How to Keep Your Meetings (And Your Team) Moving Forward

rails-253134_640Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing on the topic of team meetings. This series of articles started with a review of 3 meetings you should stop having. That was followed by 4 meeting types that you should be having. I touched on 3 elements that make for a productive meeting, and then last week the focus was on using questions to prepare for a meeting – regardless of whether you are the meeting’s organizer or a participant.

Today, I’m wrapping up the series with a look at meeting effectiveness. How can you be sure your meeting actually helps move the team forward? That’s really the reason why we have meetings in the first place, isn’t it … to help move things along? If people are spending their time in a meeting rather than engaged in performing the actual job tasks they were hired to do, then the meeting ought to help improve the way they perform those tasks. For example, if my job is selling widgets, any time spent away from that specific task (like attending a meeting) should serve to make me a better widget sales person.

It’s critical that we start here. You have to understand that meetings are a disruption. They keep people from completing their core job responsibilities. I’m not saying meetings aren’t important; they absolutely are. But too many managers put more planning and energy into a meeting than they do the work our meetings are intended to support. We have to keep meetings in their proper place. The first and most critical step to better meetings is to view them as a vehicle that enables people to do their best work. When you start looking at meetings through this lens, the rest of your meeting-related decisions become much easier.

Starting with the belief that a meeting’s purpose is to improve the ability of people to perform, here are three ways to ensure the right things happen once the meeting is adjourned.

Expect active participation from everyone. Effective meetings do not have attendees, they have participants. If your meeting is considered a spectator sport, it’s time to clarify expectations. Active participation includes asking questions, taking notes, and sharing personal insights to improve everyone’s understanding of whatever topic is on the table. Active participation requires preparation, such as reviewing related material or completing pre-meeting assignments.

Active participation does not include looking at your phone, holding side conversations, or multi-tasking. These are signs that people are bored, uninterested, or simply disrespectful. If the meeting organizer has done their part to prepare an engaging agenda, then the rest of the team should honor that commitment by participating.

Focus on what’s important. Effective meetings stay focused. Inevitably, participants will bring up tangential topics. It’s like browsing the internet – you start off searching for something very specific, but get distracted by links to other topics that are somewhat related. Before you know it, your search for a good apple pie recipe has morphed into an hour-long review of bad plastic surgery pics. To keep your meeting on track, you have to recognize when things are getting off topic and step in before it goes too far.

Keep a running list of “parking lot” items; topics that come up, but aren’t germane to the core discussion. These can be tackled offline, or added to the next meeting’s agenda. I once worked with an organization that kept a small bell in the middle of the conference room table. Each participant in a meeting had permission to ring the bell when they felt a discussion was drifting too far off-topic. They then made a note on a white board so the related-but-separate concept wasn’t lost and pulled the team back on track.

Hold people accountable. Discussion of each agenda item should conclude with the assignment of next steps. If a topic doesn’t inherently require one or more specific actions, then it shouldn’t be on the agenda. Simply sharing general information shouldn’t be the focus of a meeting discussion – it should be an email. Remember, the purpose of a meeting is to enable participants to better perform their core job tasks.

If a topic is on your team’s meeting agenda, meaning it’s taking people away from their job, it’s because people need to start (or stop) doing something related to that job. End each meeting with a review of action items. Use this format to keep assignments clear: [Who] will [do what] by [when]. Start each subsequent meeting with a review of the action items from the prior one. Do this consistently, and hold people accountable for fulfilling their commitments.

Workplace meetings aren’t going away anytime soon. Most people consider them a necessary evil. Top teams see them as a critical way to stay focused, united, and moving in the right direction. How your meetings are perceived, and how productive they are, is up to you.


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