How to make meetings more productive

Team meeting

Are you getting to attend enough meetings? If you’re like most of our clients, you’re attending more than you think you should. When we ask our clients what gets in the way of being more productive, too many meetings is always at or near the top of the list.

Is doing away with meetings the solution? No, meetings are often the most efficient way to make progress on important projects and handle all kinds of other business. This is more the case in recent years, when more of us are working remotely with colleagues in different cities, or even different hemispheres. Scheduled meetings can be an important way to take care of things that you might have handled in the hallway, at the coffee machine, or over the divider between your office areas, back in the days before so many of us began working remotely.

The trick is to know your reason, or reasons, for scheduling a meeting, so everyone who attends knows what to expect from investing their time.

There are five reasons to have a meeting. Each may be a perfectly fine reason by itself. Make sure everyone at your meeting knows which of these you are there to accomplish.

1. Give information
“Hello everyone. I’ve brought you all together today to let you know what’s been going on about the pending lawsuit. I’d like you to leave here today understanding what’s going on, and with as much background as you need to be able to answer questions that may arise from our customers.”

2. Get information
“Thanks for coming. We’ve invited you all here to find out from everyone what we should be aware of that’s going on in your division relative to the new product roll-out. We want to know what’s happening at all levels in the organisation about this, so we can make some adjustments in our plans accordingly.”

3. Develop options
“We’d like to spend this afternoon surfacing, formulating, and exploring as many possible ways as we can to deal with the problem we’ve just uncovered in the new system implementation. We want to make sure we’ve got everyone’s perspectives and all the possible alternatives formulated.”

4. Make decisions
“We’ve brought you all together this morning to present to you the three proposed approaches to launching our new product, and get a consensus decision on which one to pursue.”

5. Warm magical human contact
“There are 3 agenda items we would like to cover today. And though we could have done this by email, we wanted to have an opportunity to bring the new team together in one place, and get some time to get to know each other between the lines…”

You may often have more than one of these agendas—sometimes even all five. “Today I’m going to share some information with you, and get some information from you as well. We’re then going to explore some possible approaches to the situation, and then decide our best course of action. Meanwhile it will give us a chance to get to know each other a little more as real people…”

Pretty common sense stuff, right? But, have you ever sat in a room with someone trying to make a decision, someone else just wanting to do some brainstorming about some possibilities, some people just wanting to get to know who they’re working with, and someone else just wanting to get some information about the situation?

It’s very valuable to get clarification and agreement on the front end, as to which of the five reasons for a meeting you have going on.

Now that you know the reasons for holding a meeting, let’s move on to how you handle the most common output of a meeting—your meeting notes (and if you need some pointers on how to take better meeting notes, check out the post ‘Become a note-taking pro’).

A common bad habit we have come across with managers and executives in recent years is the accumulation of unprocessed meeting notes. It is almost heartbreaking to see how much effort goes into the creation of meetings and the capturing of what goes on, and the stress created and value lost from irresponsible management of the results. At least 80% of the professionals we work with have pockets of unprocessed meeting notes nested away in spiral notebooks, folders, drawers, and piles of papers.

Here are some keys for dealing with meeting notes effectively:

Process meeting notes by determining actions required, and transmitting and storing useful information.

(1) What needs to now happen, based on the meeting? And who’s doing it? Make sure you decide if you have any projects and actionable items. If so, decide the next actions on them, and track those in your reminder system. Are there any deliverables other people committed to that you care about? If so, track those on your Waiting For reminder list.

(2) Does anyone else need updating or your debriefing? If so, pass that on appropriately.

(3) Is there any information that was shared that doesn’t have action tied to it, but possibly needs to be retrieved in the future? If so, put it in your reference system—into support or info files organised by project, theme, or topic. Update client histories, project status reports.

Systematically review and process your notes.

(1) Throw your meeting notes into your in-tray as soon as you can, or (2) Use a “check-off” system for marking when your notes have been sufficiently reviewed for actions and information to store.

If you like to write notes on pads of lined paper, then option (1) above is the best. Just tear the notes off as soon as you’re finished with the meeting, and toss them into your in-tray until you can go through them for actions and information to store as reference/support. An advantage over diary-like note-taking is that the original pages of notes themselves can be tossed ASAP, or they can be stored as raw support material in project or topic folders, if that might be useful or comforting as backup later on.

If you use a spiral or loose leaf notebook for chronological journal-writing (as many executives do), then (2) works, but you must be in the habit of reviewing those notes regularly, and having some way to code that the notes have been processed—either by X-ing out the paragraphs, or putting check marks in the margins, drawing lines across the page between meetings, thoughts, or captured items. It needs to be visually clear what’s been processed, and what still hasn’t yet.

The advantage to this method is that you could keep the processed notes at hand to retrace things if required, and if you’re carrying a notebook for other reasons anyway, then it’s one less piece of hardware to carry along. If you work with a loose-leaf planner, I’d recommend that you take notes into a “notes” tabbed section, and at least once a week clean out all the previous pages to start fresh.

The secret to solving the meeting problem is simple. Once you get clear on the reasons for your meetings, and get in the habit of efficiently dealing with the results of those meetings, it’s likely you will start to find that they add to your overall productivity. Instead of taking up your valuable time, meetings can be an effective use of your time.



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About the author

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. That’s why David Allen created Getting Things Done®. GTD is the work-life management system that has helped countless individuals and organizations bring order to chaos with stress-free productivity. GTD enables greater performance, capacity, and innovation. It alleviates the feeling of overwhelm—instilling focus, clarity, and confidence. Connect with GTD on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. More blog posts by Getting Things Done ››
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