by Pat Brans

How to plan and execute better business meetings

Mar 14, 20126 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Many people complain about having too many meetings, or they say that meetings are generally inefficient.

It’s difficult to get anything done if you’re spending all your time talking about what you need to do, without ever taking action.

On the other hand, teams need to build common understandings and make decisions together — tasks that are best accomplished through meetings.

Let’s take a look at some good methods for planning and running meetings, and find out how can you accomplish what you need without wasting people’s time?

Planning the meeting The best meeting planners start by developing a clear idea of what the meeting should accomplish, and with the focus firmly on this objective, they plan the venue and work out who needs to be present.

Are you trying to get a status update? If so, a stand-up meeting might be the most appropriate.

Some CIOs have weekly status meetings that last only 15 minutes, where the director chooses a place with no chairs so nobody gets too comfortable.

Then each person goes over the progress made in his or her area. The other attendees listen, and comments are kept to a minimum.

Alternatively, are you gathering people to make a decision? In this case, make sure all stakeholders are represented.

If necessary, leave time at the beginning to agree on what constitutes a decision. Is unanimity required? Is it by majority? Or is the boss the one who has the final say?

Finally, are you just trying to build relationships? Remote teams being so common these days, managers have to get people together to build trust and common understanding.

While they have no material goal, relationship-building meetings should still be structured and should have tangible outcomes.

Even if the objective is to build trust, the best way to get people to take the same side is to have them work towards a common goal.

Structuring the meeting With a clear picture of what you’re trying to accomplish, you can now write an agenda. Plan your meetings to last no more than an hour and a half.

Many of the world’s most effective executives agree that anything longer than that is counter-productive. Next to each item on the agenda, write in who will lead that part of the discussion, and how long you think it will take.

Invite the people who need to be there and nobody else. If you have too many people, they might get bored and distract other attendees.

Conversely, if you don’t invite the right people, you might not get the information you need, or make decisions that stick. In your invitation state the purpose of the meeting so people can figure out if its worth their while attending.

You’re asking them for their time, so make it clear you respect that precious resource.

Publish your agenda well in advance, and if you can send the agenda with the invitation that’s even better – a fixed start and end time and durations for each topic let people know you have thought this meeting through.

Running the meeting If you make it a habit to start all meetings on time, people will come to expect just that.

At the beginning of the meeting insist that mobile phones be turned off, laptops shut and tablets put to one side. Set the example yourself and ensure your own mobile phone, laptop and tablet are all turned off.

Go over the agenda quickly to make sure everybody understands what is to be covered.

Some people might want to add points and others might have to step out at the times you had earmarked for their participation, so you might need to modify the agenda. But try not to get bogged down in making these changes.

The best way to avoid getting derailed is to poll people beforehand to make sure they generally agree with what’s to be covered.

During the meeting, stick to the agenda. When the discussion goes off in directions that are unproductive, remind people of the topic and the timetable.

If you uncover something interesting that needs further treatment, you can schedule a discussion outside the meeting.

Meeting management techniques 1 The time box. One technique that helps people stick firmly to the set agenda is to time box. You set aside a specific amount of time for an issue and once that time is up you move on to something else, whether or not all points were covered.

Time boxing communicates to people that time is precious.

2 Pass the gavel.Another technique — and one that helps ensure each participant gets to talk — is to pass the gavel.

Only the person who has the gavel gets to speak. Then he or she passes it on to the next person. You could even mix time boxing and passing the gavel: each person gets a fixed amount of time to speak and then yields to the next person.

Before making a big decision, try passing the gavel.

Or you can make a ritual out of it: at the end of every meeting, pass the gavel to give everybody a chance to talk at least once.

Finish on a conclusion As soon as any decision is made, make sure everybody knows that, and immediately write what was decided in the minutes. Few things are less productive than a situation where people leave a meeting with no two attendees having the same idea of what was decided.

If you are building up to a decision that will be made later (as might be the case when you are brainstorming), make that clear too.

Sometimes you intend to make a decision but it becomes apparent that you don’t have all the information you need or maybe some of the key players are absent.

In this case, you should make sure everybody understands that the decision will be postponed. Make it clear when the decision will be made and how.

Just as it’s important to start on time, for all the same reasons, you should make it a habit to end meetings on time. At the end of the meeting, make sure everybody understands what the actions are and who is responsible for each one.

Publish the minutes shortly after the meeting and follow up on the actions.

If you follow these rules, your meetings will be more productive.