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A Guide To Better Meetings: Nine Principles of Productive Meetings

When is the last time you said, “I wish I could attend more meetings!” or “That was a great meeting—when can we do it again?!”

Recent studies report that managers spend an average of 40%-50% of their working hours in business meetings. To make matters worse, it is reported that the majority of these professionals say that 50% of their meetings are unproductive—a waste of time–and that up to 25% of most meeting time is spent discussing irrelevant issues. It is no surprise to anyone working today that most people surveyed say that their meetings are too long, too unfocussed and too unproductive. 

The Meeting Cost CalculatorNext time you think that bad unproductive meetings are just a way of organizational life—consider how much poor unproductive meetings cost your business in real dollars. Simply figure out how much your organization is paying for the time spent in unproductive ventures. For example: if 10 people who each make 100,000 each spend 10 hours a week in unproductive meetings—then that organization is throwing away $5,000 a week—or $260,000 a year in lost productivity. And that is only based on 10 employees! Can your organization really afford to throw away resources like this?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Meetings can and should be one of the most productive, effective and satisfying work tools available. Meetings can and should be the place where the organization gets important work done. It is where groups of people come together to brainstorm, hash out ideas, reach decisions, share information, coordinate projects and tasks, develop new directions and create shared visions. Meetings can and should be the place where people’s talents, skills, and experience are effectively mined, used, and appreciated.

Creating excellent meetings isn’t magic. Great meeting leaders respect the art of the meeting and value their attendees’ time and resources. They take the time to learn and utilize the essential principles and skills of leading great meetings.

9 Principles of Productive Meetings

1. Have clear outcomes. 
Create a clear purpose or outcome for your meeting. It’s amazing how many people schedule meetings without clarifying the purpose or objective for the meeting. Typically meetings have several major functions or activities:

  • Information 
  • Input
  • Brainstorming/Problem Solving
  • Decision Making

Think of the meeting purpose as a hanger from which everything else “hangs”. Ask yourself:

  • What do I need this meeting to accomplish?
  • What will be different after this meeting?
  • What will the participants get out of this meeting?

Once you have determined your purpose, then ask yourself: “Is holding a meeting the best way to accomplish this goal?” You might be surprised at your own answer.

2. Invite the right people. 
Base attendance on purpose. Determine who needs to attend to accomplish purpose and objectives of the meeting. Invite only those whose participation is needed and or required. Ensure everyone knows why they are invited and what you need from them. Over inviting is just as ineffective as under-inviting. Ask yourself:

  • Who needs to be involved in this meeting to accomplish the outcome?
  • What are the different elements of input do I need?
  • Whose support/input do I need to reach the meeting goal?

In addition to making sure you invite the right people—be sure you have the appropriate meeting “roles” filled and that participants understand their roles. Roles to consider:

  • Meeting leader
  • Scribe
  • Time Keeper
  • Expertise provider

3. Create an agenda. 
An agenda does not have to be laborious or confining. The purpose of an agenda is to give the meeting shape and structure. It also helps participants keep track of where they are and where they are going. But most importantly, an agenda will keep your meeting from drifting into interesting—but unproductive territory. In addition to creating your agenda based on the meeting purpose—also consider the following:

  • What pre-work needs to be done?
  • How much time do we need to accomplish our meeting?
  • What do participants need to know before they come into the meeting?
  • Who is going to create and “hold” the agenda?

4. Design your meetings. 
Design the meeting with desired outcomes in mind. Spend some time “designing” and outlining the conversations needed to accomplish your goal. Think of the meeting as a series of conversations. It is important to design and organize these conversations or topics into a series of conversations that will become a road map to reaching your meeting goal. Think through the needed conversations and the manner in which you will have them.  Determine an effective meeting process and design:

  • What is the best way to have these conversations?
  • What order should these conversations happen?
  • Use appropriate group conversation techniques to create the most effective conversations 

5. Be explicit about decisions. 
Talk about the decision-making process up front. Think through what decisions (if any) will be made as a result of this meeting and how those decisions will be made. Be as transparent as possible regarding the level of input the participants have in making decision. Make sure the meeting participants understand the decision making process. (They don’t have to agree—they just need to be clear). A good meeting leader should know and communicate:

  • What if any decisions need to be made as a result of this meeting?
  • Who is going to make them?
  • How will they be made?
  • When will they be made?
  • What is the role of the meeting participants in the decision making process?
  • Who needs to be informed of the decision?
  • How will they be informed?

6. Use the wisdom in the room. 
Facilitate for balanced participation. The best way to make sure you tap into the intelligence and smarts of your attendees is to make sure you get all voices heard. Make sure you properly use the expertise of the people in the room. You invited them for a reason—it is the meeting leader’s responsibility to get the best out of people.

  • Don’t let a small number of people dominate the conversation
  • Actively seek out the opinion of those who tend to under-talk
  • As leader, be aware of the impact of your opinion
  • Use ground rules to help keep dialogue open and effective

7. Be space savvy. 
Use physical space and time to your advantage. Consider the physical environment an important factor in your meeting structure. Where and when meetings are held have an impact on how people engage with each other. Make the meeting space fit the meeting purpose. Basically the space and setup reflect the type of conversation that will ensue. Formal set ups beget formal conversations and vice versa. The physical environment does affect how people will converse with each other. Consider the following:

  • Small tight rooms create more focused conversations
  • Large rooms create conversations with more space/less intimacy
  • Standing meetings tend to be briefer and more action oriented
  • Large conference tables tend to create more formality
  • A “theater” type set up promotes a one-way conversation (speaker speaks, audience listens)
  • Sitting in circles or U-shapes creates more conversation among participants
  • Food creates more relaxed conversation
  • Be careful of time of day. Late afternoon meetings tend to have less energy and creativity. Meeting after lunch can often be deadly as energy tends to dwindle after lunch. On the flip side, early morning meetings may be tough for brainstorming sessions as people may not be completely “revved up” yet.

8. Close it up right! 
Every meeting needs to have a proper closing. This means the end of each meeting should have a recap, next steps and an evaluation. The “Law of Primacy and Recency” says that people remember the first thing and the last thing that happens to them in a structured setting. Therefore make sure you end all meetings effectively and constructively. Include the following:

  • Recap the meetings accomplishments. Make sure everyone walks out of the meeting with the same sense of what happened. This is especially true for decisions that were made during the meeting.
  • Verbally review next steps. Make sure everyone in the meeting knows exactly who is going to do what by when.
  • Evaluate. Take a few minutes to evaluate your meeting. This may seem silly but those few minutes can help you create extraordinary results over the long haul. Simple ask your participants the following two questions: (i) What worked well in this meeting? and (ii) What could make our meetings even better?

9. Follow up for success. 
The number 1 thing you can do to ensure your meetings are considered worthwhile is to follow up and follow through with the meeting outcomes and next steps. People need to see the fruits of their labor in order to feel that their time and talents are well used. If your meeting generates action items, then make sure those action items are followed through on and communicated back to the meeting participants. People want to feel as if their time and input was valuable. Show them that it was!

Tired of wasting your time in meetings that don’t produce results? Learn more about Meeting Facilitation:

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