Repeat after me: Email is not a collaboration tool.
Through effective meetings, email should only confirm or request engagement. That’s it.
To stop email overload — which impacts morale and wastes time among your highly paid personnel — here are three principles to running more effective meetings.
1. Clarify the meeting’s objective.
Communication is one of the biggest hurdles in business today. So here is the rule of thumb I like to suggest to my clients when deciding if a meeting is necessary. Meetings should typically be reserved for two purposes:
- Sharing ideas – when you are dealing with a complex topic or a problem that needs to be brainstormed or solved.
- Building accountability – if team members are consistently late on deliverables or task ownership is unclear.
Please note that meetings should never be called for status updates. Tools can and should be used to capture this information before and after meetings.
Communicate the topic for the meeting so that all requested attendees can decide if the topic or issue is relevant to them. It also allows people to come prepared to discuss the topic. Coming prepared means they bring the right materials and review past notes on the topic — “picking up where you left off last.” A clear agenda sent out beforehand with the meeting request is an excellent best practice.
With an agenda, you can also redirect side conversations and issues that don’t pertain to the original intent of the meeting. You have probably heard of the “parking lot” concept, which is a place to take notes on unrelated but important issues that can be handled outside the meeting or added to the agenda for the next meeting. Determine a parking lot for your meeting, such as a whiteboard, to add issues that deserve more discussion but are not part of this particular meeting. Side issues can derail a meeting. Kindly park them.
I had a client that was really frustrated with her boss because the objective of their one-on-ones was supposed to be so she could get support and skill-building where she needed it. He was a new manager and just assumed that one-on-ones were what he wanted to discuss. This was very stressful for the junior person, but she did not feel it was her place to say anything. This concern came up during her coaching with me, so I encouraged her to talk to her manager. Once she spoke up, the floodgates of productivity opened up. They were then able to use the hour to address areas where she was stuck and needed guidance. Productivity up. Stress down.
Try this: Right now write down every meeting that you run or attend. See if you can identify the overall objective of the meeting. If you can’t state it, determine if it’s necessary and/or go to the meeting facilitator and ask for clarity.
2. Confirm who should attend the meeting.
Too often, I hear from my clients that they don’t know why they are in a meeting. Oh, this just kills me, the time wasted! One of my clients, a marketing guru, was invited to project meetings but didn’t understand her role. She would sit there silently listening — not knowing what the meeting leader wanted from her. Once we talked about the importance of getting clarification, she spoke to the project leader. They agreed that she should always look at the agenda to see if the topic of the meeting that day overlapped with her area of responsibility. This ensured that she didn’t go to unnecessary meetings. They also clarified that her role was to provide strategic insight. With her years of marketing knowledge, they just wanted an expert to validate that they were on the right track — or to let them know if they weren’t.
Now she knows when they want her to “chime in.” Before, she hesitated to share as she didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. A clear understanding of her role helps her to listen intently and contribute effectively.
Once you have the right group at the meeting, there are special roles to play. First, who is the meeting facilitator? This cannot be a timid person. The facilitator’s job is to keep the meeting moving and on track to cover the agenda. The meeting facilitator does not need to be the topic expert — a common mistake. The facilitator should be wired like a project manager who understands the importance of moving things forward.
There is another important role: the note taker. This is the perfect job for someone who can be trusted to capture key points and keep track of next steps. Make sure that the note taker sends out meeting minutes to all attendees as well as to anyone else in the organization who needs to be “in the know.”
Try this: Question your specific role in all the meetings you attend. If you run the meeting, make sure that you can clearly identify why each person is invited. Look for duplication of roles so you can reduce the number of people who attend.
3. Ensure meeting accountability.
We live in an amazing age of technology, and there are excellent options for supporting team accountability. Whether you use a simple tool to schedule to-dos, communicate status updates and share common documents to review and edit or you have a larger enterprise system, your meetings can flow into these tools for proper delegation, accountability and follow-up. The important thing with these investments is to use them and train new people to use them properly!
Break up your meeting process into pre-, during and post-meeting items. Prep and share the agenda with the meeting request, keep people accountable during the meeting and track the follow-up tasks after the meeting.
Another best practice for meeting accountability is to build some cushion between meetings. Give people time for ideas to sink in and to handle follow-up items immediately. I recommend 30 minutes between meetings so you have 15 minutes to summarize your thoughts and do your to-dos (versus just adding them to a to-do list!). Then have another 15 minutes available to prepare mentally for the next meeting.
I learned this when I was living overseas and learning Swedish. I made the comment that I was going to leave my lesson and go to write a presentation. My tutor said, “No, if you switch gears too quickly, you will forget everything you learned today.” This made me realize the importance of summarizing thoughts at the end of a meeting. Ideally, summarize what you have learned in your own handwriting. Handwritten summaries at the end of every meeting do two things:
- Help you remember
- Provide quick reference for additional discussion
Try this: If your business environment doesn’t afford the luxury of much time in between meetings, then it’s critical that meeting facilitators build this time into the meeting agenda. It may sound a bit gradeschool, but it’s a smart best practice. Put time on the agenda for everyone to have a moment of silence to let ideas sink in and summarize the meeting, to handle quick to-do items or add items to your to-do list for later. That way, follow-up items don’t get lost, and people feel like the meeting accomplished specific goals.
Imagine what could happen if your meetings were carefully planned, an agenda followed, to-do items handled immediately and needless emails eliminated! Business nirvana!
I will even help you get started. I share this checklist with my clients as a sort of “cheat sheet” for running effective meetings. Try it and tell me how it goes for you!