Monday, November 29, 2010

Effective Meetings - A Summary of the Best Guidelines

A good deal of the time, you don't need to communicate with people in person. You don't need to bring them together to share information effectively. You have phone, fax, email, instant messaging, teleconferences, forums, and more. Take your pick.

But there are times when to achieve the desired result, you need real-time interaction. Sometimes you want people to ask questions and have everyone present benefit from or react to the answers. Several topics can be handled during one session. Nonverbal communication can be taken into account. Problems can be solved. Decisions can be made. A lot of time can be saved. A leader can verify that everyone clearly understands and that “everyone is on the same page.”

But meetings have high opportunity costs. When people are in meetings, they aren't doing something else. They aren't doing what they're paid to do. Meetings are almost universally disliked because all too often they're considered an amazing waste of time. And they often are. This is because most meetings are held for the wrong reasons and not conducted in a rational, time-efficient way.

What should meeting leaders and participants do to make meetings worthwhile? I've read about a dozen books on this topic, and I've consolidated the best guidelines here:

1. Hold meetings only when necessary. The mistake is to consider a face-to-face meeting as the default way of distributing information. People often forget that because meetings consume so much time, they are extremely costly to the individual participants and to the organization. For this reason, a smart leader considers a meeting to be the “last resort” method, to be used when no other way of communicating will get the job done as well.

2. Schedule meetings in advance to avoid disrupting people’s schedules. Too many meetings are called at the last minute. People aren’t given a chance to prepare, and whatever they had planned for that time period will have to be rescheduled. A boss has the authority to call a meeting, but an unscheduled meeting can be counterproductive and demoralizing.

3. Prepare thoroughly for meetings. A meeting should have a precise agenda. All the resources needed to communicate effectively should be made available: room, hand-outs, presentation media, attendance by outside experts, refreshments, etc.

4. Before a meeting, circulate an agenda. Invite only the people who need to be there. Participants should be given the agenda in advance, with enough time to schedule the meeting; and they should be told how to prepare themselves to participate effectively.

5. Make an effort to attend meetings when you're asked to do so. Assume that your attendance has been requested for a reason. This means that your absence could jeopardize the success of the meeting, which would waste the time of those who did attend.

6. Arrive at team meetings on time. A late arrival is always disruptive. You will miss some of what was communicated. And your tardiness will send the wrong message.

7. Arrive at team meetings prepared to contribute. Study the agenda. What role or contribution will be expected of you? If you’re not sure, find out. Do you need to do anything special in advance to be ready to make the contribution? What should you bring to the meeting?

8. If you’re leading a meeting, start on time whether everyone is there or not. This is a courtesy to those who showed up on time. Unexpected discussions can happen, and meetings can take longer than expected. A meeting that runs late will disrupt the plans of the attendees. It’s very difficult to end on time if you don’t start on time.

9. Help others understand the issues being discussed. Not everyone has the same background and not everyone communicates the same way. If you have knowledge or information that can help others understand what is being said, sharing that will help the meeting move forward successfully.

10. Stay focused on agenda topics. When people talk, it’s easy for them to digress. Pursuing off-topic or off-point discussions is normal and natural, but time wasn’t budgeted them. To achieve the goal of the meeting and to end on time, participants may have to remind each other to return to the topic on the agenda.

11. Encourage people to contribute their opinions, feelings and ideas. Not everyone is outgoing. Some people prefer to do a lot of thinking before they say anything. They may even feel that their input isn’t necessary or valued. For best results, these people should be invited to contribute. Often, this is all it takes to get them involved, and their perspectives can make a difference.

12. Use tact to deal with disruptive behavior. When certain participants are late, interrupt, dominate discussion, take care of other business or otherwise make group interaction difficult, you can point out the problem behavior and state what is needed. Even though disruptions are irritating, it’s best to take the high road—with respect and courtesy. Corrections will always be more effective if done without aggression or emotion.

13. Help the team evaluate alternatives before making decisions. When a group is involved in a decision, they should consider their options. That means laying out advantages and disadvantages, risks and rewards, costs and benefits, etc. These considerations typically exist in the minds of many, not just one person.

14. Contribute to team consensus decisions. When a decision is proposed, the group needs to know where you stand. Do you agree? Are you opposed? Or do you disagree but are willing to support the decision?

15. At the end, summarize what has been accomplished. This taking appropriate notes during the meeting, as agenda items are resolved. Reporting this summary will help people remember what took place.

16. At the end, assign action responsibilities. Often, the follow-through from a meeting will require certain people taking action. This should not be left to chance. Explicitly review who should do what. This fixes responsibility and increases the chances that something will get done.

17. End meetings on time. If possible, do whatever you can to end a meeting at the scheduled end-time. People make plans. They probably have something scheduled immediately afterward. So there may be unwanted consequences if this doesn’t happen, including the possibility that people will be reluctant to attend your meetings in the future.

18. Afterward, follow through to ensure actions are accomplished. Check on the people who have been assigned action responsibilities. Find out if they need help carrying out these actions. Otherwise, important results may “fall through the crack.”

19. Afterward, accomplish a share of the follow-up actions. If you’re expected to do something, take this responsibility seriously. Doing your part will contribute to team results and team cohesion.

It's a lot of guidelines, I know. But use them as a checklist. And don't forget - the most important guideline is the first one!

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased from


Darryl Jonckheere said...

All great points to consider for traditional face-to-face meetings. But what about conference calls and Skype/video-oriented meetings.

'Skype' and 'Goto' meetings in particular seem to be growing in popularity as more and more companies gradually begin to realize telecommuting and mobile correspondence via digital technologies empower employees to be more productive. What would you consider to be some of the key challenges here?

Denny Coates said...

These "virtual" meetings in many ways are not much different from traditional meetings, such as the need to prepare, stay on time and on track, manage the technology and follow through.

They do pose some extra challenges for the meeting leader, especially the difficulty in reading nonverbals to understand intent, optimize participation, or achieve consensus. Virtual meetings have limitations. They aren't just nifty ways to replace traditional meetings.

Majlinda Priku said...

Effective meetings are a great place for people to share information, ideas and creativity. They are also a powerful management tool to make decisions and get things done. More at

Guy Farmer said...

Great post Denny. It really illustrates the importance of creating a framework for how to run an effective meeting. Too often well-meaning people just wing it without any preparation or guidelines. Some basice structure can make a big difference.