The 5 Key Steps To Running a Productive Meeting

I’ve never been a fan of meetings. David Grady said it right in his legendary TED talk, that sitting through a bad meeting can feel like you were robbed. Your colleagues, great though they may be, just stole two hours from you that you’ll never get back.

But the reality is that there’s sometimes no other way to resolve an issue or push a project forward than to get all collaborators together for a discussion. An effective meeting can and should be galvanizing. The participants should leave the meeting with not only a clear understanding of what to do next, but also a renewed sense of energy and purpose.

When a meeting lacks structure or meaning, it can feel like a time-suck. And if you find yourself dreading certain meetings, it’s usually because you know it’s going to be badly run or you don’t really need to be there.

Running an effective meeting not only boosts productivity but makes your team feel happier and more connected. While the inverse – running a bad meeting – can leave people feeling stressed, confused or just bored.

I’m here to help you learn how to run a productive meeting. Follow these steps to ensure that you’re bringing value whenever you book the conference room.

1. Have an agenda.

Let’s be realistic – you don’t always have time to be fully prepared for a meeting. So while a written agenda is definitely the best way to do things, it’s not essential.

What’s important is that, even without a written agenda, you’ve planned in advance what needs to be discussed. You know how long each item might take and what your team needs to get out of the meeting.

It’s incredible how many meetings are run without agendas and without any real compass for the conversation. People with a wide sphere of influence in their organization will often be invited into meetings without much explanation. For those people, it should become clear within the first few minutes what the meeting is about and why they have been invited.

That’s what an agenda is for. It’s an introduction to proceedings that gives the meeting a purpose. And if the discussion starts to wander off on a tangent, the agenda will be there to pull everyone back on track.

It’s also a good way to confirm that you actually need a meeting in the first place. Without an agenda, you might discover after an hour of discussion that a meeting wasn’t required for a decision to be made.

2. Choose your invitees carefully.

Meetings can fall flat, or into disarray, if the wrong people are in attendance. And while it’s obvious that a meeting will be inconclusive if key decision makers are absent, it’s just as important not to invite people who don’t add value.

Jeff Bezos famously said that if you can’t feed everyone with two pizzas, then the meeting is too big. It’s best to smart small and think about who absolutely must be in attendance.

Good reasons to invite someone to a meeting include:

  • They are the decision-maker;
  • They have vital expertise;
  • They will, or might be, impacted by the outcome of the meeting.

Bad reasons to invite someone?

  • They are well-spoken and/or usually have a lot to say;
  • You think they will back you up;
  • You just want them to know what’s going on.

Working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased our tendency to over-collaborate. We know how easy it is to get someone else on the call, even if they’re stuck at an airport in Geneva. So why not?

The problem is that the more people you involve in a meeting, the longer it usually takes. Keeping it on track becomes more difficult. And it often takes longer than necessary to reach a conclusion.

David Grady’s hilarious TED talk about the scourge of bad meetings.

3. Start strong.

As the caller of the meeting, you are the leader of the proceedings – even if you’re not the highest ranked person in the room. You have a responsibility to set the tone for the rest of the session. The first thing you should do is arrive on time. Then you should open the meeting by making the objective clear, so that everybody knows what they are contributing towards.

The worst thing you can do is start off a meeting by asking, “so what do you guys think we should do?” By doing this, you’re basically offering the leadership mantle to the floor. You can bet that somebody will take it, and that’ll mean you can kiss goodbye to any agenda or structure you had in mind for the meeting. Your meeting has officially been hi-jacked.

Starting strong means making the purpose clear, and setting any ground rules that you think might help to prevent the meeting from going off track. Don’t restart things just because someone walked in late. Remember, you’re in charge.

Remember, too, that your invitees are probably busy and might be skeptical as to why you’ve demanded their time. If you’ve done your preparatory work and you know that a meeting is necessary, you shouldn’t feel guilty about this. But you do have a duty to make everything clear – and engaging – from the very beginning.

4. End on time.

Running over the time slot you booked with everyone is not just unprofessional – it’s outright disrespectful.

Of course there will be certain discussions that you should let continue if you feel that they are productive. Usually this scenario will unfold if the meeting unearthed something that was not on your agenda, but is urgent and/or particularly important.

But there’s no excuse for a meeting running over the scheduled time because of your own bad planning. Sometimes you have to be selective about what is discussed, and save certain topics for another time. It’s up to you to decide what can be discussed in an hour, or two hours, and if that means deferring other matters then so be it.

Keeping a meeting within the allotted time requires some careful management. You have to be able to step in and move things on if you think that one item has taken too much time. Meanwhile, you don’t want to cut short a discussion if you think it’s valuable. This requires good judgment, and practice. Don’t be shy about cutting someone short if you don’t think that what they’re saying is bringing you all closer to fulfilling the objective of the meeting.

Earning yourself a reputation as someone who keeps good time will increase attendance to your meetings. It will also improve the atmosphere, and make people feel more comfortable contributing.

Booking 30 minutes with everyone and keeping them there for over an hour, on the other hand, is sheer arrogance.

Elon Musk once wrote an email to his team, urging them to just walk out of meetings if they don’t think they can add any value. “It is not rude to leave,” he wrote. “It is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

5. Finish with an action plan.

You can really put to waste a good hour of discussion by neglecting to follow it up with an action plan.

Most effective meetings will raise actionable items, and these need to be fresh in people’s minds as they leave the meeting and go back to work. Given that action items can be established at any time during a meeting, a recap is essential. This not only helps people to remember what was discussed, but also ensures that everything was understood.

The last few minutes of your meeting should be set aside to discuss the action plan. You should also establish who owns the action plan, or the items within it. Who will do what, by when? Who is accountable for this?

I highly recommend writing your action plan down and storing it. A full set of minutes would be ideal, but again, this is reality and we can’t always be that prepared. If there’s something that should absolutely be recorded at the end of any meeting, it’s the action plan.

Send it out to the invitees after the meeting so that they can refer to it in their own time. This greatly increases your chances of the work actually being done, and helps you during your first follow-up.

Because without an action plan, you’re allowing people to shirk responsibility, forget, or just misunderstand what needed to be done. And any of those outcomes will probably just wind you all back up in the meeting room again.

With these tips, you’ll be on the right track to running better meetings. Please leave a comment or contact me if you need me to expand on any of these points.