Crash Course in: Having effective meetings

A survey by Sky TV two years ago found that 40% of us had imagined our boss naked during a business meeting. If you have a sneaky feeling that a large proportion of the meetings that take place under your roof are a waste of time, you need to think what you can do about it.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Is it necessary? 'You should only hold a meeting when you want people to think together,' advises Alan Barker of Kairos Training and author of How to Manage Meetings (Kogan Page). 'If you just want to tell them something, you might as well send an e-mail.'

Identify the purpose. Meetings should always have a clear, stated objective, says Barker. That could be making a strategic or operational decision, generating ideas or even raising levels of awareness. The expected outputs should provide an unambiguous focus for the meeting and a measure of its success. Don't hold 'regular' monthly or weekly meetings for their own sake.

Think who should come. Only those critical to the stated objective of the meeting should be there; otherwise, they are wasting the firm's time as well as their own. But if you don't have all the people needed to secure the desired outcome, the meeting will fail, as its results will be open to challenge.

Assign roles. Every successful meeting should have a chair or leader and someone to take minutes, says Barker. One or more roles are often neglected, with the result that the meeting either lacks direction or concludes with no record of what has been said.

Share it out. Preparation is key, but not just the chair should be involved. 'If participants are given specific tasks - for example, to lead an item on the agenda - it helps to get their commitment to the meeting,' explains Barker. Everyone should share responsibility for the success of the meeting.

Define the process. The word 'agenda' is usually regarded as a list of subject headings, but it should really encapsulate what you're going to do in the meeting. Says Katherine Woods of facilitator Meeting Magic: 'People often focus on the content rather than the process of the meeting.' If you're going to brainstorm or give feedback, say so.

Anticipate conflicts. 'If you know there have been disagreements between some of the participants, prepare in advance,' advises Woods. 'There may have been misunderstandings. It's better to design meetings to address conflicts rather than avoid them; if they get the chance to air their views, they're more likely to buy into the eventual outcome of the meeting.'

Keep it tight. Challenge participants if they're deviating from the stated objective of the meeting. Make sure the room is booked immediately after your meeting, so you can't overrun. 'Think about how much time should be allocated to each agenda item and then halve it,' says Barker.

Do say: 'Forty-five minutes in the boardroom at 1pm on the 17th. I want decisions on x, y and z.'

Don't say: 'I know - let's have a meeting!'

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