Get organized to run meetings effectively

There are a lot of things I like to do in this world, but running a meeting isn’t one of them. Years ago, I had a boss who would call me into his office and talk for a good half hour. As I walked back to my desk, I’d think, “So, what just happened in there?” Now, when I’m in charge of a meeting, I worry: will my attendees walk away with a clear idea of what was said and what, if anything, needs to be done?

I recently found myself in the unenviable position of sitting at the head of the table, as it were, but not until I had done some research on effective ways to run a meeting. There are a lot of articles out there on the topic, and here I’ve collected the best advice I could find. Now, please come to order and review these tips for running an effective meeting.

WikiHow provided advice that I’ve been advocating for a long time. Partly because of my admitted meeting anxiety, and partly because I really don’t like wasting time. Specifically, determine if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary at all. There are instances when you simply must sit down in the same room to have a conversation or spark collaboration. But, if the agenda is something that can be accomplished with an email thread or a quick conference call, do that instead. You’ll save everyone a lot of time.

They also suggest distributing the meeting’s clear goals in advance. I’ll admit that I’ve never done this. Instead, I hand out a paper agenda as people are sitting down to the table. This throwback behavior from the ’80s is distracting, as everyone sits and reads the paper or thinks ahead to the topic they’re most or least interested in. From now on, I’ll distribute the agenda a day or two ahead of time, so people can show up ready to go.

Forbes also has some great advice for meetings. For example, “spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would.” In other words, the clearer and more tightly-defined each item is on the agenda, the more efficient your meeting will be. I also like their suggestion to allot half the time you initially think the meeting will need. “Meetings are like accordions,” says Victor Lipman, “they stretch naturally to fill the allotted space.”

I used a similar trick on myself when I was in college, after learning about Parkinson’s Law, which states: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a professor told me I had 3 weeks to complete an assignment, I’d tell myself I had two. Otherwise, I knew I’d be at my desk working feverishly on day 20.

Inc. has advice that addresses types of meetings. One type, the Action Meeting, is the format I’m probably most familiar with. The goal is to devise and implement a solution to a pressing problem or outstanding project. One trick I learned from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done is to end each of this type of meeting by saying, “OK, so my next actions are …” Stating this out loud confirms that you are clear on your assignment(s), and that your bosses are clear on that fact, too. Inc. also emphasizes the importance of keeping in touch after the meeting has ended. This is an area that I’ve struggled with in the past. While I’ll make a list of actions that I’ve delegated (my “Waiting For” list), I don’t always follow up with people responsible for these tasks on a regular basis. That’s something I’ll start doing.

Of course, a meeting isn’t restricted to the board room. You might be on a council or committee at your kids’ school or a church. Less formally, you may even have family meetings to discuss finances or monthly schedules or vacations. These lessons may apply there, too. If you have tips for running an effective meeting, let me know. I’m always willing to improve in this area.

6 Comments for “Get organized to run meetings effectively”

  1. posted by Pat Reble on

    When putting out an advance agenda, it helps to tag certain people with specific items as appropriate, e.g. “Dave – the tearoom project is coming up, did you want to speak to this?” That way people actually (a) read it in advance and (b) bring what’s needed with them. Done the right way, they are focused before they arrive.

  2. posted by Alan Rochester on

    All meeting are “action” meetings. The purpose of a meeting is to take decisions and move on to action.

    Inc. talks about “Brainstorming or creative meetings”, “Short-term planning meetings” and “Short-term planning meetings”. But you can talk and talk and talk. Without action the talk is useless.

  3. posted by Margaret on

    I ran a monthly board meeting for years, and here is my best tip: List the times beside each agenda topic. For example 7:30 Review Agenda, 7:35 Minutes from last meeting, and so on until 8:45 Other business. When we reviewed the agenda, we often changed the order of topics, modified the time needed for one that required it, adjusted the time allotted for Other business, which topics had to be slotted during the initial agenda review. Everyone knew my meetings would end at 9 p.m. as advertised, unless there was consensus at 7:30 that we would go to 9:15 because of the nature of the issues being discussed. Certainly we were no longer dragging the meetings out until everyone was past the point of making reasonable decisions.

  4. posted by Sarah on

    My mantra is “meetings start on time and finish early” – I definitely don’t agree with the idea of spinning them out for the duration in the calendar! If people go off-topic, then a gentle nudge and “let’s break this out into a separate discussion later” seems to help keep the focus.

    At the end of the meeting, you also want the action items assigned to specific owners and for all of them to be aware of what you believe they have agreed to as ‘next steps’.

    If people can’t come up with an agenda for a meeting, then it’s probable that the meeting is going to be woolly, ill-defined and rambling. If possible, always challenge people to come up with an agenda, or otherwise, see if you can turn down the meeting invite.

    If you are running the meeting, then it is your responsibility to interrupt people who are going off track and will impact (a) keeping to time (b) furthering discussions on the designated topic(s). Alternatively, if you are not in charge, you may well gain respect from your peers from interrupting someone who has gone off at a tangent.

    Part of it is a question of respect for yours and others’ time.

  5. posted by PamR on

    i definitely agree with the article and everyone’s comments. But having recently retired from the world of work, I can honestly state that I have worked at very few places that adhere to the tenets of a good meeting. So much time is wasted with unnecessary meetings, NO agendas, NO forethought, NO materials sent out ahead of time, and allowing people to veer off the subject into unrelated irrelevant matters. The last ten years of my life were spent working at universities, hospitals, social service agencies, and museums. Sadly, they were all alike. When I ran meetings prior to my change of careers ten years ago, I strictly adhered to David Allen’s rules, and so did my co-workers. Did something happen in the last ten years to make meetings useless? Sorry for the rant. I was just stirred up by what I read. At least those of you reading this column seem to take these things seriously!

  6. posted by Julie on

    I have found in order to have a successful meeting you must have an assertive leader who is prepared to stick to the agenda. And yes PamR I have been to many meetings such as you describe. It should be announce the time limits for each topic and then allow 10 to 15 min at the end for questions and discussion. I think one of the problems is that there is not enough training on how to lead a successful meeting.

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