• Andy Cairns

Andy's Guide to Effective Meetings

"Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead." Jason Fried, Rework

Meetings are toxic. There are few things that destroy productivity more consistently than meetings. They disrupt the natural flow of your day and usually convey a tiny amount of information per minute. Meetings frequently have incredibly vague agendas so that no-one really knows what’s happening and tend to easily drift off subject.

Productive meetings require preparation but people rarely have time to do what it takes to get the most out of them. To reduce the amount of prep needed, I’ve put together a set of guidelines which, if followed, will make all of our lives easier.

Remember, these are guidelines, not rules. Every situation is different and you might have to ignore some of the points below. However, your life (and, more importantly, mine) can be improved enormously by following as many of these guidelines as you can.

Before the meeting

Guideline 1 – Decide if a meeting is necessary

Here’s the general rule of thumb for this guideline: it’s not. Meetings should only be held in exceptional circumstances. They are the least efficient way of providing or capturing information. If you can meet your objectives using email, IM or a 1-to-1 chat, do that. Only use meetings as a last resort when other methods won’t work.

Guideline 2 – Invite only people who will contribute

If you decide a meeting is absolutely necessary for you, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessary for the 20 people you’re planning on inviting. You should only invite people to a meeting if they’re going to contribute to the discussion. Anyone who needs to know the content/results of the meeting can read the minutes in their own time.

Guideline 3 – Write the objectives and agenda for the meeting in the invitation

Without clear objectives and talking points, the meeting will very easily descend into 60 minutes of whatever is on the mind of the attendees at the time they joined the meeting. This means that importance is given to subjects that may have resolved themselves if not for the coincidental timing of the meeting. A set agenda helps the chairperson maintain control of the discussion and keep the meeting time productive. It can also be helpful to include any background information or pre-reads so that you don’t have to spend time during the meeting bringing everyone up to speed.

Guideline 4 – Keep it short

The default timeslice in Outlook is 30 minutes. Most people think that you need an hour to have a meaningful discussion. If you always schedule your meetings for 30 minutes or an hour, they will always take 30 minutes or an hour. Always plan for a meeting to take 10 minutes. This might seem ridiculous at first. However, with the help of the other guidelines, you should be able to get in and out before you know it.

Guideline 5 – Don’t ever be afraid to cancel a meeting – you’re not letting people down, you’re giving them back their time.

If a key contributor can’t attend, it’s tempting to carry on without them. If this is possible, why were they invited in the first place? Are you going to have to repeat the meeting when you can’t get the answers you need without them?

Similarly, if you managed to capture enough information between sending the invitation and the start of the meeting that you don’t need to discuss anything further, don’t keep the meeting just because it’s in the calendar.

During the meeting

Guideline 6 – All attention should be on the meeting

Attendees who are focused on laptops and smartphones are not participating in the meeting. Everyone in the meeting should be asked to put away devices and participate fully in the meeting.

Guideline 7 – Complex descriptions work better with pictures

This guideline is especially important for conference calls. Instead of spending 20 minutes explaining a complex topic, send a diagram with the agenda and people will understand your point quicker. Similarly, if you’re communicating a lengthy piece of information, a bulleted summary of the main points will help you and the attendees stay focused and you won’t have to repeat anything.

Guideline 8 – Simple subjects don’t need PowerPoint

On the flipside of the previous guideline, not every meeting needs a diagram or bullet points. If the subject is simple enough and the attendees are up to speed, you don’t need to spend time preparing elaborate presentations. There’s nothing wrong with just talking if the subject is simple enough.

Guideline 9 – Start the meeting on time

As a chairperson, you need to start the meeting on time. As an attendee, you need to join the meeting on time. Spending the first 10 minutes of a meeting waiting on people to join, or having to repeat key points to someone who missed them the first time is a waste of everyone’s time. If a key attendee hasn’t joined before they’re needed, reschedule the meeting and make it clear to the attendees why you’ve had to do it.

Guideline 10 – No small talk

Starting a meeting by asking about everyone’s weekend is no different to starting a meeting late. Get to the productive discussion as soon as possible. You can assume that we’re all doing well, we had a lovely weekend (but it was too short) and we’re as shocked as you are about what happened on Game of Thrones.

Guideline 11 – The chairperson needs to control the flow of the meeting

Running a meeting is a difficult job. Despite communicating a clear set of objectives and agenda items, people are people and they’ll deviate (consciously or not) from the plan at every possible opportunity. It’s the job of the chairperson to reign in any conversation that won’t help to meet the objectives of the discussion. Don’t be afraid to stop people from talking, but do it politely. At least the first couple of times.

Guideline 12 – If you finish the agenda early, end the meeting

Parkinson’s Law is the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" and it’s never more true than in a meeting. As you get closer to the end of the agenda and still have time on the clock, people tend to linger more on certain subjects or try to raise additional subjects for discussion. If these subjects warranted the time of all the people in the meeting, they would have been on the agenda in the first place.

Guideline 13 – If you get to the end of the scheduled time, end the meeting

Without the constraints of time, meetings can drag on indefinitely. This is the whole reason for setting an end time in the first place. Any subjects not covered during the allocated time can be taken offline or scheduled into another meeting.

Guideline 14 – If a new subject is raised during the meeting, add it to the end of the agenda – don’t start discussing it straight away

It is possible that someone will absolutely insist that a new subject is covered during the meeting. If this is the case, add it to the end of the agenda so that you still have a chance of meeting your objectives.

After the meeting

Guideline 15 – If a meeting isn’t documented, it didn’t happen

Always write minutes. Send them to the attendees of the meeting for comments. Once all comments have been received and integrated, send the minutes to anyone who needs to know the content but was lucky enough not to have been invited to the meeting.

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