make the meeting exponentially more enjoyable and efficient)” — Luke Baldwin
“The ‘talking pillow,’ which is used so that only the person holding it can talk, as seen on Breaking Bad” — Blake Ruane
“Awkward meeting Bingo.” — Wes Attaway
“Never allow some members to conference call in: Conference Calls in Real Life.” — Bree Koch
“Always have prizes — silly little things such as company swag, candy, etc.” — Tiffany Hamil
“Set one of these up in one of the conference rooms and take some shots before and after the meeting.”
“I think draining a deep three while fading away in an office chair is something we can all get excited about. Also, the foam basketballs can act as giant stress balls for those of us that don’t know what to do with their hands during meetings.” — Brandon Bever
“Beer boosts creativity and productivity. It’s science.” — Jordan Bahnsen
By implementing some of these strategies, it is my hope that you will be able to be more efficient with your time, address and resolve organizational issues quicker, minimize employee frustration that inevitably comes from frequent and unproductive meetings, and, of course, have a little fun.