Making Meetings Productive
Some of the most important and practical knowledge I learned in college derived from the professor’s personal experience rather from a text book. These pearls of wisdom ranged from “Spray paint all your tools fluorescent orange” to a lengthy dissertation beginning with “Structural failures are seldom attributed to one major flaw, but rather a series of minor transgressions”. As a result of these positive learning moments, I too try to bring my experience into the classroom. During the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies the topic of meetings has come up a few times. While some of the material covered proved to be useful in the field, what I learned about conducting a productive meeting came through experiencing productive techniques in the many thousands of meetings I have attended throughout my career. The following is a summary of the guidelines I follow when scheduling and conducting meetings based on my experience.
- Meetings are not a substitute for communicating via the telephone or email. I do not like to schedule meetings or attend meetings because I often feel they are a waste of time that could be spent working on a project, rather than talking about it. However, I do acknowledge that projects are more successful if the team meets on a regular basis to review the project conditions and to get to know each other better. Typically, I will schedule a meeting for the same time every week , or at longer intervals depending on the project.
- A clear Agenda is the starting point of all successful meetings. I have found a simple format applies to even the most complex projects; Introductions, Old Business, Change Management, Schedule, New Business. New members should always be made to feel welcome and be informed on who is in attendance , even if the visitor has a minor roll.
- Stick to the Agenda and record minutes. My minutes summarize the conversation, not explicitly record what each person stated. I don’t want my attendees to feel like they are in a court room, or that what they said will end up in a court room. I foster an attitude of understanding , not contention. When a conversation on a topic is complete I mirror back my understanding of what the key points expressed were, what the parties agreed to , and any reservations some parties my have. I want everyone to feel they were heard even if they their ideas where not accepted. I write in an active voice so it is clear who said or took action. I read back what I wrote and make sure everyone is in agreement with what was said.
- The minutes also clearly record the next steps; who will do what and when they will complete it by. I make it a habit of asking the meeting participant when they will complete the action item, rather than impose a deadline; I want them to own their schedule. Action items are the most critical step and will dictate the success of the meeting and the overall project.
So far I have probably not said anything that has not been stated before; make an agenda, stick to the agenda, record what happened at the meeting. In practice meetings often stray from the agenda and discussions become contentious. I have learned to keep folks on track , often by saying “That’s sounds interesting, please hold that thought for a separate discussion”. I am a firm believer that creativity starts with conflict, however I also believe a meeting can only withstand a limited amount of conflict. I have to judge that limit carefully and when it nears state, ” It sounds like we need to discuss that matter more in depth, let me summarize the main points then we will move on to the next item on the agenda”. If time permits the matter can be taken up after the meeting or the parties could be assigned action items that will help with taking up the conflict at the next meeting.
The productiveness of the next meeting depends on how effective I am after the meeting. I write the minutes during the meeting, therefore getting them to participants within 24 hours is not an issue. I then send out an email or follow up with a call to everyone assigned an action item. I ask them to share the results of their action item with me before the next meeting explaining that I want to be prepared for the next meeting. If the item is a field condition and I will not be back in the field before the next meeting, I ask for pictures. I end the conversation or email with a request for confirmation that the item will be completed by the date they designated. A day before the deadline I will make another call or send an email checking on progress and offering my assistance.
When the deadline approaches or the day before the next meeting I make my last follow up call or email. I would like to say at this point the task is completed and it is time to move on to the next task, yet this is not always the case. If a deadline is not met I remind the team member that they determined the completion date and request a new date be established. I also review any barriers that they feel may have prevented them from completing their task on time. For those that completed their task I offer ample praise to them as publically as possible.
Following on up action items with daily calls and emails may seem like a lot of effort , and it can be. Although I do not believe it is as much effort as attending unproductive meetings and dealing with a growing list of action items. Productive meetings, and by extension productive projects, depend as much on what happens at meetings as what happens between meetings.