After Hours

10 ways to make meetings more effective


"That meeting wasted my time."How often have you made this statement? Like you, I've attended many unproductive meetings, but a recent one topped them all. I had been talking about my consulting and training work with an employee of a company in central New Jersey. Things had gotten to the point that, after receiving information about me, the person suggested that I come to his New Jersey office for a meeting he would set up that would include him and his boss, the director of a training program for new professional hires.

The day of the meeting came, and I made the two-hour drive to the New Jersey office. I met my contact, who brought me to a meeting room with two of his co-workers and his boss. Following our introductions, the boss asked me about the work I do, and I described it. After hearing it, the boss said, "I'm sorry, but that work isn't in line with what we had in mind."

What went through my mind at that moment is probably unprintable, but you get the idea. Of course, the trip proved to be a waste of time for me. However, maybe some good did come of it, because ironically, thinking back about it gave me the idea for this article.

The following tips, which apply both to attendees and the chair of the meeting, will help minimize the chances that you'll be similarly aggravated.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Determine whether the meeting really is necessary

Does the meeting really need to occur? Do multiple people really need to interact with each other? Reducing the number of attendees saves time for everyone, both those in the meeting (because it probably will end sooner) and for those not attending (because they can do other things).

If the meeting involves a review of documents, status reports, or other material, sending them to attendees prior to the meeting saves time and might even make the meeting unnecessary. Consider my example of the New Jersey meeting: I wonder whether the boss had even reviewed my materials beforehand. Had she done so, or had she spoken to me by telephone, it would have saved time for everyone.

Even if you determine that a meeting is really necessary, does it have to be in person? Consider a telephone or video conference call, which can save time, money, and energy (and which is an option I should have considered for my New Jersey meeting).

#2: Be punctual

Have you ever been on time for a meeting and found that only about three-fourths of the attendees were present? Did the meeting leader say, "Well, let's wait a few minutes for more people to arrive"? Think about the message that action sends. You, the person who showed up on time, are being penalized for doing so. The people who are late, conversely, are being told that their lateness has no consequences. How likely is it that you will be punctual to the next meeting this leader holds?

I've heard of companies that remove all extra chairs from the room once the meeting starts, forcing latecomers to stand. While that technique may be extreme, it does reflect the idea that peoples' time should be respected.

In the same way, if you're going to be late, try to let the meeting chair know in advance. Simply showing up late might send a message to the other attendees that to you, the meeting is unimportant.

If you're the chair, try to end the meeting on time. Attendees have other commitments, and keeping them late is unfair to them and to the others with whom they have commitments. A friend blogged about how she hinted about the late running of a meeting, which was supposed to end at noon: Her stomach growled audibly at 12:05.

#3: Be wary of recapping for latecomers

On a related note, be careful about recapping a meeting for latecomers. By doing so, you are in effect starting the meeting over.

#4: Be prepared

Did you receive background material prior to the meeting? Reviewing it and being prepared with comments saves time for everyone. You might even spot something that could make the meeting unnecessary, as in the case of my New Jersey meeting. If you have questions about the material, consider e-mailing them to the author or to the other attendees in advance, so they have time to think about what you've asked.

#5: Have an objective

Author and consultant Stephen Covey counsels readers and clients to "Begin with the end in mind." When planning a meeting, therefore, ask yourself "What do I want to see as a result of this meeting?" Put another way, ask yourself (as a famous politician and U.S. president did), whether, at the end of the meeting, you and the attendees will be better off than you were at the beginning.

If you have no objective and no purpose, why meet at all?

#6: Publicize the agenda

Having and distributing an agenda prior to a meeting alerts attendees to the nature of that meeting. Attendees who believe a particular item should be added or removed have an opportunity to discuss that issue with the meeting chair.

#7: Be clear about responsibilities

In your agenda and in conversations beforehand, be clear about your expectations for the attendees. Regarding a particular topic, are you looking for a short update, a discussion, or a formal presentation? Being clear about expectations leads to efficiency and avoids embarrassment.

