How to run effective meetings

The real cost of an effective meeting is the number of minutes spent by each attendee multiplied by their individual remuneration for those minutes. That sobering calculation should put the brakes on how many meetings are called. The logical question follows: Should all those people be present, or should some of them be back at their post, doing what they are paid for? How can you ensure that your meetings are effective?

Who should be at an internal meeting?

There are two components to this question:

  1. The reason you invite someone to a meeting
  2. The reason you accept an invitation to a meeting

Too many people: An invitation to a meeting could implicitly be telling a team member that they (and their opinions) are valued. Others just love to hear what’s going on for themselves, when they could just be copied in on the minutes later. These are not good reasons to invite people to the meeting. A meeting which is bloated with non-participating observers may stifle comments from those who should be contributing. Or, vocal opinions about items that don’t concern the one speaking will stretch the time (and the cost) of the meeting. Several smaller, more focused meetings may be the answer.

Not enough people: There is the danger of not inviting enough, or the right people, to the meeting. Management consultancy Leading Governance says, “if too few people attend, the meeting may not have a quorum, and thus be unable to make decisions.” A meeting without decisions leaves everyone frustrated. But this may not be only about having a quorum. Sometimes it’s one key individual with the capacity to push an item to the next stage. If that person is not present, why have the meeting?

Just the right people: Business consultant Miranda Morley suggests setting the agenda before the invitation list. “Once you know what you need to accomplish in a meeting, you’ll have pointers to who needs to be there to help you accomplish it. Create your meeting agenda by listing the meeting’s objectives and developing a rough outline of what you will need to discuss or do to accomplish them. Forward your agenda to people you know need to be there, such as your vice president or business partner, and ask them to refine it. Once the agenda is finalised, work with your leadership team to create a list of attendees.”

What will those attendees accomplish by being there? Less Meeting proposes these four criteria to run effective meetings:

1. The attendee is a decision-maker

If the meeting is to get his/her approval, there’s no point in meeting if this person can’t make it. Be considerate of their time. Don’t keep them in an hour-long meeting if their part takes only 5 minutes.

2. You need their expertise

Invite the sales manager to discuss the response to a support case? Probably not. Does the Chief Operating Officer need to be in a meeting about your latest marketing campaign slogan? Probably not. But inviting the SEO expert to a meeting on driving web traffic makes much more sense.

3. You can’t accomplish your goal with a quick email or a memo

Does your objective actually require a meeting? A brief update can be sent via email or even in a short IM conversation, especially if it’s a routine matter.

4. The outcome impacts them

If the person has a stake in the decision or the new direction, they may need to be there to contribute. But be careful with this one—even some major decisions affecting all employees don’t usually require unanimous approval.

Miranda Morley adds one more factor to consider. The subject of your meeting may require certain people to attend. If you will discuss sensitive information, respond to a legal threat, or handle a personnel issue, the law or company policy may require that a union representative, lawyer, or human resources professional be present.

Should you accept an invitation to attend?

It’s flattering to be invited to many meetings. But automatically accepting them all can waste a lot of time. Julie Zhuo, a product design VP at Facebook, writing on Medium.com, narrows down the reasons we may attend meetings that waste our time:

1. Not wanting to let someone down

You assume they must have a good reason for inviting you, and you want to be helpful. So you accept the request, even if you don’t really have the time.

2. Feeling a sense of identity or inclusiveness

Maybe it just feels like you should be there, so that other people won’t think you aren’t committed to the team.

3. Wanting to be in-the-know

When the meeting looks significant (senior leadership is there, a big decision will be made, or you’re just curious), it’s natural to want to be there, even if you aren’t really needed.

How will you know when you should attend a meeting? Zhuo says it’s when a) you believe your attendance will change the outcome of the meeting, or b) you will be much more effective as a result of being there.

So ask the meeting arranger for more information to help you decide. Then ask yourself, will I speak up and contribute, or will I just sit on the sidelines? Do I have a strong opinion on this topic? Can someone else represent my point of view for me? Will the goal be more difficult to reach if I’m not there?

Maybe you can get the same personal benefit by reading someone else’s notes from the meeting. On the other hand, if you anticipate asking clarifying questions, or if you really need to understand the nuances of the issue to do your job well, it might be better to attend even if not as an active participant.

Conclusion

Having the right people at a meeting will determine its success. If a decision is needed, have the right expertise and the right authority in the room. Treat everyone’s time as valuable and keep the meeting on track. And when you are invited to a meeting someone else has arranged, don’t be too quick to accept.