How to organize a business meeting

I used to work for an organization that loved meetings. During the course of an average day, I would spend three to five hours in meetings. There were never agendas, people often read directly from PowerPoint presentations, and half of us in the meetings weren’t really sure why we were there. I often was the person in the room mentally estimating everyone’s salary and wondering how much of the organization’s money was being wasted in comparison to the cost of the issue being discussed. After 10 months, I changed jobs because I couldn’t tolerate all the poorly organized meetings.

Since that time, I have come to the conclusion that there are only three circumstances when a business meeting is really necessary. The first situation is when the law requires it — such as shareholder and board of directors’ meetings. The second situation is when untethered brainstorming needs to take place (I’ll describe these meetings and how to organize them in more detail below). And, finally, the third situation when a meeting is worthwhile is what I call off-site, strategy meetings (again, I’ll discuss these in more detail).

Before scheduling any other type of meeting, I think it is best to ask if a meeting is really necessary and the most productive method for conveying information. If it’s well planned and will take less than 15 minutes, a meeting might be an efficient use of everyone’s time. In most cases, though, it’s often better not to have a meeting — especially if that meeting will be disorganized, irrelevant to its attendees, and/or a poor use of resources.

I mentioned the untethered brainstorming meeting above as a good use of meeting time, and I truly believe this is an essential type of meeting for a successful business. If not well organized, these types of meetings can be disastrous. An organized brainstorming meeting, however, can be an amazing gift to a company. To have these meetings, you must first have a team that trusts and respects each other. Without trust and respect, real brainstorming won’t take place and all that will happen is political posturing. Second, you will want to keep attendance at the meeting to 10 people or fewer in most every circumstance. Third, it’s best if the issue to be brainstormed can be e-mailed to everyone 24 hours before the meeting. This gives people time to think about the issue before arriving at the meeting. Next, the meeting should have a three part agenda: 1. Statement of issue to be brainstormed, 2. Brainstorming, and 3. Delegation and statement of future actions and deadlines. Each section should have a set amount of time alloted to it, and a stop watch should be used to stay true to the time commitment. Additionally, it may be helpful to have someone who is not part of the discussion act as a moderator. And, finally, it should go without saying, but the discussion should be lively (maybe even heated) and focus on ideas instead of people. At Unclutterer, our pitch meetings are held in this fashion.

The third meeting type I listed above as an appropriate meeting is the off-site, strategy session. These meetings are best done with teams of 10 or fewer people, and everyone on the team present. An agenda should be circulated at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Each item on the agenda should be focused on over-arching strategies within the organization or team building. Avoid presentations, and instead aim for push-up-your-sleeves type discussions. Again, I recommend a timer and a moderator to help keep attendees focused. I’ve found success in telling everyone to bring nothing but themselves and their favorite coffee mug or Nalgene bottle to the meetings (no laptops, no PDAs, no CrackBerries). A blank notebook and writing implement are then furnished to each attendee at the start of the first session. Exemptions to this rule might be reference materials approved before the meeting that are copied and distributed as supplemental information for a discussion. Finally, it is best to have these meetings marked in stone and set on a regular schedule (every six months or at the start of each quarter or once a year). These meetings are what guide an organization or department and should be treated with that level of respect.

How would your job change if you restructured your meetings to only include these three types of meetings? Can you see how your business might improve its productivity? Do you agree or disagree with my organized meeting suggestions? Any horror stories to share about disorganized meetings? Share your ideas with us in the comments.

22 Comments for “How to organize a business meeting”

  1. posted by Camilla on

    All good points i think. Implementing a Meeting Agenda for our team meetings, and someone to take the Minutes, was the best thing we did.

    The Minutes aren’t actually used much afterwards (although they can be referenced to find what decisions we made together, if we forget later), rather the person taking the Minutes acts as a referee, watching that we stick to the schedule (rather than missing items randomly), ensuring we find *conclusions* to everything we discuss (rather than just drifting away into another topic without realising we’d abandoned something important) and ensuring points didn’t descend into pointless waffle and instead got to the point! I can’t stand things not getting to the point.