#8: Address important things first

Dr. Covey uses a demonstration involving sand and a collection of medium-size and large rocks. He challenges audience members to place all of them into a pail, so that there's no overflowing of sand and the rocks all stay below the top of the pail. After many people fail, Dr. Covey shows them how to do it: He puts in the large rocks, then the smaller rocks, then pours in the sand. Those who fail do so because they reverse this sequence.

In your meetings, as in other aspects of your life and work, try to address the most important issues first. Get them out of the way, so that if you do run out of time, all you have left are the less important things.

#9: Avoid being distracted by side issues

It's easy, during a meeting, to be distracted by side issues. If that happens, you risk losing control of your agenda and the meeting itself. Is the issue one that really needs to be addressed right now? Does it need to be resolved to continue the meeting? If not, consider "parking" it. Section off part of a flipchart page or whiteboard, write the issue inside, then continue the meeting. Afterward, document the issue, as well as any others that have similarly been parked.

If the issue really does need to be addressed immediately, you have a difficult decision to make. Among your current attendees, do you have the necessary people -- and only those people needed to resolve the issue? If so, and this issue is important, you may have to take time to address it with the other attendees. If you lack the necessary people, you might have to defer the issue. In that case, try to proceed with other agenda items you can resolve.

#10: Document your meeting

Within a day or two after the meeting, distribute minutes so people have a record of it. Make sure that the minutes list the specific people assigned to specific tasks. Without minutes of a meeting, questions will arise as to who said what and who committed to what. Follow-up actions from the meeting might happen more slowly, if they happen at all.


About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

16 comments
Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

...I'm responsible. The guy who developed Zero Defects described in "The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way" an overall solution to the implicit question "whose fault is it?" The mature solution to that is to recognize that it's ALWAYS your fault (at least partly). You didn't anticipate, you didn't plan, etc... Since we're human, such things go wrong. But the right way to deal with that is simple: learn from the mistakes and don't repeat 'em. Then learn to anticipate.

mmk.alsulami
mmk.alsulami

I don't think what you said is applicable when you have a meeting with your customer because they will ask some thing not in the agenda and you have to answer, they will come late and you have to say "It's OK", and there is always someone that you don't know why he is attending the meeting.

kenok22
kenok22

Thanks the i met some of the facts are here, i hope everyone will pick it out and distribute it to their friends. Good day to all. ken

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

This wasn't just a meeting in the normal sense of looking in Microsoft Outlook to see that your manager has booked everyone for a team chat. In this case it very much appears to have been a sales call. (If I read the message correctly) You were attending that meeting in order to determine whether or not that company had a need, and if so, could your services and experience adequately fulfil it. Not withstanding the excellent points you make about meetings in your post, there is a whole other world of stuff you should have done before the meeting you attended. Look in any sales book under the topic "Qualification". And, as incredibly frustrating as it is, it is your responsbility, no one else's. Two or three phone calls could have determined the outcome long before you got in your car. In this case there is a dual benefit. First the article of very good points, and second a higher level of vigilance on your behalf. (It has happened to all of us, by the way - worst is when you travel 4 hours in a plane to have it happen. Such things remind you what you should have done in the first place, but they are expensive and frustrating lessons. I do feel for you in this experience!). {Another quick lesson from this? NEVER let your friends sell you or represent you. In by far the majority of times it works out for the worst. Getting contacts, spreading the good word about you and establishing new networks is fantastic - never stop doing that. But when it gets to the pointy end of discussions (e.g. meeting with the Director who will make the decision) you need to take complete responsibility and control for/of everything that is occuring.} edit at least one spellink erra

