You check your watch and sigh; another meeting running over time. The arguments go round in circles… you try not to think of the mail flowing into your inbox as you make doodles on the agenda. Agenda?! The discussion went off track at the very first item. There’ll probably have to be another meeting…

In spite of all the wasteful and unproductive meetings that are held, a meeting with a clear
purpose and agenda, to which the right people have been invited, and where the discussion
is managed skillfully, is a wonderfully powerful way of communicating. You can solve problems, motivate people, initiate new projects, settle conflicts, and build relationships quickly and effectively.

Make the purpose clear

A good meeting starts with a clear statement of its purpose and the items that are to be discussed. Then you can attend to the details of who should be there, where and when it will be held, and how it should be organised. The most common reasons for meeting are to identify the cause of a problem, generate ideas, agree targets or objectives, obtain approval or commitment, motivate a team or make a decision. If you can’t identify a clear purpose for a meeting, you probably don’t need to have it.

Once the purpose is clear, the topics that must be covered and their relative priorities create the agenda. This should be communicated to participants in advance so they can arrive oriented and prepared for the discussion.

Consider the urgency and importance of each item as you plan an agenda. Put urgent and important topics at the top so you get the meeting off to an easy and positive start. This allows people to settle down before you tackle difficult or contentious topics. It also means that if you don’t get to the bottom of the agenda, the items you miss will be the less important ones.

If a meeting is going to last through lunch try to schedule a topic that involves participation or debate immediately afterwards, to mitigate the effects of lunch. Plan light lunches!

Get the timing right

Allocate realistic time-slots for each item, remembering that discussion often takes longer than you think it will. If you don’t, discussion will be superficial and poor decisions will be made, the meeting will have to be reconvened, or a decision will be reached outside the meeting involving only a few of the original participants. If a meeting is long, schedule a five-minute break every hour so people can maintain their concentration.

Meetings should be scheduled with consideration for participants. First thing in the morning may suit some people but not others. If a meeting is held at the end of a day when people have transport arrangements or other commitments they can’t change, they will be reluctant to enter into any discussion that extends the length of the meeting.

When you circulate a draft agenda in advance of a meeting, ask for any other items that people would like to include. This avoids the possibility of a free-for-all session that brings disarray to a previously well-planned event.

Who should attend your meetings?

The next step in planning is to decide who should attend. There is one rule. All the people, and only the people, whose presence is required to achieve the purpose of the meeting, should be there. Use these criteria to decide attendance:
• Anyone with official responsibility for an issue or problem.
• Those who have unique information or relevant views.
• People who are responsible for any decisions that will be taken.
• Anyone who has to give approval.
• Anyone with relevant strategic input.
• Anyone else who, if they are not involved, may prevent a decision being agreed and actioned.

Meeting logistics

The physical layout of a meeting can help or hinder its effectiveness. If there are too many
people, discussion will be limited. If you want free interaction and open discussion, make
sure that everyone is able to see and hear each other. Schoolroom seating is guaranteed to
stifle any discussion. Stand up meetings are great for keeping discussion short. Equipment should be set up and refreshments organised before a meeting starts. When it is important that people read background documents before a discussion, this is usually best done at the beginning of, or during the meeting. This ensures that documents are properly read and questions asked where clarification is required. It is unrealistic to expect that everyone will read documents before a meeting.

A test of a well-run meeting is that the people invited feel the time was used efficiently, in achieving a worthwhile outcome. It all starts with planning.