    So once you’ve worked out when meetings are necessary and useful, you then need to ensure you have structure and purpose to make sure the time is used well.

  2. posted by M.R. on

    I can’t stand it when meeting organizers READ the agenda. Send it out first, and then get on with the meeting already.

  3. posted by Carrie on

    My biggest pet peeve about meetings is having an agenda passed out and then not followed; having points discussed that are not on the agenda, having action items assigned and no one is assigned to take notes and redistribute the agenda. Leaving everyone to their own interpretation of the events of a meeting is asking for chaos to ensue.

  4. posted by Josephine on

    Boy, oh, boy! In the course of my professional life, I’ve wasted more time at meetings than anywhere else. One manager would spend 1/2 hour reading the agenda and the next 90 minutes joking and gossiping. Therefore, I was happy to see you touch upon the key point: agendas, minutes, etc. are useless if you don’t “have a team that trusts and respects each other.” This was perhaps the main reason I left that job.

    I recall reading one tip in the NY Times—no chairs in the conference room. Meetings as a result were quick and to the point. (I mentioned this to one director for whom I had oodles of respect and admiration; while she could not do away with the chairs, she would always address my issues first and then dismiss me as soon as my input was no longer needed; she knew I hated meetings and I loved her for it.

  5. posted by Kimberly - The Good Life on a Budget on

    I started joined a project in January and it was very clear that the team was having a hard time getting traction during the meetings. I put together a few guidelines that have helped us stay on track.
    The most helpful tips have been 1) providing an agenda 2) having someone other than the facilitator taking notes 3) dedicating the last five minutes of every meeting to recapping the action items, issues and decisions.

  6. posted by Ryan on

    One thing I’ve found to make the aftermath of meetings more productive, is to set a goal date for everything that needs done, before the meeting is finished. Make sure everyone knows what they’re doing and when it’s expected to be completed by, with accountability to others if possible. Otherwise people are left feeling unsure what they should be doing and when.

  7. posted by Christine on

    I guess it depends on how you define “meeting.” If it’s large groups of people–some of whom have peripheral if any purpose in attending–and then everyone talks just so they can be “heard,” then yeah, those are useless. I’ve been in many of those. However, if it’s just colleagues touching base on whatever it is that they’re working on, they’re necessary. Even if you are two relatively good communicators via phone/email, I think there is value to face-to-face time even if it’s 15 minutes. For example, I worked with someone I had to collaborate with, who I rarely saw to talk to about the issues at hand. When I sent emails, she wouldn’t respond to them adequately. It’s still good to be prepared, though, or it can end up being the two of you looking at each other with no idea of where the meeting is going.

  8. posted by JenK on

    My general thoughts…

    1) Know what the meeting is supposed to accomplish.

    2) Have what you need to accomplish it. If you’re walking the client through their new website, have a computer that can access it (yes I’ve had this not done) and a screen that will make viewing it easily.

    3) Keep your focus. If you want to build a good client relationship, then offering coffee/tea/juice/water and a bit of chitchat is a good idea. If the team meeting tends to be more about weekend plans than coordinating status, keep the focus on status (“Chris should have the wireframes from Pat … Oh, Pat got derailed by Jess’ emergency? Ok, is there something else Chris can pick up?”) and not on the big game.

    4) Send out a summary of what was accomplished / next actions. This not only provides a record of decisions but it helps to remind people that meetings are about getting things done.

  9. posted by Mike on

    I attend two species of meetings while working for the state: meetings that get decisions made so that a project can continue down its critical path, and meetings that are meant to promote buy-in and political consensus so that the above decisions can be made with clear information and a grasp on what stakeholders need. Over time, meetings that accomplish neither get weeded out of a project’s critical path. The government does a lot of things that I would call slow, bloated, and perhaps wasteful from a private industry point of view, but on the meetings topic, they really got it right. Those of you in private industry might be able to use that tidbit to push for more efficiency in your own meetings, because “if the Government can make meetings effective, we should be able to do that too…”

  10. posted by Carl Cravens on

    Ha! Erin, ou must have been one of my co-workers at that big aircraft manufacturer.

