7 proven practices to make meetings more effective plus out-of-the-conference-room approaches to try

My post last month on the “return on effort” approach to meetings, mentioned that I would be sharing some novel meeting formats and a few favorite practices to make meetings more effective, especially in a small business environment. These are all habits that I have found especially useful when – in addition to the specific purpose of the moment – you want to use meetings to enable steady progress by your employees, assign tasks, or delegate  authority.

Why does this matter to a small business? My experience is that improvements in meeting practices can help even high-performing teams increase the “return on effort,” which translates into improvements in day-to-day operations and can even make the difference between success and failure of growth initiatives – especially those that require actions beyond business as usual.

First seven tried-and-true practices:

1. Don’t have a meeting unless you need one! Sometimes more informal, relaxed approaches work better. Spending 10 minutes one-on-one with six people to get their individual views on an issue rather than getting all six into a 60-minute meeting for the same purpose will save time (120 people-minutes versus 420 people-minutes) and may be more effective, especially if you are looking for unconventional wisdom. Even in bigger groups it can be better to have a conversation rather than hold a meeting.

2. Set the agenda in advance. An agenda can be a formal document or a quick email depending on the scale, scope and schedule for an individual meeting or series of meetings. Send it in advance so people know what to expect and how to prepare. This HBR Blog by Anthony Tjan offers good and simple guidance  for constructing an agenda.

For example, “the purpose of the meeting is to get final input on the proposals for a new CRM system. Marketing, sales and customer service will each have 10 minutes to present a list of pros and cons for each option based on their own needs.” Try sending the agenda as a draft, when you want to invite others to contribute ideas to it.

3. Provide information to fuel the conversation. For example, if you are in the midst of strategic planning and having a meeting regarding the SWOT analysis, send background information in advance on the strengths and weaknesses as well as the opportunities and threats you want to discuss along with some questions for attendees to use in preparing for the meeting. For routine meetings such as monthly management meetings or annual employee reviews, it can save time and increase “return on effort” to standardize these items.

4. Make sure participants are mentally as well as physically present. Engaging everyone can be challenging. Start by asking participants to put aside the other things on their minds and, for a long meeting, assure them that there will be breaks. Ask everyone to put phones on vibrate as a cue that the meeting is starting or review the agenda to create focus. Exceptions will come up; handle them with professional understanding, excitement, or sympathy depending on the circumstances. Throughout the meeting keep an eye on participants’ body language, attitude and participation as well as your own.

5. Keep meetings short. While there are times when a long meeting is necessary, make sure there is a good reason. Meetings that last over an hour tax the attention spans of all involved. If you have 90 minutes worth of work and schedules permit, consider breaking it into a one-hour meeting on Tuesday followed by a 30-minute conclusion on Wednesday. Preparation such as sending a good agenda and background information in advance can substantially reduce the duration of meetings.

6. Assign “next steps.” Unless the meeting marks the end of a process, make sure that follow up assignments with due dates are made at the end of the meeting. If need be, send a recap email to make sure that everyone is aware of the new tasks. If another get together is needed with the same group, schedule it before the meeting concludes.

7. Do your homework and expect others to do theirs. Effective meetings often require substantial preparation and follow up. Lack of either can reduce or eliminate what could be a substantial “return on effort.” Set a good example by coming well prepared and following through on any “next steps” assigned to you.

In addition to the practices above, be willing to experiment with other approaches to increasing the effectiveness of your meetings. Some of these interesting ideas might work for you:

Borrow some ideas from Google to get around the burdens of refining notes, long meetings, political maneuvering, and other challenges.

Walk rather than sit to encourage healthy discussion along with healthy bodies.

Stand rather than sit to keep meetings short and to the point.

Which of these practices, formats, or ideas are you using? Which sound interesting enough to try? What else has helped in your company make meetings more effective? Let me know.

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2013. All rights reserved.

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