Few aspects of organizational life are the source of as many complaints as meetings: too many meetings, pointless and unproductive meetings, meetings that take time away from "real" work. But the reality is that much organizational work is done in teams, and teams need to meet. So why not try to meet better? Team members need to understand why they are meeting, know that their valuable and limited time will be well utilized, and feel that everyone will be held accountable for taking action on the issues discussed. Here are three questions that I've used to whip team meetings into better shape. Question #1: What is the purpose of our meeting today? For a meeting to be successful, the team must be able to fill in the blank: "The purpose of today's meeting is to..." In fact, it is probably a good idea to start meetings with an explicit statement of purpose.
"The purpose of today's meeting is to brainstorm elements of an ideal diversity policy" is different from "The purpose of today's meeting is to finalize the organization's new diversity policy." Make sure everyone is clear on why they are in the room today.
Question #2 How will we use our limited time together today? After all, we don't have all day. How many meetings have you attended where the group decides to get the small items "out of the way" before moving on to weightier matters -- only to find that there are ten minutes left to discuss the most important issue on the list?
Question #2 speaks to the need for a well-designed agenda. Agendas should be planned ahead of time, ideally with group input, and should have time limits attached to each topic.
Create an agenda that suggests realistic time frames for each item ("Planning Staff Development Day - 20 minutes") and in my experience, the group will police itself into compliance. Since everyone wants to get out of the meeting on time, most people will keep one eye on the clock and another on the agenda. Agendas can be flexible but to avoid time creep, deviations must be acknowledged, not ignored. Adjustments to the agenda should be verbally agreed upon if the group's time is to be used differently than originally planned.
Question #3 What's the next action here, and who is responsible? There is nothing more frustrating than discussing an issue at length at a meeting, only to have the same conversation again at the next meeting because nothing was ever done. It is not enough to meet and discuss -- group members must be accountable to one another for outcomes.
So you've just spent twenty minutes talking about a new ordering procedure for toilet paper. Great! What is the next action, and who is responsible? Ditto the intense brainstorming conversation about a new mission statement. What is the next action and who is responsible?
I suggest asking the next action question repeatedly throughout the course of the meeting. You will sound like a broken record, but that's okay. Keep track of the next action list and read it aloud at the end of the meeting. Afterwards, email the next action list to the participants; send it out again the day before the group's next meeting. Then, start the next meeting with a quick run-through of the next action list, crossing off or carrying over each action. It usually only takes one round of this ritual for participants to learn that they don't want to show up at the meeting without completing the next actions to which they have committed.
I've used each of these questions to positive effect in teams I've worked with. What questions have you used to make meetings more productive?