Running an Effective Meeting

Humans are inherently social creatures. In the Information Age where the fastest growing vocation can generally be classified as knowledge workers, we are meeting more and more.

With the increasing proliferation of information flow and mobility, communication and collaboration are some of the key determining factors of organizational effectiveness. A high impact meeting can render high returns, however, far too often we leave meetings with the feeling that was not time-well-spent.

To counteract this, some organizations have implemented rigid constraints on time and cadence of meetings i.e. meetings must be under 30 mins and must only take place on Mondays and Wednesdays. This to me is addressing the wrong part of the problem. The world doesn’t run on a neat schedule where emergent opportunities/challenges only occur on Mondays and Wednesdays and we can’t always get to resolution on complex problems within the same time constraint of the local pizza delivery guy – thirty minutes or less.

Organizations employ people with expensive educations and put them through expensive training and development, producing a workforce whose time is, by extension, very expensive. Yet we then turn around and let everyone squander this high value time by failing to teach the basics of running an effective meeting. This is a last mile problem. People come together with an abundance of insights and the opportunity to make substantive progress on tough problems together, yet spend thirty-to-sixty minutes tripping over each other and getting nowhere.

One of the highest leverage things an organization can do is teach the basic fundamentals of running a meeting. There is no silver bullet, and every organization is different in their rituals. However, there are three basic fundamentals that are often overlooked but inordinately impactful if adopted.

It is important to note that when I refer to meetings I am not referring to presentations where the objective is information dissemination. I am referring to active discussions where the objective is to foster discussion and make decisions.

Below are the three fundamentals of running an effective meeting:

1. Set the right context

This seems almost too simple, yet I find far too often I attend a meeting only to spend the first five to ten minutes (or longer!) trying to figure out what we are trying to accomplish. If I am running a meeting I am sure to first set context before hand and make clear to everyone attending what is expected of them. If they need to familiarize themselves with a topic or come prepared with insights I will make that clear and also provide the requisite resources to do so. If they don’t need to come prepared I will also make that clear so that no one is wondering.

The most important part of the meeting is the opening. If I am running a meeting I will always book myself a minimum fifteen minutes prior to prepare an opening. It doesn’t need to be an inspirational opening monologue, but having a clear framework for discussion and a clear narrative to help guide the attendees through the context is infinitely important. My opening typically follows a three part outline as follows: (1) what we are trying to accomplish, (2) how we are going to approach the discussion, and (3) the concrete outcome we want at the end.

If there is a lot of information people need to digest, or I am making a recommendation, one of the most effective tools I have found to get to a rich discussion is a memo. I wrote about that in greater detail here.

I also find it is important not to skip over the simple niceties at the beginning. As I noted, we are inherently social. A simple thank you to everyone for taking the time, and perhaps an anecdote or two about those attending, or a topic that everyone can weigh in on is a good way to break the ice and get people engaged from the outset, which leads me to my second point.

2. Find ways to engage everyone, as quickly as possible

The role of the meeting facilitator is to set the appropriate level of context that gets to a rich discussion with broad participation as quickly as possible. Far too often the meeting facilitator feels they need to demonstrate how smart or insightful they are. The reality is, the metric by which the facilitator is implicitly graded on is the time from opening to active participation from attendees. Part of this is derived from the opening, but the other is, as the facilitator, looking for opportunities to amplify other’s insights and also pull people into the discussion that may be on the sidelines.

The facilitator should be surveying the room to see who is engaged and who is not, looking for every opportunity to bring the energy level up. If someone is getting too much air-time, find an opening to elevate someone else in the discussion. If someone appears to be disengaged, find an opportunity to bring them in. But if you are going to do this, set them up for success, don’t put them on the spot where they will feel awkward. Look for a line of discussion where they may have unique insights or perspective and then ask for their opinion – highlighting the strengths of others is the true sign of mastery in leadership.

If a discussion is now rambling on with diminishing marginal returns, it is the role of the facilitator to move on to the next topic. Some common strategies here would be to simply remind everyone of the objective (which is why it’s key to highlight in the opening) and can even use the clock as a tool “this is a great discussion but I do want to be mindful of everyone’s time and we still have a couple of things to cover”. You can offer to take things offline or if someone is passionate about a topic, assign them to summarize their thoughts and share with everyone via email. This highlights their strengths as a subject matter expert while mitigating their time on the soapbox (you’re saving them from themselves).

If the meeting itself is dwindling in energy or the key topics have been covered it is then important to move to my final point:

3. Closing a meeting

George Costanza had one of the key insights of our time: always end on a high. Once you have the desired outputs from the opening of the meeting, don’t wait, move to close. Even if there is more time scheduled (although this is rare). The close is important and also has its own three step strategy (very meta, I know).

First, highlight the progress we made in the meeting. This is a great opportunity to remind everyone that this was, in fact, a high value use of their time. Meetings can be exhausting and even if you solve the world’s toughest problems, people will walk out often resenting their time spent together by simple virtue of the fact that it was intensive. When doing this, summarize and tell a story. People remember stories and you want to instil a level of permanence from the output of the meeting. (You also want people to hit “accept” next time you send an invite, and establishing credibility as a meeting facilitator is an underrated quality).

Second, summarize the concrete action items coming out of that. For this, make sure that it is clear what the action is, who is the DRI (Directly Responsible Individual), when it is due and how it will be delivered.

Lastly in the close, make clear the line of sight for next steps. A meeting should always have a tangible outcome and it is important to highlight how that will manifest. If a follow-up meeting is required, make that clear. If you got everything you need to move forward, make clear what that will translate to and when people should expect that. Bring this back to the concrete objective you highlighted at the beginning to remind everyone of where we started, what we wanted to accomplish, and where we got  i.e. “Thanks for everyone’s input. We wanted to accomplish X, which we did. As next steps my team and I will get to work on Y and you will see it go live by Z.”

All of this will invariably be forgotten within thirty seconds of the meeting closing, even by those who own action items coming out of the meeting, so you as the facilitator should always summarize in writing and share with everyone afterwards.

Meetings are always high cost but not always high value. With these three things, I have found that my success rate on high ROI meetings has increased tremendously. These are learned skills and require practice. I encourage everyone to adopt these and adapt to their own strengths and the unique working styles of your teams.

I wish you all a productive next meeting.

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