The meeting. It’s almost become a punchline to an office joke, usually representing endless hours of poorly utilized time, useless presentations, and lost productivity. It doesn’t have to be this way. Done well, meetings utilize the power of the people in the room to make rapid decisions, create innovative new ideas, and drive work forward. Here are five tips for creating more of the latter.

1. Create a culture of effective meetings

Like anything in the workplace, how meetings are run is often driven by cultural norms. In companies where everyone has an open calendar, and a decision on where to go for lunch is usually preceded by an all-hands meeting, nearly everyone is awash in hour-long, meandering discussions that masquerade as meetings. As a leader, it’s your job to set the tone. Rather than an overabundance of what amounts to status reporting or meandering discussions, start demanding that meetings are a tool of last resort when email, one-on-one and small group conversations, and informal discussion are not generating the right result. Merely asking, “What’s the expected outcome of this meeting?” at the start, and ending the meeting if it’s ill-defined or could be better solved through another channel, will start changing the tone immediately.

SEE: Leadership spotlight: How to make meetings worthwhile (Tech Pro Research)

2. Have an objective

It’s shocking how many meetings don’t have a true objective. You can usually spot this when the organizer begins the meeting with a statement like “I just wanted to get this group together to share…” or a similarly vague notion. Merely sharing status or information is generally easily accomplished through other channels, just as getting two or three people together is better done in an information setting without a half dozen optional attendees. As a meeting participant, you should know what problem is being solved, or what key activity a meeting is uniquely suited to advance. As the organizer, the objective should be thought through before you hit send on that meeting invite.

3. Share your expectations

The world is loaded with meeting tips and practices from various companies. However, each of us processes information differently. You may demand a detailed agenda for a five-minute conversation, while I am happy to engage in a meandering 45-minute brainstorming session. When invited to a meeting, share your expectations around what value you expect to bring to the meeting, and what materials and format you expect. You’ll accomplish two things: first, you may determine that your participation isn’t needed or there’s a better way to accomplish the objective, and second, you’ll guide meeting preparation so that it creates the most effective format for key decision makers.

4. Cater to the attendees

Similar to the above tip, when you’re leading a meeting don’t apply the exact same process to every meeting. Rather, cater the format, duration, and content to the audience that’s in the room. The CFO might appreciate data-heavy slides and a deep dive into the numbers, while a strategy executive wants the big picture and expansive vision of the future. If you’re not sure what style will resonate best, simply ask key individuals or people who have presented to them in the past what worked and what didn’t. Most people appreciate the fact that you’re taking the time to plan and make the meeting as effective as possible, and are more than happy to share their expectations.

SEE: How to Optimize the Smart Office (ZDNet special feature)| Download it as a PDF (TechRepublic)

5. Be flexible

I’m frequently shocked by presenters who stick to their planned presentation at all costs, even when the audience is telling them it’s not helpful. I’ve seen meetings where the audience has clearly tuned out, and finally someone is kind enough to say, “This isn’t what we need,” only to have the presenter respond, “Let me just finish the last 48 slides.” No one is awarding points to you for finishing your agenda, and I’ve often led highly successful meetings where we change direction in the first 90 seconds and don’t even get past the title slide of my carefully prepared presentation. Stay attuned to the needs of your audience, and keep your ultimate objective in mind. There are usually multiple paths to the same objective, and just because the path you carefully mapped out isn’t the one the group ultimately takes does not make the meeting any less successful.

With a culture of thoughtful preparation, and careful attention paid to a meeting’s objective and attendees, not only will your team hold fewer meetings, but the ones that occur will likely be far more effective. This can create a virtuous circle where people are left with more productive time and ultimately accomplish more productive work within the same working hours.

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