How to make meetings more productive

It’s ten minutes into our meeting and only two of the four attendees are there.

I’m making the most of the time by asking my client how he has been since our last meeting?  He’s made some changes and I’m impressed with his progress.  But that’s not what we’re there for today.

Today we are meant to be meeting with his managers to confirm the goals for his coaching program.  Neither manager is in attendance.

Finally, 15 minutes in, the first manager walks in.  He has a slightly harassed look on his face.  He has been caught up on a phone call, and was then stopped on his way to the meeting by a question from a staff member.

After taking time to build rapport, I bring the focus of the meeting back to the reason why we’re here, to review my client’s goals and ensure alignment.  

At the 25-minute mark the second manager walks in.  He doesn’t apologise for being late as he shakes my hand and introduces himself.  

Finally, with a quarter of the time allocated to the meeting completed, we are ready to work towards outcomes.

I’m impressed with the calibre of the conversation, particularly from the second manager (the one who was 25 minutes late).  He is impressive and provides excellent feedback and insights to help us hone the goals we are discussing.

At the 35-minute mark the second manager takes a call and steps out of the room.

I look at the face of my client and see the disappointment on it.  The message he must be receiving from the second manager is clear, “you are not as important as my other priorities.” 

This may or may not be true, because when the manager returns 10 minutes later he continues to provide insights and help us work towards our outcome of finalising my client’s goals for his coaching program.

At the 60-minute mark, the meeting is concluded.  We couldn’t go overtime even if we wanted. There are people waiting outside the meeting room door waiting to gain entry into the room.

I shake the hands of the two managers and take a few extra minutes with my client to check in with him to ask, how he is feeling.

In our debrief he doesn’t comment on the behaviour of his managers.  Both of them are great guys, and provided good input into the meeting.  Unfortunately, arriving late and without apology did little to gain the trust of their employee, and communicated a lack of respect for his time and what he was trying to achieve.  

Unfortunately, I see this kind of cavalier attitude towards meetings all the time. Usually, it’s not just because we have too much on our plate, but because we are not managing what is on our plate well.

We have too many meetings in our diaries, we are attending meetings without a clear agenda and outcome, we are not present in meetings, and we don’t follow up on them. 

Why meeting disciplines are important

Our research found only 39per cent of workers report the meetings they attend are productive and necessary.  They don’t start on time, are run without agendas and outcomes, can be boring and people often talk more than necessary out of habit.

What was interesting is 76per cent said they ran productive meetings.  These two pieces of information work together to tell us greater awareness needs to be brought to our meeting disciplines.  

Not all meetings are a waste of time.

If a meeting doesn’t have a clearly stated purpose and outcome which relates to company, team or personal priorities then it shouldn’t happen.  

If you always ask the question “is a meeting really necessary?” before accepting meeting requests, and make sure there’s an agenda and an outcome for every meeting you do attend, you’re reaching higher levels of productivity than 61per cent of professionals.

There are definitely times when an effectively run meeting helps move things forward.  The trick is applying appropriate meeting disciplines.

Meeting disciplines

1.         Prior to accepting a request for your time ask, “Is this meeting really necessary?”

2.         Ensure only the right people are invited to meetings

3.         Start on time and finish on time

4.         Make sure there is always an agenda

5.         Confirm the agenda within the first 5 minutes of every meeting and stick to the agenda.

6.         Start with the most important items first

7.         Confirm outcomes 5 to 10 minutes before closing meetings out

8.         Diarise and spend five minutes after each appointment to follow up

Case Study: Nicolle carves out time for herself

Nicolle managed a large team in a global corporation.  She attended back to back meetings every day from 8 am to 6 pm, and had developed the habit of taking on responsibilities which could be delegated to her team.  The impact was she gave up her personal time to complete her work and tactical work which could better sit with others. 

Nicolle consistently stayed at work until 10 pm or 11 pm at night.  She had two children at home and rarely saw them throughout the week.  

Nicolle wanted to free up time to think about strategic work and long-term initiatives.  She wanted more time to plan and prepare for meetings.  She wanted to get back to regular exercise.  Most of all, she wanted more time with her family.

Nicolle had developed the habit of saying “yes” when she should have said” no” to requests on her time.  This meant she was doing work she shouldn’t be doing and attending meetings she didn’t need to.  She felt guilty at work when she didn’t get enough done, and felt guilty at home because she spent so much time at work.

