A dreary meeting isn't just a source of suffering for participants, it's an expensive waste of time
Meetings have the potential to be the most exciting and productive part of
the working day: opportunities to feed off and inspire one another, to reach
decisions and devise plans that will help your firm do its job better.
Too often, though, they are a form of torture, when just a little forethought
could banish the least worthwhile meetings and bring life to the ones that
matter. Remember, a one-hour meeting involving eight people is the equivalent of
one person toiling for an entire day. For any meeting – a regular team meeting,
a project kick-off, or a meeting to solve a problem – 15 minutes spent on
planning could save a world of wasted time later.
A good way to start is to specify what outcomes the meeting should achieve.
Many meetings are held simply from habit: ‘We’ve always had a team meeting,’ or
‘we usually meet for something like this’. Starting with clearly defined
outcomes allows you to plan and run a more focused, less boring meeting.
Outcomes are usually either action-based, for example, deciding between
options, initiating procedural change, or planning – or people-focused, for
example enabling active cooperation between members of a group, or establishing
someone as an authority or resource in an area.
With specified outcomes, you can check if the meeting is necessary: are the
outcomes genuinely important and is a meeting really the best way to achieve
them? Meetings are usually only justified when discussion or personal contact is
crucial to the required outcome, or the personal appearance of a senior person
is needed to demonstrate significance or commitment.
In larger organisations, meetings are needed to introduce people or keep them
in touch so they feel comfortable about contacting each other directly.
Otherwise, think about better ways to achieve your specific outcomes – a memo,
an email discussion, a request (with deadline) for comments that you can
collate, or just phoning people individually.
If a meeting really is your best option, design it to help the participants
achieve the outcomes. Schedule it before lunch if you can – most people are more
alert in the morning. Between two o’clock and four o’clock in the afternoon is
the worst slot for people’s concentration, and aim for a ten-minute break per
hour for lengthy meetings.
You may need to approach some people individually first to prepare them.
Remember that people need interaction to stay engaged in the meeting, so avoid
If the outcome is to keep members of a team in touch, the meeting will work
best if people can say interesting things and respond to each other, rather than
simply show up while one person does all the talking. Make regular meetings
about genuine exchange of information. For example, a current challenge and
identification of a colleague who could help, and set a time limit on each
Conversely, if someone is delivering news from above and only has time to
address a large group, be explicit that this is a presentation, not a
discussion. Depending on the outcome you want, provide a contact for further
questions or schedule smaller follow-ups for people to agree implications for
Between eight and 10 people is the maximum number that can realistically take
part in a discussion. Beyond that, some people will simply fall silent. Be
ruthless when planning your meeting – aim to invite only those with the
expertise or authority to help achieve the outcomes. If many people really need
to be involved, it is vital to break them into small groups for any discussion
Good planning should limit the boredom, but the meeting is still, ultimately,
a waste of time if decisions made aren’t followed through. The meeting is really
only finished when the actions are complete, so keep on tracking progress until
every box is ticked. That’s when you have really made your meeting work.
When you set up the meeting, circulating the agenda is the most effective way
to let the participants know that it has a focus. List each item on the agenda
and assign an approximate time and don’t be too ambitious. Identify any
preparatory work required to support each item and send it out in advance, with
An agenda will not, however, serve any purpose unless the meeting is chaired
with a mixture of courtesy and firmness.
That means sticking to the agenda, unless a startling contribution renders it
irrelevant –which is extremely rare – and inviting people, politely, to discuss
other issues later, outside the meeting.
If chairing meetings makes you sweat, or if you want to concentrate on
providing your specialist expertise in the meeting, you can always ask a
colleague or an outside professional to do it for you. There is plenty of
training available if you want to make it easier on yourself in the future.
There will need to be some record of the meeting, but minutes are often a
waste of time as nobody reads them. Action points, however, are essential for
any meeting where decisions are made. These should be explicitly agreed, with
each decision or action point clarified and written up or read out loud before
moving onto the next. Just as important is to assign a person or people and a
due date to each one before the end of the meeting.
After the meeting, someone should be assigned to circulate the action points
–with their people and their due dates – within 24 hours, to sustain momentum.
Julia Bindman is a strategy consultant