Top 5 principles for Effective Meetings
Meetings, formal and informal are an integral part of organisational life.
When meetings are effectively run they’re an essential tool to achieve a range of tasks: information sharing; problem solving; delegating; and decision-making. When ineffective, however, time has been wasted, potentially poor decisions have been made and opportunities for constructive communication lost.
While you don’t always have control over the effectiveness of the meetings the five principles below increase the likelihood of your meetings being as effective as possible.
1. What’s the purpose of the meeting?
The first consideration, when invited to attend a meeting or organising your own meeting, is what the purpose of the meeting is. It sounds really obvious but, particularly less experienced employees, may go to a meeting because their boss invited them to, because it’s in their calendar or because they haven’t yet realised that you can refuse.
As outlined above there are many reasons for holding meetings; they may be a forum for internal colleagues to progress work or an external meeting (e.g. meeting a potential client for the first time or updating an existing client). Related questions to consider, particularly when it’s a problem solving or decision making meeting, are who called the meeting? And, are they the person who owns the problem or the person with the authority to make a decision? Answering these questions naturally leads onto what outcomes you want from the meeting and who should attend the meeting.
Being clear on the purpose of the meeting has the added benefit of focusing all meeting attendees into understanding their purpose in attending the meeting, what’s expected of them, what outcomes they want from the meeting.
2. Setting an agenda (and avoiding hidden agendas):
There are two aspects to take into account when considering the agenda.
The first is what roles are assigned to individuals in the meeting? While this will differ depending on the purpose of the meeting the roles described below are usual.
Ideally, your meeting will have a facilitator. A facilitator is different to the traditional chairperson role: the chairperson was most likely involved in both the content and the process of the meeting. The facilitator, on the other hand, is strictly only involved with the process. They manage the meeting, may take notes, keep the meeting on time and on track, ensure group participation and that everyone’s contribution to the meeting is protected. Their role is designed to be neutral; they do not add their views or ideas. However, in reality, you may find that you are playing the part of both facilitator and contributor to the meeting.
Next, your meeting may have a client or colleague; the meeting may have been initiated due to a problem they have or a decision they wish to arrive at.
They are a decision maker and have expertise and knowledge of the issue under discussion. They will decide how they move forward on the issue and will commit to the implementation of the next steps.
Finally, you will have meeting contributors; they are invited as a source of knowledge and expertise. The facilitator is essential to ensure all contributors are afforded the opportunity to input into the meeting.
The second aspect to consider is the agenda itself. To focus time and achieve results from a meeting an agenda circulated beforehand is essential; this disciplined process focuses the meetings participants’ time on the important issues. As we all know, we get what we focus on-without a structured agenda what can happen is the urgent issues crowd out the important and meetings can end without achieving important decisions. In addition, agendas have the added benefit of allowing room for some flexibility in meetings without losing the way. As mentioned previously meetings are frequently opportunities to build relationships with clients and it may be important to allow a meeting to go off on a tangent knowing that the structured agenda will get it back on track.
A sample agenda might include the following points:
Each item under discussion has an owner and is allocated a particular amount of time; there’s also an objective beside each item e.g. is the reason the item is under discussion because it the item owner wants to update everyone or perhaps make a decision. Having a clearly defined agenda, which has been pre-circulated, makes it easier to stick to the budgeted time and progress through the meeting. If the agenda is also displayed at the meeting (e.g. on a flip chart) the actions agreed can be visibly written up at the meeting.
3. Agreeing the Meeting Content
When the purpose of the meeting is clear and the agenda has been set it should be quite straightforward to agree the meeting content. Interesting research from Harvard, published in September 2004, found that this isn’t always the case.
They conducted a survey of top companies worldwide; their objective was to understand how senior management teams invested their collective time at meetings. The survey looked at the following:
- How they set priorities
- How they manage the time
- How successful they think they are at managing decisions
While further reading can be done on the survey by clicking on the link below
http://tinyurl.com/dld4am, some of the most interesting findings included:
Too little attention is paid to strategy:
Meeting priorities are set in a very ad hoc way: most company’s top management teams spends less then three hours a month discussing strategy issues or making strategic decisions. It was estimated that as much as 80% of top management’s time is devoted to issues that account for less than 20% of a company’s long-term value.
Top Management meetings aren’t structured to produce real decisions:
Most meetings aren’t called for the purpose of making a decision. They’re held for information sharing group input or group discussion. Only 12% of execs surveyed believed that their top management team consistently produced decisions on important strategic or organisational issues.
Top management’s agenda the same from meeting to meeting or ad hoc:
This was the case in over half the companies surveyed. In fact, when asked how they set meeting priorities; most execs agreed they were driven by the crisis of the moment. This problem can be exacerbated by the fact that no one is explicitly responsible for managing the leadership team’s agenda. The agenda is often based on a first come first served basis. Less than 5% of companies surveyed said their company had a rigorous and disciplined process for focusing top management’s time on the important issues.|
4. Ensuring great communication
The following communication skills ensure a better flow to meetings.
We paraphrase what someone has said for a number of reasons:
- To ensure that we understand somebody’s ideas and suggestions
- You paraphrase the other person to let them know you’ve been listening
- In checking your understanding you want to check (not so much what the other person said as) what you think they meant by what they said.
- Why so? Even if even if we hear the words correctly, our understanding of their meaning can be off the mark. Therefore, in checking understanding, it’s important not simply to repeat back the speaker’s words, but to paraphrase them in your own words to reflect your understanding.
Non verbal communication
The words we use the tone of our voice and our non-verbal language all impact on the atmosphere and the outcome of the meeting. Using the well known Mehrabian research a lot of communication comes through non-verbal communication. In fact, when there is any incongruence between the spoken message and non-verbal communication we pay vastly more attention to what we hear and see. This results in us only receiving 7% of the message via words, tonality (i.e. the intonation, volume and enunciation of the words) accounts for 38% and non-verbals (e.g. Body gestures, facial expressions, postures) account for the remaining 55%.
Acknowledging contribution and building on ideas
In meetings and talking things over with people, it’s natural for their ideas to trigger ideas of our own, which are therefore building on theirs. Crediting is simply acknowledging the part other people’s ideas have played in your own and is important to build a sense of ownership and commitment-it becomes “our” idea instead of yours vs. mine. People also feel validated which may help them to contribute even more and ensures the meeting atmosphere remains positive
Also, crediting is important because this sense of ownership increases their commitment to the decision or course in action.
If you don’t acknowledge the part that others play in your thinking you can inadvertently create the feeling that you’ve somehow taken over or “stolen” the other person’s idea. Though the reaction may not be a conscious one, its effect can be to make the other person reluctant to offer you ideas and suggestions in the future.
5. Follow up
The best way to conclude the meeting is to refer back to the agenda and agree with meeting participants the following:
- You have achieved what you set out to achieve
- Verbally go through actions agreed
- Agree what the next steps are and who will take ownership of them
- For informal meetings an e-mail agreeing action points
- For formal meetings minutes are circulated.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Effective Meetings. I’d love to hear how you get on applying some of the techniques described in the article.
Editor: Please let us know how you got on with these techniques - email firstname.lastname@example.org
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