Every year billions of dollars are wasted due to inefficient meetings. Especially now, in the COVID-19 crisis, we all need to pay attention to effective and efficient meetings. It's about analyzing our environment at breakneck speed, reducing costs, conserving liquidity, developing new markets and identifying the right support programs, to name just a few of the challenges.

I spend over 25% of my "normal" business life in meetings. I have led good and bad meetings and attended good and bad ones. In this post, I have taken the opportunity to briefly summarize the most important success factors for effective (doing the right things) and efficient (doing things right) meetings from my own perspective.

With effectiveness in this context I mean "doing the right things": Clarifying whether a meeting is necessary at all, inviting the right participants, dealing with the essential topics and achieving few but relevant results for the company, which are then consistently implemented. By efficiency in this context I mean "doing things right": Setting the agenda, determining the moderator, sending out information in time, recording results, etc.

It is not important whether we are in a pandemic or in a “normal” situation. Bad meetings cost money, don't move the company forward, demotivate the team and burn valuable work and life time.

Do I even need a meeting?
The most important question right at the beginning: Do I need a meeting at all? Meetings are set up almost reflexively, without clarifying in advance whether this is the right vehicle for the existing challenge. If, for example, you simply want to share information, it may be sufficient to share it with those concerned on the "Social Intranet" and answer questions there in a chat with colleagues. Or you can share the information in advance and concentrate only on the questions and ambiguities in the then much shorter meeting. I cannot recommend sharing information by e-mail with a large audience. Usually there is a flood of "mails to all" with questions and clarifications. It could hardly be more inefficient. A "Social Intranet" or a "Social Business Collaboration Platform" is the better choice here. If you do not have such a platform, then get one! The efficiency gains are enormous, the prices are manageable, the benefits are extremely high. You can find an overview here: https://www.g2.com/categories/employee-intranet

Back to the meetings. Meetings are basically useful for

  • Decision-makings
  • Discussions
  • The distribution of information
  • Routine meetings / Jour Fixes / Check-ins

Conduct the meeting correctly
Whatever the purpose of your meeting, it is important to keep some basic topics in mind:

Set the goals

for each meeting. Make decisions, generate new ideas, achieve a common level of information, clarify open issues or whatever. When do you think the meeting has been a success? Write that down. This is part of the invitation to a meeting. How often do you simply invite people to exchange ideas for an hour without goal and agenda - you know what I'm talking about...

Choose the participants

  • Decision making meetings should take place in a setting of 6-8 participants. With all decision makers! Furthermore, please only invite participants who have something to contribute to the decision.
  • Depending on the type of discussion (e.g. generating ideas, developing common understanding), up to 20 people can come together here. Heterogeneity is always important in discussions. You want to discuss questions and ideas from as many different perspectives as possible? Then it is helpful to bring together people from different functional areas and age groups, for example.
  • If the meeting is used to distribute information, thousands of people can participate. In these "meetings," information is distributed from a few people to many recipients. For example, the board of directors reports on the status of the COVID-19 crisis. At the end there is still the possibility to ask questions and that’s it. Everyone who needs to receive information can take part. With information about important changes or decisions, it is always useful to inform in writing in the first step and then to detail the information in a "meeting" with a little time delay. This way the participants can ask more qualified questions, because information was already available before. This increases the value of the meeting enormously.
  • Routine meetings usually have a small group of 2-6 participants. The goal is to exchange information on current topics or even special topics. At the moment we have regular status meetings about the sales situation, liquidity, IT etc. in times of COVID-19 for example. Everyone who is qualified to inform about the subject area should be a part of this meeting.

Setting the agenda

  • An agenda is a prerequisite for an efficient meeting.
  • What exactly should happen in the meetng? Which decisions do you want to take, which discussions do you want to have, which method do you want to use for this (e.g. brainstorm, fish bowl), which information do you want to share or which routine agenda do you want to deal with.
  • Determine how long the individual agenda points in the meeting should last and, if necessary, who should moderate and which methods should be used (brainstorm, fishbowl, etc.) - this is important for creative meetings.
  • At routine meetings, always start with the decisions: "What do we want to decide today?" Decisions should always have priority in meetings. An organization can only thrive if decisions are made in a timely manner.
  • Always sort the agenda by priority. If the meeting time is over and not all items could be dealt with - that happens no matter how carefully you plan - you always dealt with the most important items.
  • A meeting does not get better the longer it lasts. The rule is: as short as possible, as long as necessary. The ability to concentrate diminishes quickly. In the case of longer meetings ("workshops"), make sure there are enough breaks.
  • At the end of a meeting, reserve 10 - 15 minutes to summarize the results, define the next steps and give a short feedback on the meeting (what can we do better?). Nothing is worse than walking out of a meeting without a common understanding of the results and clear tasks for the participants. Such meetings may lift the spirits in the short term, but at the end they do not help to move the organization forward. What is not defined, written down and followed up as a task happens very rarely - at least in my world...

Define responsibilities: MOJO!

  • The "Meeting Owner"(MO) is responsible for an (effective and efficient) meeting. He invites or has an invitation issued. He takes care of the agenda, the moderator, if necessary, the tasks for preparation - everything that is needed for an effective and efficient meeting.
  • The "Joyful Observer" (JO) pays attention to the time according to the agenda and the speech shares of the participants. Meetings should not be monologues, but an exchange. This works best when many colleagues have their say. Exceptions are pure information events. Here the speaking time is by definition very unevenly distributed. At the end of the meeting, the JO should ask how the participants rate the meeting and what can be done better in the future. This ensures continuous improvement. The JO is therefore particularly important for the efficiency of meetings.

