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How to organize effective meetings

Most people can articulate what a bad meeting is like. They are the ones that leave everyone frustrated and feeling like they have wasted a great deal of time. Things like:

  1. Meetings happen as a one-off with no follow-up. 
  2. No follow-up means no one is kept accountable and moving towards their goals. Irregular meetings also result in more meetings. You meet as issues come up, instead of at a consistent time. 
  3. An agenda isn’t sent in advance (or, ugh, doesn’t even exist). 
  4. This leads to 1) drawn out discussions because no one had time to prepare, 2) unclear goals and 3) no anchor to pull the meeting back on-topic when things go off-track.
  5. There’s no tracking of accountability or decisions. 
  6. If your team has a meeting, and no one writes down what was agreed, did the meeting really happen?
  7. Meeting minutes aren’t sent to the people who couldn’t attend. 
  8. This leads to another meeting to “loop in” the people who couldn’t attend. The second meeting covers the exact same ground as the first meeting.

Ugh.

On the flip side, effective meetings get you pumped up and ready to go. Informed decisions are made and recorded. You leave feeling armed with information. Everyone knows what they are responsible for. Your team is organized and everyone is accountable.

We can all agree that we want to have effective meetings over bad meetings. Seems like a no-brainer. Why then, are so many meetings so terrible? What elevates a meeting from bad to effective?

Discipline.

Effective meetings take discipline. The same things that keep people exercising, eating well, or keeping to a routine apply to meetings. It’s all about habits. Just like it can be hard to keep up with your exercise plan, it can be hard to maintain the habits that make a meeting effective. 

Let’s talk about what those habits are:

4 Habits to Organize Effective Meetings

  1. Meetings occur on a rhythm
  2. An agenda is created and sent in advance
  3. Action items have a person accountable and due date
  4. Minutes are recorded and distributed

These 4 habits will elevate even the worst of meetings and help get you organized and stay accountable.

1. Meetings occur on a rhythm

Also called a cadence or heartbeat, when we say rhythm we mean that the meetings follow a regular pattern. Your weekly meeting is at 1:00 pm on Tuesdays every week. Your monthly meeting is the last Thursday of the month at 9:00 am. Everyone who attends knows when these meetings are and has them booked in their calendar. They go ahead even if someone can’t make it (though not if they are unnecessary). You don’t play the, “let’s try and reschedule with 7 peoples schedules via 52 emails” game.

Because these meetings are consistent, they reduce interruptions between meetings. You don’t need to have an ad hoc meeting on Friday afternoon. Instead, you know that you can raise your issue at your regular weekly meeting on Tuesday. You keep everyone “in the zone” because there are fewer interruptions throughout the rest of the week. Meetings tend to be shorter because you are regularly addressing issues, making decisions, and keeping everyone informed.

Meeting productivity hack #1: Schedule for effectiveness.

No Monday morning meetings. No Friday afternoon meetings. Monday mornings people need a chance to settle in, reflect on the previous week, and deal with anything that came up over the weekend. If you meet first thing on Monday morning, they don’t have time to do that. Friday afternoons everyone is tired, thinking about the weekend, and are not likely to be at their best to contribute to the meeting. We recommend Tuesdays, first thing or right after lunch!

2. An agenda is created and sent in advance

Meetings are most effective if everyone attending knows why they are there! Shocking, I know. An agenda gives the person creating it a chance to clarify and communicate what they want to achieve in the meeting. Sending out the agenda ahead of the meeting lets everyone who is attending prepare. They can review what is going to be talked about, if they are responsible for presenting anything, and get the wheels turning on discussion items. We recommend sending the agenda out at least 1 hour before the meeting. Depending on the meeting, more notice is better so even up to 1 week ahead of time might be appropriate. 24 hours before is the sweet spot!

Meeting productivity hack #2: Sending out the agenda ahead of time helps you cancel unnecessary meetings.

It will be obvious if a meeting is not necessary once the person preparing the agenda sends it out. It might just have your weekly updates but no discussion items so, if that is the case, DON’T MEET. Meeting rhythms are important to maintain, but only when there is something worth discussing.

3. Action items have a person accountable and due date

How many meetings have you attended, committed to a task and left thinking, “Yes, I will do that”. Then it completely slips your mind because no one wrote it down? Every single action item should be recorded and have a person and due date assigned to it. Accountability is one of the most important parts of any meeting. Talking about doing something is good, actually doing something is better. Committing to a task and a due date encourages everyone to keep the momentum moving on your projects.

Meeting productivity hack #3: Don’t duplicate tasks that exist in your project management software.

When you are preparing for the meeting, you don’t need to copy the tasks from your project management software into the agenda to show that they are done. It is a duplication of information and clutters your agenda. Project management software often houses tasks that are more detailed than you need to speak to in a meeting. Instead, if necessary, provide a quick update on the higher-level goals/project that those tasks are based on.

4. Meeting minutes are recorded and distributed

Did a meeting happen if no one recorded any minutes? That may seem silly for a meeting that happened yesterday, but what about one that happened 6 months ago? Can you remember what was discussed and the context of the decisions that were made? Where you even at that meeting?

Taking meeting minutes is vital to maintaining the history of decisions and discussions. Having that history is valuable for doing project post-mortems, onboarding new team members, and keeping everyone accountable for action items. Meeting minutes can then be distributed to anyone who was not able to attend the meeting to keep the loop. Then don’t need to have another unnecessary meeting to get them up to speed.

Meeting productivity hack #4: Use your agenda as an outline for your meeting minutes and your minutes as the outline for the next agenda.

Your agenda is already the outline for the meeting. It makes sense to fill in the relevant details of the discussions under the existing headings and keeping track of action items. When creating the next agenda you can review past minutes to carry forward items until they are completed or deleted.

Start organizing effective meetings today

Effective meetings start with you. It’s easy to complain about bad meetings. It’s harder to do something to make a change. You can start running effective meetings by setting your meetings on recurring schedules, preparing and sending an agenda before each meeting, and recording discussions and decisions in meeting minutes including assigned action items.

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