ng_kai_choy
ng_kai_choy

Let me see if I get this: that guy in New Jersey says, "Calvin, come up for this meeting, because we want to learn more." Then you go there, and his boss says, "Sorry, we're not interested"? If that's what happened, it's ridiculous. Why didn't that guy check with his boss beforehand? Not only that, the meeting didn't just waste your time--it wasted their time as well.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Let's look at it from a different perspective, via a hypothetical situation. Suppose, a few days after the meeting, the boss called or e-mailed me and said, "Calvin, we're disappointed that you wasted our time. That meeting should never have occurred." What would you say about the validity of her concern? That was the point I was trying to make earlier. Paradoxically, I think BOTH points are true: yes, I should have checked before going ahead with the meeting, but also, they were wrong if they thought it was my fault. I should have checked because I was the one coming the a long way away. On the other hand, THEY should have checked my material simply because they had it, and also because four of them were involved. They had something to lose in terms of time, and they had a chance to avoid the waste of time. I guess it's a matter, to use a legal analogy, of comparative negligence: both sides are at fault, yes? lol Why does the phrase "make lemons out of lemonade" come to mind?

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Thanks for those points. I never denied that it was my responsibility. But thankfully, I never had to take an airplane in the process. I agree I should have done more. On the other hand, are they completely blameless? I agree that the impact on them is small IF (note the emphasis) the only person I met with was my contact. In that case, only he had a loss of productivity. But, that wasn't the case. He had three other people from his company in the meeting. Think, therefore, of the time and effort: he had to coordinate calendars, schedule the meeting, make phone calls and send e-mails etc. On top of that, he "had the ball" i.e. he had my information. Do you think he could have checked with those people beforehand to see if THEY thought a meeting was worthwhile? In other words, he had the last clear chance to avoid wasting everyone's time. Again, as I said, I find it strange, given the number of people on their side involved, that no one (apparently) reviewed my material beforehand. Wouldn't you have expected something like that to happen? Thanks.

Shellbot
Shellbot

If I am the one setting up a meeting, I always make sure to have it just before lunch. :) Everyone is hungry and wants to get out ofthe meeting, so the BS is usually kept to a minimum. Can occasonally backfire..but generally works for keeping the meeting on time

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Yup, that's basically it lol. I sent background information about myself to this person, and then a few days later he said to come up for a meeting. Now let's not be too hard on them, because that fiasco DID give me the idea for this article.

ralph.wahrlich
ralph.wahrlich

I am certainly on Calvin's side here. It's pretty fair to expect everyone involved to have communicated properly, and in a timely fashion. Clearly that didn't happen in the NJ company. Either... - the person who had Calvin's notes didn't pass them around to their colleagues; and/or - their colleagues didn't brief themselves properly. Either way, they were slack. Calvin shouldn't have to chase them up, to see if they've read through her material; it's just elementary to have done so. Why else would she have sent it through beforehand? I doubt Calvin would have agreed to make a 4 hour (minimum) round-trip, without being careful to provide beforehand to the company with a very complete picture of what she could offer. It seems to me that the NJ company were slack, and wasted Calvin's time. :-)

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

First, I should think the manager thinks your friend is at fault for setting up the meeting in the first instance. Your friend should have known more / better about their internal situation and requirements and ensured that all were on the same page. That's how I'd think the manager is viewing the situation. Second, IF the manager called you back, this is a perfect manner in which to resell yourself. Example to respond to your "hypo"-call: "Thank you for telling me that, and I am sorry as this is not the experience that I wish to be a part of. I too am disappointed as I effectively lost a half-day of work. The objective I understood you were trying to acheive was XX/YY/ZZ and I felt I could offer a beneficial point of view. What did you understand the objectives to be?" The aim is, the quicker you apologise and then [b]get the client talking[/b], you can actually change this around. From their answer you have the opportunity to move the conversation in many ways. You may just get the opportunity to repitch, when you understand the true objectives of the manager. There are 100 alternate responses that you could use, mostly variations on the theme, that enable you to put the manager in charge (so to speak), appease their ego for taking out their time, and getting them talking about their business. Because until you get the decision maker talking about their business problem / objective / budget / timeframe / alternate solutions etc. etc. , your chances of the engagement are slim. The other alternative is for you to make the call back to her. Your choice of an apologetic approach or an aggressive approach is according to your own character and circumstance. Either would potentially work although I would suggest the apologetic / self-deprecating approach is usually more successful. Otherwise, if you're fully booked out for the next 6 - 12 months, who cares? But hypothetically, she is very cute, single, completely horny and the only reason she wasted her time to call you up again was she wants a hot date. Good luck!! :)

