People have a love-hate relationship with meetings. On the positive side, we all know it’s essential to meet and share information, identify challenges, and brainstorm solutions. But on the flip side, most team members view meetings as a distraction from being able to get “real” work done.
Where’s the disconnect? We know we need communication, but nobody wants to meet. Maybe it’s because your meetings are ineffective and don’t satisfy the needs of your team. Here are five simple tools to improve any meeting.
1. Define Objectives as Questions
Before you can structure any productive meeting, you need to start with the “Why?” Why are you meeting in the first place?
As an example, I briefly served on the board of a neighborhood association. At our first meeting, the President quickly jumped into a series of updates from various board members. At an appropriate time, I raised my hand and asked, “Why does this organization exist? What’s our purpose? I can’t provide feedback on these updates if I don’t know our organization’s objective.” Surprisingly, the President just looked at me like deer in headlights. Quickly, the board digressed into differing opinions about why the organization existed. It was an unproductive use of my time, and I politely resigned from the board the next week.
Meetings without objectives can quickly digress into meaningless updates. To avoid this problem, define the meeting objectives with a list of questions that the participants need to answer. For example:
- A weekly leadership meeting – “What changes do we need to make to ensure we hit our monthly financial targets?”
- A monthly marketing meeting – “What marketing programs are delivering quality leads, and what changes do we need to make to the non-performing marketing programs?”
- A customer service weekly meeting – “Which clients canceled in the past week, and what actionable steps can we take to ensure other clients don’t leave for the same reason?”
If you find yourself in a meeting without objectives, ask the leader to start the session by defining the questions that need to be answered by the participants. Put the questions on a whiteboard, easel pad paper, or Post-It Notes. Make sure the questions are visible to everyone in the meeting.
The last step of any meeting is to confirm the decisions made for each objective. This action solves a common complaint about meetings: participants leave sessions without a clear picture of what was accomplished during the meeting. It’s also surprising how often during the review that people remember different conclusions. Having a written record of the answers to the questions raised will ensure the meeting achieved clear objectives.
2. Create and Follow an Agenda
Now that you’ve defined the objectives of the meeting, what specific steps will the participants follow to solve the questions? Each step should inform the participants about the situation so they can make informed contributions to the solution. Often it’s a review of quantitative data (metrics such as KPIs, financials, etc.) and qualitative data (client feedback, team member opinions, online reviews, etc.)
Each item of the agenda will have a single person designated as the owner of the topic with a specific timeframe to present. The owner must come prepared to the meeting with the data ready. If it’s a large amount of data to digest, the owner should distribute the data in advance of the meeting.
Use this simple three-step approach for presenting most data:
- What’s working? – Celebrate the wins and understand what you’re doing right.
- What needs improvement? – Avoid asking, “What’s not working?” That’s negative. Focus on specific areas that need improvement.
- What don’t we know that we need to know? – Look for blind spots. What are we missing? What could derail us?
It’s crucial to start meetings on time and follow the defined schedule of the agenda. A common complaint about meetings is that they start late and end late. Keeping on schedule is about respecting people’s time. When people think a meeting is not productive, and the meeting didn’t begin or end on time, they feel disrespected. Over time, this lack of respect will deteriorate trust on the team.
The easiest way to maintain a meeting schedule is to assign a timekeeper at the beginning of the meeting. Ask one person to be responsible for keeping the team on time. While the team leader will also monitor the schedule, their focus is facilitating the conversation. I find it useful to use digital timers on phones or tablets to provide a visual queue of how much time an agenda owner has to present.
Stick to the agenda and expect some mistakes. Create a culture where feedback about meetings is a normal process (see Tip #5), and constant improvements to the agenda are common. Over time, your meetings will get better and better.
To embrace this concept, consider adopting the rule I had at my last company – “No agenda? No attenda.” If a meeting didn’t have an agenda, team members were not required to attend. A straightforward way to incorporate agendas into your meetings is to send out calendar invites with the agenda in the notes of the calendar invite.
