3 Steps to Great Meetings

I learned the importance of having focused meetings from my college orchestra director. I’ll never forget the lesson he taught us when some of us weren’t paying attention and time was being wasted. It went something like this (paraphrased):

When you’re not paying attention and you have to repeat a question or we have to take time to bring you up-to-speed, you’re not just wasting your time, you’re wasting everyone’s time. There’s about 100 people here. Let’s say we lose just one minute dealing with an interruption. We didn’t lose one minute. We lost 100 minutes. Every time we waste sixty seconds of time, we lose an hour and forty minutes of work.

Most often, I find myself applying this lesson to business meetings. When we waste ten minutes in a business meeting (which is quite generous considering some entire meetings are a total loss), we’re wasting ten minutes multiplied by the number of people there. I like to take it one step further just to remind myself of the seriousness of the offense. Let’s say we wasted ten minutes, and there were four people in the meeting. That’s the equivalent loss of work of someone sleeping at their desk for forty minutes. And that’s just one ten-minute distraction, in one small meeting.

There’s good news though. Three simple steps are all we need to have great meetings (seriously!).

1. Use an Agenda

Please don’t shrug this off. It’s #1 because it’s most important. An agenda is not an idea of what you want. An agenda is the exact desired outcomes for the meeting, written down. If you can’t write it down, then the purpose of the meeting is not clear enough. Write it down and keep it in eye-sight so you can refer back to it to help maintain focus.

Everyone in the meeting needs to know the exact agenda; it should be clearly shared with them at the beginning of the meeting, and ideally, each person will have it written down in front of them.

As the meeting progresses, the results of items on the agenda should be written down. If you can’t briefly write down the result of an agenda item, there’s a good chance it hasn’t been adequately resolved.

In many cases, you’ll want both the agenda and a time limit for a meeting. That way, the meeting is over either when the agenda is completed or when the time expires. Meetings without clear agendas or time limits are wastes of time.

2. Maintain Focus

Let’s start here:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. -Steve Jobs

Focus is saying no to stuff that isn’t your goal—even good stuff. If you’re leading a meeting, it’s your responsibility to quickly redirect discussion that doesn’t directly lead to the completion of the agenda. If this is new to your company culture (which is likely), explain to everyone that you’ll be interrupting and redirecting discussion that isn’t aligned with the agenda. People will soon respect your focus, as they won’t be wasting their lives in meetings.

If you’re an attendee in a meeting, take it upon yourself to add to the discussion only when you feel you have something of significant value (which includes questions). I’m not trying to be a stick-in-the-mud, here. Jokes and laughs in the work place are healthy, but they shouldn’t become drawn-out distractions, especially during meetings. Use restraint.

3. Finish Well

Finishing a meeting poorly is like wrapping a gift without using tape. Leave yourself a few minutes (depending on the complexity of your agenda) to do three things:

  1. Review the agenda. Remind everyone of the exact reason the meeting was called by recounting the agenda (30-60 seconds).
  2. State the outcomes. Read each item on the agenda and its outcome from the meeting. (30-90 seconds)
  3. State next steps. Each person in the meeting needs to know what they are to do as a result of the meeting. Even if someone is only to wait for something, explain exactly what they are waiting for, how long to wait, etc. State the next steps for each person individually. (30 seconds – 2 minutes)

Plan for Success

Take some time before your meetings (preferably not right before) to work through these steps. I even created a free tool for you! Seriously, it’s free, no gimmicks. It will help you plan for a meeting, stay focused during the meeting, and send everyone in the right direction after the meeting. Let me know how it works for you!

Comments 2

  • Aunt Kathy
    7 months ago

    I find it helpful to distribute the agenda in advance of the meeting. Including a column for the amount of time assigned to an agenda item keeps the meeting right on track and assigning a specific person to cover each item of the agenda so they can be prepared and know how much time they have to work with keeps everyone straight.

    • Darrell Haemer
      7 months ago

      Aunt Kathy, definitely! If other people in the meeting will have active roles to play, we need to set them up for success by enabling them to prepare. I have also used time assignments for each agenda item, and it can work quite well to keep things moving. Thanks for your feedback!

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