Meetings do matter. Whether virtual or face to face, they are vital to the smooth running of any business. For me, their main importance is as a forum for making timely decisions that will benefit the business.
But most people know the feeling of frustration when the meetings they have to attend get overlong and dull, or the subjects under discussion don’t concern them. After three decades in business, I have experienced a few of these kinds of meetings myself.
Here are four strategies I use to make sure meetings stay on track.
1. Why Are You Holding this Meeting?
Firstly, consider whether the meeting is necessary and useful. One very successful motor racing team famously asks, “Is the meeting aimed at making the car go faster—if not, don’t have the meeting.” Could you apply that principle to your business?
I would argue that you should never have meetings that are about information gathering such as updating the pipeline. It is much better to have the relevant data up to date before you start and focus the meeting on decision making.
Consider the timing of the meeting—slot it in to the rhythm of the business. For example, a board meeting should be as close to the month’s end as possible so the data is current and decisions can make more of an impact. Regularly consider repeat meetings—are they still needed? Are the attendees still right? Are they still achieving what they set out to do when they were first set up? Don’t be afraid to cancel a repeat meeting and not replace it or replace with a new meeting with different attendees and objectives.
2. Why Are the Attendees There?
Look at the attendee list and think about why this meeting matters for each person on it. Sometimes people get ‘CC’d and feel obligated to come along, but if the meeting is not core to their role, it may be a waste of time.
It can be very dull to have to listen to people discussing work that you are not involved in. And the more people who are involved, the longer the meeting is likely to go on for—by the time ten people have spoken for two minutes each, you are 20 minutes in.
Make sure that everybody is there for a reason—sometimes it may be appropriate to engineer a meeting so that every attendee has to present or contribute something formally. This makes them prepare for the meeting. It engages people and makes them feel valued.
3. Hold More Frequent but Shorter Meetings
Having more frequent, shorter meetings is often more productive than fewer, longer meetings. Consider daily stand ups, particularly when managing global teams who don’t meet in person or more junior teams. The analogy is that everyone is standing up and so they are less likely to keep everyone else on their feet by going on for too long.
This approach, however, does require discipline—especially if people are not actually standing up but sitting at their desks and communicating online. I would suggest keeping these to 15 minutes or so. If left to run on, they can potentially turn into a repetitive chat-a-thon that doesn’t get the morning off to a great start.
Running a time box on the screen for meetings in general is a good idea—and any meeting that needs a comfort break is too long!
4. Watch Out for That Knotty Problem on the Agenda
There is a time and place for having an in-depth discussion about a controversial and intractable problem and this kind of conversation takes time. But a contentious item thrown onto the agenda for a specific meeting can derail it.
If there is a situation where one item on the agenda clearly won’t reach a definitive conclusion—put it to one side—have a fridge or parking lot, by which I mean a place where you stick items to discuss later.
Alternatively, use the concept of a strawman—for items which no agreement is likely to be reached get someone to take away and create a strawman (an example idea that people either approve or critique) that is reviewed later by all.
In conclusion, I am sure there are many more strategies we could discuss at greater length, but like meetings, I feel articles like this are better short than long!
Mark Robinson, serial entrepreneur and cofounder of Kimble Applications, has more than 25 years’ experience in the IT consulting industry. In addition to founding the company, he also serves as Chief Marketing Officer where is he is responsible for business development, channel management, and market analysis. Mark started his career in management consulting before working for Oracle Corporation where he witnessed first-hand their rise from start-up to software giant. He started his first IT Consultancy Company, Fulcrum Solutions, in 1997 and cofounded IT consultancy Edenbrook in 2001.