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3 x 3 ways to waste less time in meetings

I was struck last week by how two different meetings failed to be as effective as they might have been, and how it was simple, and well-known advice that could have improved them.

Both suffered from many of the classic problems with meetings.  People turned up late (including both the chairs).  The meetings weren’t managed well.  Despite both chairs being very nice people and very capable in other ways, one intervened too little and the other was too dominating but without managing the agenda or discussion well.  There were unnecessary and unhelpful digressions.  Work which could usefully have been done in advance of the meeting was not.

Yet they weren’t totally disastrous.  I think that’s probably because people often make it up as they go along and don’t make too bad a job of it.  But a little more conscious reflection could make a huge difference.

The nature of the meeting makes a difference too.  The first was essentially various stakeholders challenging the decision of a public body.  There was a presentation and defence of the decision then questions and discussion.  That was pretty straight forward and the group self-facilitated reasonably well.

The second meeting was about generating ideas.  That requires a different approach and is harder to manage well.

However, in both cases, the meetings could have been more effective by following simple guidelines.

Making meetings effective is more an art than a science.  In part that is because of all the variables – the purpose, participants, rules and traditions, meeting arrangements – that mean no two meetings are exactly alike.  Nevertheless there are some broad guidelines to bear in mind.

But what can you do if you’re not managing the meeting?  You can still exert a lot of influence (or at least make it better for you) and these suggestions are designed to show how (the list, if you are in charge, is longer).

They relate to what happens before, during and after the meeting.  And they apply to: content; people and process.  Hence, the 3 x 3 in the title.

1. In advance – Prepare

Content:

  • Decide what kind of meeting this is and adjust the approach accordingly
  • (is it: information sharing; idea generation / problem solving; getting agreement / decision making)
  • Read the agenda and papers (if there are any)
  • Identify the key issues (especially if there won’t be opportunity to speak on everything)
  • Come up with ideas (if this is an idea generating meeting)
  • Work out what your view is and what key points you want to make

People:

  • Are the right people invited (can you suggest others)?
  • Perhaps do a bit of background research on the other participants

Process:

  • Is the objective being addressed in the right way (and is there enough information on how the meeting is to be run?).  Can you (diplomatically) suggest other approaches (such as the use of small group discussions).
  • Does this actually need a meeting?  Could you suggest an update via email?  Or, decide not to attend?

2. During the meeting – Reflect

While you have less control if you are not the chair, you have more opportunity to step back and consider how the whole thing is going.  You can then subtly make interventions to try and get things back on track.

Content:

  • Is the meeting making progress in achieving its objectives?  What should it be doing and is it doing it?
  • If you’re trying to come up with ideas, are you tackling each ‘stage’ of the process (understand the question or problem; analyse; generate ideas; design solutions; evaluate; decide)?
  • One way of influencing the direction of the meeting is to summarise the discussion, recap on the aim and approach then suggest what might be considered next.

People:

  • Is everyone contributing?  Can you help draw some people in (and close others down?)
  • Check people’s body language for what they’re really thinking and feeling.  Especially if people are being quiet, is it because they’re angry, detached, uninterested, nervous?
  • Can you help contributions build on each other, e.g. by asking questions and making the links between contributions.

Process:

  • Is there a better way of tackling the issue that you can suggest?  E.g. breaking into smaller groups, encourage everyone to submit ideas on post-its, dealing with some aspects ‘off-line’.
  • How are the practicalities and are they interfering with the meeting – e.g. temperature, seating, refreshments, need for a break.

3. After the meeting – follow up

Content:

  • Complete any actions assigned to you as soon as possible.
  • If appropriate, send round any thoughts you didn’t have time to raise in the meeting or which may have occurred since (but beware of seeming to undermine the meeting).

People:

  • Do some people tend not to do what they should after meetings and if so can you – directly or indirectly – influence to ensure they do?
  • Are there people who weren’t at the meeting who need to know what went on?  Is it appropriate to do a short update for them?

Process:

  • Do the minutes and action points come out quickly?  If not can you prompt for them?
  • Read them as soon as they come out and raise any issues early (if appropriate before the next meeting, e.g. if there are simple factual errors).
  • Are the agreed actions actually happening?  Can you prompt people?

Cuts to public services (and thence to voluntary organisations) continue to put pressure on people’s time.  Any ways in which we can work more effectively, in meetings and outside, is surely worth considering.  Many of the things that could save time are pretty straightforward.  And we don’t need to wait for someone else to do them.

Postscript: well the following day I attended a meeting without an agenda, assuming we’d be working through the actions agreed at the previous meeting.  Not so.  We were now to be working on something else.  So the three and a half hours I’d spent preparing material for the meeting was wasted.  Thinking about the advice above and what I should have done, I have to admit my first thoughts were a bit negative – as if it was someone else telling me what I ought to be doing (and how I’d handled it badly).  But then I thought, this is really just me trying to learn from my experience.  And next time I think I’ll be a bit more confident in insisting – no agenda, no meeting!

(This blog also appears at: https://khub.net/web/adrianb/blog/-/blogs/3-x-3-ways-to-waste-less-time-in-meetings)

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