10 things you can do to organize and lead effective meetings

It's easy to disparage those tedious meetings that are run by someone else--but are your own meetings any more useful and productive? These pointers will help ensure that your colleagues don't cringe every time they receive a meeting notice with your name on it.

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In "10 things you can do to turn useless meetings into productive ones," we suggested ways you can add value to the meetings you attend, even when the organizer isn't entirely on top of the proceedings. These suggestions, though, can go only so far in correcting a derailed meeting. It's far easier to take corrective steps while planning and leading a meeting, assuming you have control over the process. The following tips will help you conduct your meetings so that they're productive, effective, and interesting.

#1: Know why you called the meeting

We accept meetings as a fixture of modern business. Unfortunately, not all fixtures are created equal. In fact, some have almost no purpose beyond the ritual consumption of paper and time.

Do not allow your meeting to fall into the ritual consumption category. Spend five minutes before you send out the meeting invitation to formulate, in 10 words or less, exactly why you need everyone's time. Write your reason down and then set it aside. Review the reason an hour later; if it still seems valid, go ahead and send out the invitations.

Ritual consumption may work for sacred cows but it's not good for meeting organizers.

#2: Know what action you expect from the meeting

Meetings draw people away from their daily tasks and into a closed, influenced environment. As the organizer, you have the attendee's attention. It's up to you to use that attention wisely. The moment you squander it, the meeting grinds to a halt.

Do not squander others' time. Instead, spend a few minutes before the meeting trying to answer the following question: "What do I expect the attendees to DO at the end of this meeting?" Try to formulate your answer in 10 words or less.

Knowing what you want from others makes it much easier for them to give it to you. Otherwise, everyone tries to engage in mind-reading with depressingly predictable results.

#3: ever send a meeting to do a conversation's work

Electronic messaging systems give us the power to invite everyone and everything in the organization to meetings. The power to do something, though, does not make it a wise or even a correct choice.

If you need to speak to only one or two of the meeting's attendees, just go to their cubes and have a conversation. It takes less time, communicates more information, and establishes that "personal touch" everyone claims has vanished from modern business.

And hey, if worse comes to worst, you can always IM the person while you're in someone else's meeting.

#4: Designate someone you trust to take the minutes

The power to designate action items is the power to change the world. Okay, maybe not quite. But it is the real power to be had in a modern business meeting. As the meeting organizer, you want to make sure this power rests either in your hands or in the hands of someone you trust.

An amazing number of meeting organizers seem averse to taking their own meeting minutes. "It's secretarial" or "It's too much paperwork," they say. However, the minutes become the permanent record of what was agreed to and decided on. Take the minutes and circulate them yourself or have a trusted associate do the honors.

Oh, and you do not have to write down everything said at the table. A list of action items and agreed to dates will suffice.

#5: Establish the rules of order

All meetings, large or small, involve people interacting to achieve one or more goals. In a perfect world, these interactions would spontaneously organize themselves. Everyone would respect one another's time. Comments would emerge in an organized fashion. Action items would surface and be agreed on, and the group would move to the next point.

Back in the real world, we need ways to stay organized and on track. You do not have to adopt Robert's Rules of Order, but you should know the ground rules by which the meeting will be run. If your organization doesn't have rules of order, make some. Share them with others and follow them.

Chaos happens, but you do not have to let it ruin an otherwise-productive meeting.

#6: Start on time, end early

There are a wide variety of ways to waste time before a meeting begins... and that's before we even start thinking about wireless networking. Similarly, all but the most focused meeting will run into distractions and other "personality issues."

When you schedule the meeting, deliberately ask for more time than you think you need. Generally a half-hour pad will cover most tangents or quirks. Try to start within three minutes of your beginning time. Then, end the meeting when you achieve your actual goals (see points 1 and 2 ).

People rarely, if ever, complain about meetings ending early. The same cannot be said for meetings that drag on without any hope of resolution.

#7: Maintain focus

It never fails. In every meeting, someone derails the discussion with a host of interesting tangents. Sometimes these tangents relate to the topic at hand. More often, though, they affect it only indirectly. In either case, the time spent on them detracts from the meeting's real goal.

Do not let this happen to your meeting. Stop tangents as they form. Cut off speakers who want to ramble on about related but unimportant issues. Develop and maintain a reputation as a hard, organized meeting leader so that people don't challenge your authority during the meeting itself.

Yes, people will become upset at first. However, in the long run, even the people you cut off will eventually appreciate your attempts to avoid wasting their time.

#8: Assign action items at the end

The meeting ends, someone cleans up the conference room, and... then what?

Begin assigning action items at the first moment of consensus. Start at the top of your list of agreed-to items. In some cases, a participant will have agreed to the action item already; in other cases, you will have to assign it to someone on the spot. Either way, get verbal acknowledgment from each participant that he or she understands and accepts the action item.

Action items speak louder than words when it comes to ending meetings.

#9: Verify agreements

If the power of a meeting rests in its action items, the long-term effect of a meeting often comes from the agreements reached during the course of discussion. These agreements help guide both the meeting's action items and future interactions among the participants.

Take a minute at the end of the meeting to summarize what you agreed to. Record it in the minutes just under those action items you assigned. This allows you to verify that you properly understood the agreement and that the meeting attendees reached a consensus on the issue.

Consensus and agreement are not bad words; they just get badly misused.

#10: Follow up with assignments and agreements

As a general rule, people remember the hurt feelings, annoyances, and frustrations of a meeting rather than whatever work got done. As meeting organizers, we generally help this negative association by not following up with the participants after the meeting comes to an end.

Spend a few minutes with each meeting participant after you send out the meeting minutes. Answer any questions they might have. This personal touch may seem quaint, but it makes a huge difference in how well people react the next time you call them to a meeting.

Nothing is a substitute for good manners.

By following these simple tips, you can run a more effective meeting. Be warned, though: Effectiveness sometimes attracts notice. Notice leads to responsibility; responsibility leads to risk; risk leads to success; and success leads to even more work.