    We used to have this weekly, 1.5 hour “working session” meeting. A guaranteed 1.5 hours of eight people getting nothing useful done as we went over spreadsheets full of meaningless tasks and status reports to satisfy, at first an unnecessary “process improvement” program none of us bought into, and eventually a lead’s need to control every little aspect of the “children” (as she once accused us of being) under her lead.

    We called it “whipping session”. But that wasn’t a fun place to work outside of meetings, either.

    I love my job now… fewer meetings in six months than I had in a single week at that job.

  11. posted by Avani on

    We usually have stand up meetings. And yes, as the term implies, people really stand in these meetings. No one sits. Reason being that you can’t have long meetings while standing 🙂 Usually stand-ups are used so that everyone knows what others are working on. If one person starts taking too much time, others automatically cut him off since standing for long is a pain.

  12. posted by Dream Mom DBA on

    There are meetings that are valid and some that are a waste of time. If you follow a meeting agenda, you can quickly get through them. There are standards for meetings and most people in OD (Organizational Development) will usually have the corporation adhere to them. You have good points though and I think every organization could benefit from fewer meetings.

    In my previous line of work, we had many meetings but most were worthwhile. In my previous position as a Senior Account Manager, (I worked for a healthcare technology vendor) I often had regularly scheduled conference calls/meeting with the clients and all of the departments involved in a software installation. As an Account Manager over all of the business units, my job was to not only run the meetings but it was also a way to manage things politically between departments and to make the best use of the client teams. For example, if a client had multiple installations going on, they would have a ees from each of our install departments, also from different divisions and from the consulting company. There was often limited ees at the client site to handle the installation so I was often the person to manage the call so that all areas could talk the installation order through since the client could only perform one set of tasks as a time. Also, should things be done in the wrong order, it would create more issues than it would solve. Should the deadlines be missed, there might be missed revenue, the targets would be missed contractually and also the Wall Street targets were missed. We couldn’t have that so those meetings were essential.

    For other company meetings, we had an agenda and our Admin staff took the meeting notes. For tasks, we would evaluate the tasks and put our requests into the Admin database and they would perform the parts of the task that would not be cost effective for us to perform and then we could focus on the executive level tasks we were being paid to do.

  13. posted by Kristin on

    Another timely post. I was at a meeting last night for two hours. Two solid hours. And most of it was much needed. Because of the type of organization we are, we get new members occasionally and we went through the introductions AGAIN .. which drives me crazy. I hate spending 15 minutes at the beginning of each meeting introducing myself over and over again but I realize it’s necessary.

    We have an agenda and we stick to it. Brainstorming occurs and we have one person who will curtail us should be get too far out on tangents. I’d say of the two hours, an hour and 40 were worthwhile. Not too bad. We meet this way once a month. Everything else is google documents, google calendar, and email.

  14. posted by Dee on

    While I agree that too many meetings are needless, I work for a design firm (60% Engineers) and it would be detrimental to the business if we met only once every quarter for a strategy meeting . . . I’ve actually managed to get into the much envied position of being un-invited to meetings if the moderator knows that its not an organized effort because of the known fact that I am a squawker about non-agenda meetings that are poorly facilitated – lol.

    One major point that I find extremely helpful as an executive is to manage your manager. . .no matter what level you are in an organization you have a boss right? Well, being one myself I know that if you leave your boss hanging on issues/concerns/agendas/project updates he/she will eventually be teetering on demanding a group – project – or individual meeting just so that they can be up-to-date on their overall tasks.Those types of meetings are usually the ones that fall prey to disorganization because they are being held simply for information dumps or playing catch up on parts of projects that involve a lot of unkowns. Making sure you take steps to organize and update your boss as projects unfold through progress reports, action items, timelines, etc. eliminates much of the need for strategy meetings of this nature. A good project launch meeting or e-mail (if its small scale) is key to keeping things on track to avoid this possibility altogether.

  15. posted by Matt on

    My manager loves to hear himself talk and therefore loves to hold meetings where he rambles on about the “big picture”. This would normally be paintful, but luckily he’s a big fan of “lunch meetings”, where he takes us all out to a restraunt and talks to us while we eat. We get free food and it serves as a distraciton from listening to our boss ramble on. It’s a WIN WIN!

