How much time do we spend in meetings? In the business world, meetings are held every day and, depending on our roles, we can find ourselves spending a lot of time in the meeting room. Whether it is a project meeting or a board meeting, it is important for all concerned that meetings are held in an effective and productive manner.
Badly held meetings can be a drain on time and energy. They tend to lack structure, have no clear objectives, and no direction and control. There may be a lack of clear decision-making, people talking over each other, poor preparation by the attendees, the meeting going on for longer than necessary, and minutes and decisions not being recorded properly.
What does an effective meeting look like? Above all, meetings require good planning. Stage one is to recognise the purpose of the meeting and what it should achieve. For instance, the meeting may be held to make decisions, to communicate information, to plan a course of action, to scrutinise work, or to approve reports or policies. Once the purpose is understood, objectives can be set. Every meeting should have a specific outcome or objective. If there is no clear objective, then perhaps the meeting isn’t necessary.
The next stage is to make sure that the right people attend the meeting. It is important to have a diverse group of attendees representing relevant expertise and insight but, ideally, only people who help deliver the objectives need attend. Having too many attendees risks the meeting becoming a ‘talking shop’.
The most important consideration in organising a meeting, is the preparation of the agenda. The agenda is the list of things that will be discussed in the meeting. The agenda is usually prepared by the meeting organiser (in formal meetings this will typically be the secretary in consultation with the chair).
The agenda needs to include certain practical details, including the date, time and location of the meeting, but it is also a ‘road map’ to help attendees achieve the meeting’s objectives. The main agenda items should each relate to the overall meeting objectives. The agenda will also include several standard items, such as apologies for non-attendance, the acceptance of the minutes of the last meeting and matters arising not covered elsewhere on the agenda.
With clear agenda points, it is easier to prepare for the meeting and for people to make good use of the time. To complement the agenda, background papers or reports should be sent to members sufficiently in advance of the meeting. If a board meeting is to be held to approve a new policy, the board members should receive a draft copy of the policy in advance of the meeting. This removes the need for members to read and comprehend the document in the meeting.
A useful way to encourage participation in a meeting is to assign agenda points to specific attendees. For example, if someone is working on a relevant project, it may be useful to ask them to provide an update on the project. Similarly, if an agenda point seeks new ideas or perspectives, ask people to think up potential solutions before the meeting.
Consider the order that things are discussed, and the time dedicated to the discussion of each topic. If you do not want the meeting to take longer than one hour, you should plan how long each item will take to discuss – perhaps by asking the person responsible for the item to give an estimate.
The chair has responsibility for following the agenda and ‘keeping an eye on the clock’ to make sure the meeting does not overrun. They should maintain order and ensure that participants observe the correct procedures. Nevertheless, everyone involved in a meeting should play their part to make it a success. This includes reading the agenda in advance and preparing accordingly, arriving on time, listening respectfully to other participants, actively making contributions and following up on actions at the earliest opportunity. By doing so, meetings should become more productive.