Prepare the meeting

    • Determine which documents should be made available for the participants for preparation. Indicate that the documents should also be read in advance. This of course excludes the possibility of bombarding the participants with large amounts of averagely important material. The documents for a meeting should also focus on the essentials.
    • The advantage of a reasonable preparation is obvious. No one needs "supervised reading " of PowerPoint slides in a group. All participants should concentrate on the core of the meeting after clarifying questions. Everyone can read for themselves!
    • Please ensure that, depending on the scope of the documents, the materials are available early enough. Reading and reflecting costs time.
    • For discussions it often makes sense to have the participants prepare specific points. For example, each participant in a risk analysis meeting can write down the top 5 risks from his or her own perspective in advance. This shortens the meeting and leaves more room for the important discussion of different views.

Record the results

  • Briefly summarize the results of the meeting. Document which tasks should be completed by whom and by when. Always assign exactly one responsible person, unless you do not want a task to be completed, then assign as many responsible persons as possible to the task ;-)
    Without a documentation of results, most meetings are completely worthless. The tasks from the meeting are then usually not completed.
  • Use a task tool to document and track tasks. We have made very good experiences with such tools. The transparency and speed of implementation increase significantly! You can find a list of task tools here:

    https://www.softwaretestinghelp.com/best-task-management-software-systems/

  • Ideally, you should document the results directly in the meeting live, i.e. visible to all participants. This way, no misunderstandings arise and a time-consuming process of coordinating the minutes is not necessary. This saves a lot of time and reduces frustration.
  • Focus on the important tasks and prioritize them at the end of the meeting. In my experience, less is more here. It is better to define the three most important tasks, determine the responsibility and follow up the implementation than to lose sight of a multitude of tasks later. In longer meetings or workshops, we limit the number of tasks strongly in order to focus on the really important tasks and ensure their implementation. We have had very good experience with this.
  • If you want to arrange follow-up appointments, do this directly in the meeting with the participants. With smartphones and the like, there is no reason to outsource appointment scheduling to assistant functions. This would mainly be a waste of time and money.

Start and stop on time

  • Start the meeting on time. We'll start after one minute's grace period. If you're not there, bad luck. After a few meetings, the participants usually arrive on time. As with all topics related to the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings, desired behavior must be demonstrated by the boss, otherwise it won't work!
  • Clocks with exact time in the meeting room help. In online meetings, everyone has the exact time on their computer in front of their eyes.
  • With good moderation, meetings also end on time. If you continue to discuss the important topics at the beginning, you will always have the most important things done, even if there is not enough time.
  • If your meetings run out of time regularly, a little tip for the MO: Set a timer at the beginning of the meeting and let everyone know that you will close the meeting and leave the room when the timer rings. Then do this consistently. After a few meetings, time management will improve greatly. Here too, it is helpful if the management exemplifies this behavior!
  • Remember to reserve 10-15 minutes to summarize the results, determine the next steps and give a brief feedback on the meeting.

Special features of online meetings

  • Online meetings are basically normal meetings with a few special features.
  • As MO please start at least 5 minutes before the meeting. This way you can test the technical setting again.
  • All participants are expected in the online meeting on time. Here it is also useful to start the dial-in a few minutes before.
  • In my meetings using the camera is obligatory. In my experience, this increases attention in the meeting and reduces the temptation to do anything else on the side. If a meeting is boring for the participants, encourage all participants to bring this up again and again and adjust the meeting accordingly - or cancel it completely!
  • If you are using online meeting software for the first time, take 15 minutes to check your microphone, camera, and other settings. Otherwise, you will lose valuable time in the meeting.

Question every routine meeting at least every 12 months

  • Every company has established numerous routine meetings or jour fixes. Regularly question the existence of these meetings. Ask the participants explicitly about this. We have often found ourselves doing routine meetings simply because we have always done them. You may know answers like "I thought the meeting was important to you, I don't need it..."
  • So, encourage your participants to question routine meetings. What can we do better, change to increase the value to the company? This may include the complete cancellation of the meeting!

How can I as a manager support the process?

  • Set an example by organizing effective and efficient meetings. When things don't work out, be open about it and criticize yourself. I was in an online meeting a few years ago - my screen was still shared - I was obviously busy with things that had nothing to do with the meeting - very embarrassing! I have apologized by mail to all participants and promised to do better in the future.
  • Encourage all employees to decline attending meetings that do not have a stated goal or agenda. Continue to ask employees to leave the room in a hurry when the meeting time expires to make meetings more efficient.
  • Be present on time at the beginning of the meeting and leave the meeting on time - even if it has not yet ended ("timer"). This is a great practice. In the future, the important topics will be discussed at the beginning and much faster.

I hope this small compilation around the topic of meetings will help you to make your company a little bit more efficient and effective. Do you have suggestions and ideas? Then please comment on this article or write me at d.bode@fme.de . I look forward to your comments. At fme we are already implementing a large part of the points mentioned, but we still have room for improvement.

Keep well!

Dirk Bode

Tags: Inside fme, Digital Transformation, Working in times of crises