When I visit software organizations, I often hear complaints that we spend too much time in meetings. Many people spend a significant portion of each day in meetings. Wouldn't it be great to give some of that time back?
Be Clear on the Purpose of the Meeting
If there isn't a goal, a meeting usually doesn't help. Bring people together when you have a specific goal or purpose for the meeting. My rule of thumb is to have one and only one purpose for a meeting. If you feel you have to have two purposes in the meeting, separate them within the meeting. Give each issue a time limit and after that issue has been solved declare that part of the meeting over.
Then move on to problem solving. Prioritize the problems and excuse the people not directly involved in the problems you intend to cover. If you start problem solving on the first issue, you may not be able to get to the most important issues. Most likely, the people not directly involved in solving the specific problem will feel their time is not well spent.
Have a Plan
An agenda helps lay out the steps you'll go through to accomplish the purpose of the meeting. Distributing an agenda beforehand allows people time to prepare or to assess whether their attendance at the meeting will add value. The agenda might look like this:
- Review decision criteria from June meeting (5 minutes)
- Site visit summary and assessment from Vendor 1, Vendor A, Vendor Q (20 minutes each)
- [break] (10 minutes)
- Review ranking process (5 minutes)
- Rank vendors against criteria (60 minutes)
- Next steps-actions and assignments (15 minutes)
- Meeting wrap-up (10 minutes)
An over-stuffed agenda is a common problem. I saw a meeting agenda that listed twenty topics for a one-hour meeting. Three minutes per discussion topic might be reasonable—or it might not. Thinking through the agenda will help avoid the horrible, rolling agenda problem: when we don't finish the agenda, we roll those items into the next week. So we have an overstuffed agenda again!
Invite the Right People
Invite the people needed to accomplish the purpose of the meeting. If the goal of the meeting is to make a decision, are the people who have the responsibility and authority to make the decision in the room? Don't complicate matters and muddy the meeting by including innocent bystanders.
Decide if a Meeting Is Really Needed
It really helps to have a group together to understand all sides of a complex problem, reach a group decision, generate ideas or alternatives, and solve problems. If the purpose of the meeting is to disseminate information, an email might suffice, unless the information is emotionally charged. Very few people will be upset if you reduce the number of meetings on their calendar.
Consider replacing a serial status report meeting with one-on-one meetings. By eliminating the serial status meeting, you'll free up staff time. I can almost guarantee that you'll hear about problems and obstacles in a one-on-one meeting that won't come up in a group setting, unless there is very high trust in your group.
Create a Meeting that Makes the Best Use of the Participant's Time
Brandon, a manager in an internal IT department, noticed that people were looking bored in his weekly two-hour staff meeting. Brandon spent ten minutes on corporate and department information, and then each team had roughly thirty-five minutes to update him on status. Brandon tried to spice up the meeting with jokes, fun activities, and treats. It didn't help.
Brandon's group worked with three separate products with little crossover. Except for the first ten minutes, the discussion was irrelevant to two-thirds of the group. Cookies weren't a big enough payoff to make up for being bored for seventy minutes out of every meeting.
Brandon dropped his weekly staff meeting in favor of an email that outlined important information that all three groups needed to know. And he set up separate forty-minute meetings for each team. This arrangement didn't take up any more of his time and gave back over an hour each week to team members.
Work on Improving Meeting Effectiveness
If you host an ongoing periodic meeting, you have a great opportunity to make incremental improvements. Start asking for feedback on your meetings, and be willing to make changes based on the information you receive. At the end of the meeting, ask participants to rate their Return on Time Invested (ROTI) using this scale:
0 = Lost Principle: No Benefit Received for Time Invested
1 = a little better than 0
2 = Break-Even: Received Benefit Equal to Time Invested
3 = a little less than 4
4 = High Return on Investment: Received Benefit Greater than Time Invested
I'm happy if most people feel the meeting was a break-even investment. Still, there's almost always room for improvement. As each participant states his/her rating, build a histogram that shows the results. It might look like this:
Even if everyone rated the meeting at four, it's worth doing the next step to find out why the meeting worked well so you can repeat your success. Ask the people who rated the meeting a two or above what specifically they feel they
received for their time investment. Ask the people who rated the meeting at zero or one what they wanted but didn't get.
Then ask what specifically worked, what didn't work, and for possible changes. Even if everyone gave equally positive feedback, it's worth doing the next step to find out why the meeting worked well so you can repeat your success. Don't assume that a rating of zero means you did a poor job. A zero rating may simply mean that the person didn't care about the topic. That's easily fixed by publishing an agenda ahead of time. The benefit you receive for your time can come in several forms, depending on the purpose of the meeting.
Here's where you get value in meetings:
Did you receive answers to questions or hear information that allowed you to overcome an obstacle, move forward on your tasks, or avoid rework?
Did the meeting result in a decision that allowed you to move forward?
Were the people in the meeting able to succinctly state a problem, generate candidate solutions, or decide on a course of action?
Work Planning: Did you leave the meeting with a clear idea of what you and your colleagues will be working on this week? Do you understand the goal you're striving for and understand what the priorities are?
What do you find makes a meeting effective? What have you done to improve meetings in your group?
I first learned about the ROTI method for gauging meeting effectiveness and gathering feedback from my colleague Steve Smith. You may visit his website at www.stevenmsmith.com