The ABCs of good meetings
Have you ever walked out of a meeting wondering
- What was that meeting about?
- Why was I needed there?
- What did we discuss?
- Was that just another meeting about a meeting?
- What was the point of that meeting?
Having worked both for and with a variety of companies and people with varying skills, knowledge and positions across all levels of organisation, I have noticed one common area that could be improved – organizing and holding meetings!
There are other posts, sites and probably even books dedicated to the ideal version of a meeting, which I don’t think exists given the number of variables involved (people, location, choice of communication, experience, length of meeting, purpose, etc).
However, below are the ABC’s of good meetings – in my opinion!
People can add, change or take away from this list. Everybody has different experiences and expectations, this is not an exhaustive list, just my “pet-hate” list.
Before sending a meeting request, where possible you should check the availability of the attendees. You may not be able to check everybody’s availability, but to reduce the chances of having to rearrange meetings, check the availability where you can.
This also depends on each person using their calendars properly – by only booking time in the calendar if something has to be done on a particular day, at a particular time in a particular location.
Blocking out time in the calendar can be useful, but can be bad practice depending on your organisation and set-up as it reduces available time slots for others to book meetings.
When you receive a meeting request, you should do one of
• Accept the meeting request
• Decline the meeting request
• Send a “Tentative” reply if you are uncertain of your availability or need to be there
• Propose a new time if you have to attend the meeting but are not available at the proposed time.
I only accept meetings now where I think I am needed or I can add value. If I only need to know what was discussed, but don’t need to be involved then I will ask to be copied on the minutes.
When organizing a meeting you should include an agenda. This allows attendees to decide if they need to attend the meeting. It also allows everybody to know what is to be discussed, how long will be spent on each agenda item, etc.
I have attended countless meetings and came out thinking
- I wasn’t needed there, it was a waste of my time
- We didn’t get to talk about what I thought I was there for
- What was that meeting about?
- We just wasted time going off on a tangent
If I receive a meeting request with no agenda, I ask for the agenda before accepting it.
If you accept a meeting request you should attend. This may seem straight forward and obvious, but isn’t always done.
If you cannot attend a meeting
- You should not accept it, reply as tentative or propose a new time as soon as you can
- If plans have changed or something else has come up, let the organizer know as soon as you can.
- If you will be late for a meeting, let the organizer know as soon as you can.
- If you need to leave early, let the organizer know as soon as you can.
Each of these points is obvious, and basic good-manners, but as people allow themselves to be double booked or just accept every meeting request they receive, they end up unorganized and not sure about where they are supposed to be at certain times, making it hard to inform other meeting organizers of their unavailability.
When informing the organizer you should speak to the organizer and confirm that they have got your message.
If enough time is given you could email the organizer, but if it is late notice the organizer may not get your email or voice-mail. You should try to talk to organizer in person or on the phone. If stuck, you could let another attendee know to inform the organizer.
The important thing is that if you can’t attend, will be late or need to leave early, you need to let the organizer know as soon as possible.
If you are a critical attendee the meeting may have to be rescheduled.
Behaviors cover the basic expected behaviors of anybody in a workplace (timeliness, safety, etc).
In meetings it can also be extended to cover participation, allowing others to speak, and hearing out everybody’s ideas/thoughts, etc.
Back to Back
This is related to timeliness and attendance.
If you have back to back meetings (i.e., one meeting immediately after another) then there is a good chance that you will have to leave a meeting early, or be late for a meeting, or even both.
Reduce this time by being more organised. If you know what meetings you have for the day you can move from one meeting directly to another, I see a lot of people who leave a meeting and go back to their office and then realize that they are supposed to be in another meeting.
As well as physically being there in a meeting you should also mentally be there.
If you are not asked for it, don’t turn on your laptop, check your phone, etc.
Participation in the meeting and being more organised will improve your focus in the meeting and can help the meetings to be more productive and worthwhile.
One of the most useful tips I have come across for meetings is the Car Park.
This is a flip-chart page or some visible way to record thoughts and ideas.
If a meeting is getting ‘bogged down’ or side-tracked on an item, this can be ‘parked’.
This item can be a closely related item, an item that needs more investigation by a different group or something totally unrelated to the agenda that came up during the meeting.
By parking these items, you are staying focused on your agenda items and purpose of the meeting without making a person feel that their contribution is unimportant of being ignored.
If there is time after going through the agenda items then the parked items may be discussed, or taken offline (as a separate item of future meeting agenda).
Communication is key!
Before the meeting, the agenda should be sent out.
Everybody in the room should know what the meeting is about and why they are there.
During the meeting focus should be kept on the agenda items.
No ideas/thoughts should be ignored and everybody should have a voice and participate.
If non-agenda items are brought up during the meeting they should be parked and the team should be told why it is being parked, if it will be discussed later if time allows, needs another meeting/group, should be taken offline etc.
Before ending the meeting, a summary of the meeting should be given.
List out any actions/tasks that have been assigned.
After the meeting, send out the tasks/points/discussions and meeting minutes.
Remeber the “3-tells” :
1. Tell them what you are going to tell them (agenda)
2. Tell them (body of meeting)
3. Tell them what you told them (closing meeting, minutes, tasks, etc).
When booking a meeting and putting together the agenda, be realistic about how much time you think will be needed.
There is no point in booking a 30 minute meeting to discuss a topic that will take an hour.
Likewise, if you have a 30 minute topic and try to book 90 minutes you may be reducing your chances of getting all attendees available for this length of time.
If you estimate times for each agenda topic, you may assign a person to keep an eye on the clock as the meeting is held to ensure all agenda items are being addressed. This does not have to be timed exactly to the minute, but in general it should be highlighted if the meeting is running very late compared to the plan.
Try to end the meeting at least 5 minutes early.
This allows you time to clear up after your meeting and time for the next meeting organizer to set up for their meeting.
Where attendees have back to back meetings this allows them a bit more time to move between meetings.
The ABCs of Good Meetings
As stated already, the above is not an exhaustive list, or a road-map guaranteeing a perfect meeting. It is a list of thoughts I have about meetings from my experiences regarding areas I think can improve the meetings I attend and host.
I have seen improvements since applying some of these and have been surprised by the amount of meetings that I did not have to attend, where in the past I would have accepted the meeting request.
It can be hard to turn off years of bad practice and habits, but the benefits of doing so can be seen very quickly.