While there are a lot of valuable meeting improvement tips and techniques out there, I think the keys to making meeting time worthwhile for all involved are more basic.
They require advance work – not a lot, but necessary.
They also require some courage.
1. Appropriate Information
Does everyone attending the meeting have in their hands the information they need to reach important decisions?
One implication of this principle is that informational meetings are a tremendous waste of time. Multiply (hourly wages + salaries) X (number of people present) X (the true length of the meeting) — since they often run overtime. Compare that to the cost of the many electronic and paper means we have for disseminating information. It’s a no-brainer.
There may be some information that cannot be entrusted to computers or put on paper. There may be nuances you need to convey. But do the equation above, and there should be very, very few; very, very compelling reasons to hold that informational meeting. Better returns on learning how to write and convey nuance and appropriate confidential information.
If your meetings are to create social bonds within a team or group, fine; but call it that and design it well with that goal in mind.
Otherwise, meetings are about decisions – decisions that require group input. And decisions require appropriate information. Depending on the situation and the decisions needed, that may not mean everyone having the same information. But each individual should always have the information she/he needs for that meeting.
If appropriate information is lacking, don’t have the meeting.
One caution: “appropriate information” does not mean “complete information.” We almost never have “complete information.” Understanding and sharing information gaps with other team members can be one truly useful meeting activity.
2. The Right People
Since meetings are about decisions, everyone who needs to be part of these decisions needs to participate. Sometimes a delegate will suffice: someone with full and real decision-making authority – and the above-mentioned appropriate, up to date information.
Whose part of the project or activity or outcome will be significantly damaged by not being part of the decision making process?
Whose perspectives are crucial to making this a success?
Who will be carrying the responsibilities for the next step and/or the ongoing work?
Whose authority is required to take the next steps?
If any of those people will not be there or does not show up, you either need to rework the meeting’s agenda to the decisions that those present can carry forward; or cancel the meeting and let people get back to their work.
If this happens too often, your sponsor, champion or boss (or all three) needs to take action so that you can have the meetings you need to have – and only the meetings you truly need to have.
And it is the meeting leader’s responsibility to make sure that all the right people are not just present, but participating.
3. Clear Decisions
If meetings are about decisions; if you (and everyone involved) have done the work to compile the appropriate information; and if the right people are participating: then, what a tragedy if the outcomes are ambiguous and ambivalent!
There are many ways to make decisions and many ways to record decisions. Use whichever ones work best for you; but have a clearcut process for making and recording decisions.
Without such an explicit process, people will leave the meeting confused – either immediately or a week later.
Without such an explicit process, you will revisit the same decision over and over again, making it and undoing it and remaking it futilely.
Without such an explicit process, your next meeting will not have a clear beginning point or a desired set of outcomes/decisions that are consistent with overall progress.
You can tell that I have wasted far too many precious hours in meetings that accomplished nothing productive. That doesn’t have to happen to you – not anymore.