So last week I promised a post on building a better meeting. For this first part I’m going to focus on questions of structure. In a subsequent post I’ll look more deeply at questions of substance. And for the record, I in no way have mastered all of these tactics, but I’m working on it!
Let’s start with length. No meeting should last longer than 1.5 hours and many can be much shorter. Even if you have a full docket, schedule several shorter meetings. Even under the most charismatic leadership, after ninety minutes attention wanes, focus wanders, and discussion becomes unproductive. Bad decisions often get made when everybody is tired and just wants to get.out.of.there. Now certainly this rule can be bent if you are close to a resolution or have only a minor issue left to address. And no, at first people won’t enjoy having more, but shorter meetings, but once you demonstrate that these meetings will be focused and productive, you stand a good chance of winning them over to your ways.
Agenda. Please have one. I am amazed at the number of people who have told me that one of their meeting pet peeves is the lack of an agenda. And circulate that agenda in advance so that participants will be prepped and ready to dive in.
Frontload the agenda. There are various ways to do this. I realized that in our department meetings we always saved the general announcements for the end. Which meant that nobody paid attention because everyone was tired by then. So I moved announcements to the top of the agenda. Beyond that tweak, put the hefty, need-lots-of-discussion items at the beginning of the meeting. You want people’s best energies and attention being spent on the most important topics.
Manage the agenda and the time. Honor people’s time. There are probably few things more frustrating than sitting in meeting that feels like a waste of your time. So as convener, you have responsibilities. Begin by starting the meeting on time. I’m dazzled–and frustrated–by how many meetings don’t begin on time. It’s an insult to the people who are punctual. If the meeting starts at 3pm, it starts at 3pm.
Keep the agenda moving. While discussion is important and one of the goals of a meeting is for individuals to have a chance to weigh in, you have a responsibility to move things along when they have stalled. Depending on the circumstances there are various ways to do this. Call for a vote if you think that further conversation isn’t going to move people in their positions on an issue. Resolve to do further research or gather more information about an issue that will help the group to make a decision at a future meeting. Say that discussion will continue for xx more minutes and that then you will move forward (see below for other timekeeping ideas). If it feels like people are just repeating themselves say that you will open the floor for comments from anyone who hasn’t spoken yet and that otherwise, everyone has had a chance to make their case. If necessary, formally table a discussion (see discussion of Robert’s Rules below) for a future meeting.
To aid you in the management of time and agenda, indicate a set period of time for each agenda item. For example: “Revising the major (30 minutes), scheduling office hours (10 minutes), etc.” This keeps you on a schedule but also sends several important messages to participants: (1) time will be managed so this meeting will be a productive use of their time and (2) certain items will not be belabored. The time limits do not have to be written in stone. Clearly, if a lively and productive discussion about revising the major occurs, you can go for 40 instead of 30 minutes.
Robert’s Rules of Order. While there is always that person who is a bit obsessive about the application of these rules (you know who I’m talking about!), they are an excellent guide, and they provide structure and options when a meeting is turning into a quagmire. Not all meetings require this much structure, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to agree as a unit that when necessary the Rules can be invoked.
These guidelines can really be boiled down to one bit of advice: use time efficiently and effectively. The specifics outlined above are just some strategies for making that happen. In the next installment I’ll explore the content of meetings in more detail and examine how to create a meeting with substance.