- Side conversations are happening.
- There is no structure.
- Somebody inevitably takes over the meeting.
- Organizers can’t manage attendees, and the meeting gets railroaded.
As a result, nothing gets accomplished, and nobody will get their hours of life back.
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Believe it or not, meetings can be successful and productive, but like many other skills, running meetings like a pro takes some know-how and a bit of practice.
Most of my work revolves around meetings, decision making and managing people and teams. I am a project manager and have been doing this work for over 20 years.
In this article, I will only cover actual meetings. You need to do things before the meeting, but that is a topic for another article.
Below are my nine rules on how to run a meeting.
01-Each meeting must have a goal or multiple goals in mind. Every item of the meeting should be related to the goals that you have for the meeting.
This means that every topic and every discussion should bring you closer to the goals of the meeting. As all roads lead to Rome, all conversations should lead you to reach your goals.
Now, you need to set these goals yourself. Make your goals SMART.
- Specific — Make sure everyone is aware of the goals, and goals are clearly stated in your meeting invite.
- Measurable — You need to be able to say that the goal of the meeting was achieved by the end of the meeting. Decisions were made, questions were answered, tasks assigned, and conflicts resolved. New topics are postponed until the next meeting or email.
- Achievable — If you can’t reach your goals by the end of the meeting, then you need to do more work before you have the meeting or have the right people present. If you can’t achieve your goals, you should consider not having this meeting.
- Relevant — Make sure that goals are relevant to all attendees. If even one person doesn’t care about the goals of the meeting, then you should consider reevaluating who attends your meeting.
- Time-bound — Do you have enough time to achieve your goals? If not, you either need to do more work before the meeting or review how much time you have for the meeting.
If you see that some things don’t work, review and adjust your goals, attendees and time.
Make sure that the meeting is focused on the goals that you have listed. In case where new goals come up during the meeting, use a “parking lot” practice. When you put an item in the “parking lot”, you need to record who bought it up and what was brought up. You can return to that topic if you have extra time at the end of your meeting. If you run out of time, you will address new issues at other times.
02-Only invite people who can make decisions and will be assigned actions to the meeting. Otherwise, you will have to have a follow-up meeting with the missing people.
Your meetings need to be productive. To make it happen, you need the right people in the seats. If you need to make a decision. Invite decision-makers; if you need to assign action items, ensure you have either people who will do work or who can assign work. Why? This way, you can outline what needs to be done and clarify any questions or concerns for all the tasks.
As a rule of thumb, you don’t have the right people in the meeting if you have to initiate a conversation. And by that, I mean attendees are just not interested in the topic. Usually, this results in unproductive meetings.
What to do if key decision maker cancelled or didn’t show up. Cancel the meeting and reschedule the meeting at a different time. You would need to do that anyway, so you might as well save everyone time.
03-Each meeting must have a list of actionable items and decisions made as a result of the meeting. And each action must have a person who will be accountable for each item. The person responsible must be present at the meeting.
Please never finish the meeting without follow-up work. If decisions have been made, this means a project or a topic is moving on, and you will need to outline the next steps and who will be responsible for the steps.
If responsible and/or accountable people are absent, just stop the meeting. Meeting will only be productive,if you significantly adjust the goals.
If your meeting does not have actionable items by the end, then this meeting could have been an email.
In case you have no action items or decisions at the end of the meeting, but had a great conversation. I have a surprise for you: the meeting was most likely a failure. Unless that is, the goal was to have a great discussion on the topic.
04-Keep an active part of meetings for at most 45 minutes. If you intend to have longer meetings, allow for 5–10-minute breaks.
Running a meeting is work. You can’t just sit back and relax. You have to be 100% attentive and present. Very few people can sustain their attention for prolonged periods. That is why I prefer to keep meetings short. In cases where longer meeting is necessary, I recommend including breaks to give me a break and the ability to gather my attention again and let others check their devices.
05-Allow the first and last 5 minutes of the meeting for people to catch up and for personal conversations.
Having time to catch up will allow people to focus on the topic at hand. It also relaxes people and allows attendees to connect with each other.
It also will allow you to see if there are things that need to be addressed before the meeting. For example, if there is intense animosity among the attendees, you must figure out how to manage it during the meeting.
06-Avoid scheduling meetings first or last thing in the morning and right before or after lunch.
This is self-explanatory. If people don’t have their morning coffee, hungry, too full or tired, then they can’t make decisions or think clearly.
Now if you have to schedule meetings at bad times consider providing coffee, snacks, and make decisions and tasks as simple and straightforward as possible.
07-Do not hesitate to stop a meeting if the desired result cannot be achieved. This can happen if key persons are missing, more information is required, or issues cannot be resolved.
Never try to have a meeting just because. If you realize at any time that you cannot accomplish your goals, just stop the meeting. Be open and honest with attendees, say: “Due to the following reasons, I don’t think we can accomplish what was outlined in the agenda. I propose we stop the meeting, take some time to regroup and gather at the later time”.
The first few times, it will be perceived as something out of this world, but eventually, people will realize that you will not have a pointless meeting, and they will start bringing their best foot forward when they know you are the one who is running the meetings.
08-Set ground rules for the meeting and stick to them.
If you do not allow cell phones during the meeting, and people are still using their devices, do not hesitate to call people out people. It will take time, but people will learn to stick to the rules if you stick to your guns.
If you have the same group of people who meet regularly, work on the ground rules together.
The key is to stick to them and keep each other accountable.
09-As a rule, anticipate that nobody read any documents provided before the meeting.
You will need time to review any background information or be ready to end the meeting because the chance of you achieving meeting goals is slim.
You either need to allow time for people to review documents in the meeting. This is precisely what happens in Amazon. People read documents together, and each meeting provides time for that. In my mind, this wastes time. I would instead stop the meeting. I know it sounds harsh, but you only will need to do that a couple of times before people catch on.
This is not an exhaustive list, but you will add your own learnings and grow this list yourself. Don’t be to experiment; you will learn what works and what doesn’t over time. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Nobody is perfect; take what you learned from the mistakes and change what you do in the future.