Countless articles and books give advice on meetings: Define the purpose. Create an agenda. Invite the right people. Be prepared. Start and end on time. Stay on topic. Put away the electronic devices. These basic rules of etiquette are simple, but when they are not followed, a meeting can turn counterproductive. Here are some tips to make your meetings more effective.
In a TED Talk, information security manager David Grady identifies a new global epidemic — Mindless Accept Syndrome, or MAS. The primary symptom of MAS is accepting a meeting invitation the moment it pops up in your calendar. His cure: “¡No MAS!” If you get an invitation to a meeting that is ill-defined, click the tentative button. Ask the person who invited you what the goal of the meeting is, and tell them you’re interested in learning how you can help them achieve their goal. Grady believes that if we do this often enough and respectfully, people might be more thoughtful about the way they put together meeting invitations. That thoughtfulness should extend to the following points.
Distribute an agenda. When preparing the agenda, think about the five Ws — Who, What, When, Where, and Why: Who is invited. What will be discussed. When and where the meeting will take place. Most importantly, why you are calling this meeting. Clearly articulate the purpose and desired outcome. Send the agenda, minutes of the most recent meeting, and any material you want the participants to read in advance, such as status reports, questions that need to be answered, etc., at least a day or two before the meeting.
Respect people’s time. You’ve just been assigned to an important team and are looking forward to attending its next meeting, at 9:00 am Monday. You arrive at 8:57 to an empty room. Others straggle in over the next ten minutes. The team leader strolls in at 9:10, notices that her manager is not there yet, and says, “Let’s give him a few minutes.” At 9:14, the manager apologizes for being late, and the leader calls the meeting to order. What a way to start your week! Starting, and ending, your meeting on time helps everyone involved be more productive.
Other time wasters to avoid include: calling a meeting before enough information is available for a decision to be made; inviting people whose presence is not needed; calling a meeting to exchange status updates that could have been better shared through email; spending valuable time on IT issues; and getting sidetracked on details that don’t apply to the whole team. I’m sure you have others.
End with an action plan. Leave some time at the end of the meeting to cover what needs to happen next. In an interview in The New York Times, Mark Toro, managing partner and chairman of North American Properties – Atlanta, described his company’s culture this way: “We developed this phrase: ‘Who will do what by when?’ So if somebody says during a meeting, ‘We’ve got to get this lease signed,’ everybody knows what the follow-up question is going to be. I type the acronym so often in emails — WWDWBW — that my phone just auto-fills it.”
Follow up. The typical follow-up is to distribute meeting minutes. In the Career Catalyst article, “Make Your Minutes Count” (pp. 31–33), Glen Rosentrater discusses the importance of meeting minutes. He provides a useful template for compiling a single, evolving set of minutes that captures all project team meeting events. He also points out that team leaders can use minutes as a tool to influence without authority — to ensure that those responsible for action items, even if they are not direct-reports, complete their assignments.
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