Keeping meetings on time and on track

Meetings can be an expensive use of your time. Ed Robins, Director and Principal Consultant at ProFocus Business Performance Consulting and Training, discusses the importance of testing the business case, considering alternatives and keeping everyone on track.

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An unproductive meeting is more than a waste of time; it’s a waste of money.

“Many business owners don’t calculate how much meetings actually cost and I think that, if they did, they’d get a shock,” says Ed Robins, Director and Principal Consultant at ProFocus Business Performance Consulting and Training. “It pays to check that every proposed meeting is justified and, if so, have procedures in place to ensure it runs as efficiently as possible.”

Is there a business case?

The first step is to clarify what you’re hoping to achieve.

“You can then assess whether there’s a cheaper and more efficient alternative,” says Robins. “If you’re simply disseminating information could you do it in an email? If you need to discuss something with people who would have to travel, could you use Skype or organise a videoconference or teleconference? If you’re catching up on tasks for the day, would the conversation be more succinct if you were standing rather than sitting?

Sometimes there won’t be an alternative – if you’re discussing performance, for example, or complying with the etiquette of a different culture.

“But you should always test the business case first,” Robins adds.

Invite the right people

Everyone at a meeting should have a good reason for being there.

“You’re aiming for the smallest group that includes all the right people,” says Robins.

Distribute a detailed agenda

The agenda should list the items you want to cover and allocate a time for each topic.

“Send it out well in advance of the meeting so that everyone will have time to do appropriate background reading and formulate any questions,” says Robins.

Set the rules

The rules of the meeting should be agreed in advance and displayed in the meeting room as a reminder.

“When you’ve set time limits you need someone to police them,” says Robins. “You also need someone to be responsible for keeping people on track. The key is to establish who will take on these roles before the meeting starts so that being hurried along or guided back to the point doesn’t feel like a personal attack.”

There should be a process for dealing with the unexpected, such as matters that genuinely need more than the allocated time, and also a policy on the use of phones and other technology.

“If someone at a meeting doesn’t know the rules, start with a quick run-through,” says Robins. “If you don’t know the rules of a meeting you’re attending, ask about the guidelines before it starts. There may not be any, but at least you won’t be caught out.”

Evaluate

Robins recommends ending every meeting with an evaluation that includes questions such as “Did we follow our agenda?”; “Did we achieve the purpose of the meeting?”; “Did we stick to the allocated times?”; “Did we contain digression?”; and “Did we assign tasks appropriately?”.

“You can add these to the bottom of the agenda and then quickly go around the room to gather people’s scores,” he says. “If you’re getting mostly twos and threes out of a possible ten then you can see at once that you need to take steps to improve the process.”

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