3. Use a Parking Lot
Occasionally you’ll misstep, or a new topic will take over a conversation, undermining even the best-laid agenda. The best way to handle these proverbial rabbit holes is a “Parking Lot.” On a whiteboard, easel pad, or Post-It Note, capture a list of important topics that came up during the meeting but are not on the agenda. Similar to meeting objectives above, capture the Parking Lot topics as questions.
The easiest way to identify Parking Lot topics is that they may derail the agenda. By capturing items in the Parking Lot, the team has the option to either address them at the end of the meeting (time permitting) or add them to the agenda of a future meeting. In some cases, you may decide a Parking Lot topic deserves a separate meeting.
One of the last items on the agenda should be to review Parking Lot items and decide on the next steps.
4. Capture Action Items
Oftentimes a meeting participant will commit to an action, but never follow through on completing the task. It’s like a tree that falls in the forest when nobody is around: Did it make a sound? If a person commits to an action item in a meeting and it’s never written down, will it happen? Probably not.
The author of “Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It…and Why the Rest Don’t (Rockefeller Habits 2.0),” Verne Harnish, has a simple tool to capture action items during a meeting – the Who What When (WWW) list.
- Who is the owner?
- What (specifically) are they going to do?
- When will they get it done?
At the beginning of the meeting, designate one person to be the scribe. They are responsible for capturing the results to the Objectives, the Parking Lot topics, and the Action Items. It’s usually more productive if the meeting leader is not the scribe. The meeting leader’s focus is on facilitating discussion, while the scribe focus is to capture the output of the meeting.
Any time a participant says they’ll get something done, the scribe will interject and clarify what they are getting done measurably, as well as defining the deadline.
At the end of the meeting, the scribe reviews the action items captured and will send the list to the participants. If you use a digital task management system, it may be easier for the scribe to create tasks directly into the software tool.
Start every meeting by confirming the Action Item list from the previous meeting. Ask each owner if they completed the Action Item – yes or no. For “no” answers, inquire if they have an obstacle that requires assistance from the team. If “no,” get a commitment to a new deadline. Avoid lengthy conversations about topics, unless it’s a severe roadblock. Coach offline any team members that consistently fail to complete their Action Items.
5. Rate Meetings and Improve
As mentioned above, not every meeting will be perfect. And that’s okay. The crucial concept is to make every meeting a little bit better than the last meeting. This need is especially real when you’re introducing a new meeting or agenda. Use this two-minute, three-step tool to have your participants to provide feedback about the meeting:
- Ask the participants to rate the meeting by asking the question, “On a scale of zero to ten, zero being awful and ten being outstanding, how effective was this meeting?” Have each person write down their rating of the meeting on a piece of paper. It’s critical to have them write down the number to avoid groupthink and mail-it-in answers.
- Next, ask the participants to write down “What worked?” and “How can we improve the meeting?” based on your rating. Even if they gave the meeting a ten, there’s still room for improvement. (“Turn it up to eleven…”)
- Go around the room and ask each person to share what they wrote down – the meeting rating, what worked, and how we can improve the meeting. The meeting leader will take notes and use this information to adjust the agenda accordingly. Don’t be surprised if some suggestions are specific about how an individual can improve their contributions to the meeting.
Rating the meetings will provide the meeting leader with valuable information to systematically improve the agenda-setting and meeting process. When a specific meeting is consistently receiving ratings of nine and ten, you can stop doing this step every time. Randomly bring it back every few meetings to make sure you’re on track.
Conclusion – The Five Tools to Improve Any Meeting:
Meetings are an essential part of communication and accountability in every organization. Implement the following five tools to ensure that your meetings are productive and efficient:
- DefineObjectives as Questions
- Create and Follow an Agenda
- Use a Parking Lot
- Capture Action Items
- Rate Meetings and Improve
If you have any questions or comments, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Simons is a coach, facilitator, and storyteller – a unique fusion of skills that makes him uniquely equipped to coach entrepreneurs and business leaders to scale organizations. Using the Rockefeller Habits as his foundation, Rob has successfully trained hundreds of clients to build a culture of purpose, alignment, and accountability in organizations across a variety of industries. Contact Rob at email@example.com or 210-845-2782.