  16. posted by Colin on

    Structured meetings are a good thing – but it all depends on the impetus for the meeting. I’ve been on software deployment projects where circulating agendas in advance is totally impracticable – you need to get together now and resolve a total show-stopper.

    And the only way you can revise large documents with many contributors (or interested parties) is in groups. If you have the luxury of time to break it into more than one meeting, great, but life’s too short to spend time in shuttle diplomacy over edits. If a change matters enough to argue over, you can sit in a room with the rest of us and hash it out.

    To echo another point, there’s really an advantaged to face-to-face conversations. I’ve been part of conversations via teleconference that have spiraled out of control because of the absence of social cues.

    And to not echo another point, I’d like to sign up with the state that had efficient meetings because I work as a beltway bandit and that meeting management behavior is not in evidence hereabouts.

  17. posted by Michelle on

    The best boss I ever had assigned time limits (often no more than 5-7 minutes) to every meeting agenda item. A designated timekeeper would alert her when we were two minutes away from the limit, at which point the group would either come to a decision about next actions or table the decision until more information was obtained. Those were the only two options–there was no delaying the decision-making unless some key information was missing.

    Next actions (including information-gathering) were assigned to individuals. After the meeting our notetaker (often me) would send out a summary of decisions reached and a list of each action and its owner. That way everyone was clear on what needed to be done and who needed to do it.

    Even other departments told me they admired our meetings.

  18. posted by John_at_154 on

    I hadn’t considered the value of brainstorming meetings until reading this post, and that, along with Mike’s comment about meetings either making a decision or generating buy in has me considering how those ideas fit in with my fundamental belief about meetings.

    That belief is this: Any meeting management method that focuses on a decision getting made will succeed. Any method that fails to focus on a decision (instead trying to “get people bouncing off one another” or “get everyone on the same page”) will fail.

    Both political buy in and brainstorming could be seen as in the latter category, but they’re clearly valuable. At the same time, either done for its own sake, rather than in service to a clear goal (a pitch meeting is in the end focused on getting an article written, after all), is still a waste of time.

    Thought provoking post! Thanks!

  19. posted by Jockintosh Macintyre on

    I run a small business in Scotland (28 employees) manufacturing luxury toilet flush handles/mp3 players aimed principally at the lucrative ‘digital native’ demographic. I’ve found my company’s productivity has increased geometrically since I put a moratorium on meetings altogether.

    I often think of my business as a choo-choo train: The wheels are the product, the boiler is the office, the destination is my prosperity, and my workers are the coal, to be consumed without remorse or regret, in the fire of productivity.

    When was the last time you saw a train driver holding a discussion with his coal?

  20. posted by The Shopping Sherpa on

    I remember reading in Ricardo Semler’s book Meverick that in his company all meetings are optional – if you’re interested you show up. If noone shows up obviously the issue in question is a dead one.

    I think he also mentioned agendas and how it is fine to turn up for the bit of the meeting that is relevent to you at the time specified on the agenda then leave when the meeting moves on to a non-relevent area.

  21. posted by salazar on

    i have to say, i think jock macintyre has an interesting POV, but FYI jock, without meetings you will not be able to use your human resources to their full potential. i run a small to medium sized company and we produce ‘baby drawers’ – a clutter free way to store infants and their toys.

    anyhoo, i have found that having a monday morning meeting to organise all the meetings for that day is an efficient method of using my human resources to max. infact i’m thinking about introducing a meeting assessment structure that will analyise and cross reference records to single out staff efficiency. anyone not adhering to the meeting’s action item list to the letter will be reprimanded. severely.

    instead of seeing your business as a choo-choo train, i suggest a more ‘blue sky’ vision. think of your business as a rocket. the meetings are your thrusters, the staff is the atmosphere, and the sharp point at the business end is you – piercing the will of the atmosphere in order to reach the rarified stratosphere.

    think about it.

  22. posted by popol on

    Six Thinking Hats is the best tool for organizing a meeting. I recommend to everyone! The method was developed by Dr. Edward de Bono.

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