We started by setting goals to go home on time.  Nicolle found she was more likely to leave on time if she had a commitment such as a school concert.  She started setting dates with her children for reading time or to do other activities together during the week to ensure she would go home on time.

We also realised she’d developed the belief she should stay back at work rather than take work home. She didn’t want her children to see her working rather than paying them attention.  As such, she’d stay back until 9 pm for a global conference call which could have been done at home. 

We discussed the example she was setting for her children by allowing them to see her work, and “Mummy is allowed to have time to herself.”  The alternative was not seeing her children during the week as they were in bed by the time she got home.  Rather than miss out on time with her family, she started working from home when necessary. 

Nicolle had also developed a habit of filling gaps in her diary which her personal assistant created for her.  Rather than putting people in her diary when they asked for her time she referred them back to her personal assistant who would be more realistic about when she could fit them in, pushing back as necessary.  

We developed a script to help her say “no” when she was asked to do something which fell outside of her responsibilities.  She started referring work to the right people, and stopped agreeing to meetings she didn’t need to attend.  

We also created a script she would use when she caught herself agreeing to something she shouldn’t agree to “actually, if I commit to that, I may let you down as I’ve got a full schedule, Nadia from my team would be better”, or “oh, I forgot about a project I’ve committed to that week, can we do it the following week?” 

Nicolle also started applying greater meeting disciplines to the meetings she did attend.  At first, she was reluctant to take control of directionless meetings but found that asking for agendas at the start of meetings, and confirming desired outcomes ten minutes before the end ensured meetings ran on time, and objectives were better achieved.  

Nicolle started email batching during the day, rather than staying back to process her email.  By moving her work tasks to the day rather than letting other people take up all of her time, she was able to regain work life balance and focus on high-value, long term, strategic work. 

Through developing better habits around the meetings, she attended and the tasks she agreed to in meetings, Nicolle is now able to get home on time at least three days per week.

Types of Meetings

Team Meetings

Team meetings can be an effective method of communicating information relating to business objectives.  

Some advice for team meetings:

  • Keep them short and sweet.  30 minutes to 45 minutes is ideal
  • Keep them consistent, ensure they are run at the same time at agreed intervals
  • Set a consistent agenda which aligns to team priorities
  • Rotate the chair.  It changes the tone of the meeting and gives different members the opportunity to take responsibility of the agenda and minutes.

Scrum Meetings 

The agile project methodology encourages a production focus rather than a task focus.  Team members work in sprints.   They produce work and test it in live customer situations.  This replaces methodologies which work line by line through detailed project plans.  

 Each day they have a 15min “stand-up” scrum meeting and ask:

  • What’s been achieved since we last met?
  • What are we going to achieve today?
  • What obstacles are getting in our way?
  • What obstacles might we be putting in someone else’s way?

Professional Development Meetings 

Spending proactive development time with employees helps with forward planning and succession planning.  It also provides opportunities to delegate tasks as learning opportunities.  

The return on investment for investing in people is clear.  According to London Business School’s research, for every dollar invested into people, businesses see a $6 return. 

Likewise, meetings with your manager, mentor or coach can be used to brainstorm professional challenges, and continue to move your career forward.  Don’t think of your own development as luxury time.

This is a proactive high-value activity which benefits you, your team and your business.  One new idea is often the difference between good and great performance.

Mindful Meetings

Applying mindfulness techniques to meetings helps meeting participants get the most out of each meeting they attend.  

Apply mindfulness to meetings by:

  • Kicking off meetings with five minutes of silence.  This gives participants time to let go of whatever was on their minds prior to entering the room.  They set an intention of what they want to achieve out of the meeting.  They put themselves in the best mind frame to listen to others.
  • Allocating time to each person to speak without interruption before discussion starts.    

Calls to action:

  • Agree to meeting rules with your team
  • Start applying better meeting disciplines to the meetings you accept, and the actions you agree to within meetings
  • Go through your diary for the next four weeks and look for meetings which can be cancelled.   

Habits to work on:

  • Ask, is a meeting really necessary?
  • Always have an agenda, and confirm it within the first five minutes of your meetings
  • Always have an outcome, and confirm it within the last five minutes of your meetings
  • Schedule time in your diary for follow up immediately after each meeting.  

Let us know how you go!

Keep moving forward,


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