arvindkumark
arvindkumark

Well, this happens to everyone. I guess there is no solution to this problem. No matter how well you qualify a prospect, meetings can always go wrong like this. In most of the situations I have faced, I would have established value with my contact. But it?s when the idea reaches the BOSS....it gets shot down!!! We can continue to debate on why the BOSS would do this, but in the end, this is an inevitable process. There can?t be a solution unless; the prospects who insist on a physical meeting understand the value of time ? both theirs & ours. Alternatively, sometimes reaching the senior management directly does help in setting up meaningful meetings.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

Fundamentally, yes, they contributed. You would naturally assume that there would be some balance on their side to ask the questions you put forward. But you don't know all the background so you can't be sure. Maybe the manager had a bad hair day. Maybe the manager can't stand your friend and wanted to shoot him down in flames. Maybe, had you spoken to the manager, you may have presented your information in a different manner or aiming at a slightly different priority/problem and had more success. Who knows? Re breifing materials for meetings: In my experience, it is a rare thing that people read the background / intro material from subordinates. In the heirarchy, my experience says tha tthe general rule is "if it came from above, I read. If from below, I ignore". If a subordinate puts breifing or background information forward, it is not likely to be read unless it relates immediately to a personal win for, or imminent danger/threat to, the manager. The higher level person goes to the meeting expecting an immediate precis of what the situation is. They don't typically go having read the material. That is my experience anyway.

ng_kai_choy
ng_kai_choy

TIME OUT... wait just a minute. That's fine that you got the idea for this article--and yes, it's a good article. But there's something I think you're either missing or are too polite to point out--they totally messed up. How did they make the decision to go ahead with the meeting? Did it just happen by default? Did that guy give your stuff to his boss? If he didn't, he messed up. Did his boss ask for it? If she didn't, or if she did but he didn't respond, she messed up. If she did get it but didn't read it, she still messed up. They had your marketing stuff, right? It was up to them to decide whether to invite you to the meeting, right? Yes, OK, maybe you could have called them about whether the meeting should occur or not. But it was really up to them to say "wait a minute, we don't need this meeting."

ng_kai_choy
ng_kai_choy

Your right, it sounds like some internal dynamics issues. It sounds like, they aren't "all on the same page" (the New Jersey company). I wonder if that staff person got bawled out by the director for wasting her time and his co-workers' time.

ssharkins
ssharkins

It's common for consultants to not charge for initial meetings -- you can't charge for "getting business" and all that, but this is a good example of how you can adjust your fee schedule to avoid this kind of problem. Most of my initial contacts come via email and I'm very strict about phone calls and meetings -- I go on the clock almost immediately, but that's the nature of what I do. I know it isn't that simple for others. I typically take on very small development projects -- people making the big bucks aren't going to get away with this I'm afraid -- but the truth is, I've not had a single client resist. If a client really needs to see me face to face or talk with me on the phone, they best be ready to hire me. At that point, they really do have enough information to decide -- they've seen my credentials, they've seen my initial responses and suggestions to their problem via email -- The truth is, I rarely end up charging them -- I list the contact as "No Charge" on their initial statement, but it does seem to weed out the less serious contacts. Just a thought. I think the more common virtual development becomes, the easier it will be to avoid lengthy face to face contacts. Of course, these kinds of disappointments explain high fees. Frankly, sounds like you're better off -- that kind of nonsense is a sign of deeper problems.

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