How to run meetings that reduce the need for meetings

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Meetings in large and small businesses alike consume a lot of time, and while they are valuable for getting team members, customers, suppliers, employees and management on the same page, they can inadvertently consume time that could (ironically) be spent productively. Ever heard the jokes people make – “another meeting about a meeting”? That’s because this really happens. That’s the frustration people face when they are pulled away from their work to sit in meetings that are either not necessary or where they are not really required.

Online there is a plethora of advice, rules, guidelines and opinions about how meetings should be conducted. I prefer using my own experience and going to academic resources for things like this because there is generally some form of formal research behind the content. Harvard Business Review discusses some ground rules for meetings, for e.g. the creation of “behavioural ground rules” which include things like “make statements and ask genuine questions” and “explain your reasoning and intent.” In other words, don’t beat about the bush and make it clear why you said or asked something. All good ground rules (and there are more). But the issue I have with this is that in larger organisations, meetings are a norm and occur with the same people on a regular basis, so ground rules are easy to institute. Small businesses cannot have this as a norm and so, setting ground rules in every meeting will consume too much time up front and probably irritate most people attending them. For this reason I have narrowed down some ‘meeting rules’ that I believe are more realistic and that do not only apply to meetings held on a weekly basis by the same teams (where it may be easier to have a set of rules that everyone gets used to applying).

Given the actual nature of smaller businesses, the following rules would be more applicable:

  1. When organising a meeting, ONLY invite the relevant decision-makers, not the decision-maker and co.
  2. State up front why the meeting is going to happen with the agenda so that attendees know what to expect, can prioritise the meeting and if they cannot attend they will know exactly who to send in their place
  3. Where possible, try make it clear what they will be expected to address in the meeting so that attendees can prepare
  4. At the start of the meeting have everyone BRIEFLY introduce themselves and state why they are in the meeting – if the correct attendees are there, this should be quick
  5. State the reason for the meeting as set out in the invite and be clear on an expected outcome at the start
  6. Assign someone to take minutes (obvious, but overlooked by many)
  7. During the meeting, use specific, realistic examples, not hypothetical situations. I have left many meetings where hypothetical situations are interpreted as examples and not seen as required actions items – “oh, I didn’t know I needed to do that, I thought she was just saying…”
  8. Explain reasoning and intent. Not everyone sees the world in the same way and making your reasoning and intent clear when stating something or asking a question gives others context and avoids confusion
  9. Speak up – when you have a question or don’t understand something, say so. You might not be the only one with the question or confusion and you may help others that are too shy to ask
  10. Watch the time – don’t let the meeting run over and leave time for ‘action items’
  11. Jointly decide on next steps – also known as action items from the meeting. Be clear on the take-away points from the meeting and be clear on what the expectations are from each attendee after the meeting is adjourned.
  12. Send a follow up mail with action items – this is not only polite and informative for those who legitimately missed the meeting, but it also puts action items on black and white for accountability.

The list seems long, but if you understand these points and practice them, then there is no need to implement ‘ground rules for meetings’ in the company. This is something that any person can learn and take to any meeting they need to. I have seen it done and done it myself at meetings that I didn’t even organise. It’s not a set of rules that is read aloud before the meeting, rather a way of conducting the meetings.

The aim is to reduce the physical meeting time, exclude unnecessary attendees, optimise and maximise the output of the meeting from the input of the attendees and finally create action items that reduce the probability of having to meet again. In other words, run meetings that will eliminate future meetings.

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