Making useless meetings productive

Some simple planning can prevent meetings from wasting your entire team's valuable time. Follow these ground rules for keeping meetings short, sweet, and to the point.
Written by Germeline C. Jeltema, Contributor
Meeting hell: It happens to the best of us. A meeting rambles on forever, or it’s dominated by a particularly loud person who gets so far off track that everyone forgets why they showed up. None of us can afford to waste our team’s time this way. So how do you make useless meetings productive?

Start off on the right foot
By answering some simple questions during the planning phase, you can avoid having your meetings become the things of nightmares.

  • Who will be involved in each meeting? (Hint: The fewer the better. Invite only people whose input is critical.)
  • How long should each meeting be? (Hint: Whatever the scheduled length, if the meeting starts to run over, cut it off if possible and schedule a follow-up meeting if necessary.)
  • What are you trying to accomplish for each meeting? (Hint: Have a written agenda and make sure everyone knows ahead of time what will be discussed.)
  • Three things that cause a meeting to go awry
    Even with proper planning, meetings can quickly lose focus. Here are some common scenarios by which meetings get out of hand, along with some advice about what you can do to nudge them back on track.

  • A single person dominates the meeting, derailing the agenda. It’s your job to make sure that the meeting stays focused by saying, in effect, “That’s interesting, John, but we need to go back to the subject of duplicate policies.”
  • Important tangential issues arise. Discussions usually bring up new issues that need to be resolved, but it’s counterproductive to let the new issues steamroller over the meeting’s original purpose. Your best bet is to table items that are relevant but not necessary to the matter at hand and list them as action items for future meetings.
  • One agenda item takes up more than its fair share of time. It can be tough to move the discussion to the next topic, especially when the conversation is heated. Keep an eye on the clock and, when necessary, cut in with, “You both have raised interesting arguments for your opinion. I think we need to come back to this topic once we’ve covered all the items in our agenda. Or, if we have insufficient time, I will put this issue down as an action item for our next meeting.”
  • Wrap up the meeting with a mechanism to follow up
    Since e-mail threads can be notoriously long, they are often not the best mechanism to deliver the minutes or action items. Instead, crank out a quick Word document that clearly summarizes the agenda topics discussed, their status, and a list of future action items and who is accountable for them. Conclude this document with the next time and date for each meeting.

    A well-run meeting that ends on time can really help the morale of a project, especially one that lacks popular support. The pointers we’ve provided can help you keep meetings on track. Now it’s your turn: Let us know your favorite meeting-management tricks.

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