Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 12;   March 20, 2024: Top Ten Ways to Make Meetings More Effective

Top Ten Ways to Make Meetings More Effective


Meetings are just about everybody's least favorite part of working in organizations. We can do much better if only we take a few simple steps to improve them. The big one: publish the agenda in advance. Here are nine other steps to improve meetings.
A meeting that's probably a bit too large

A meeting that's probably a bit too large. Notice how people at this end of the table are compelled to lean around other people to see what's happening at the whiteboard. A less linear and more square-ish table would make for a more effective meeting.

Image by Christina Morillo, courtesy Pexels.com.

The most common complaint I hear about meetings is that they're a waste of time. Although they need improving, meetings aren't a waste of time. Useful things do happen in meetings — just not enough useful things for the time we spend in meetings. The key to improving meetings is to spend more time on activity that produces value and less time on activity that doesn't. Here are ten steps for doing just that.

1. Publish the agenda in advance
Advance publication of the agenda gives people an opportunity to think about it, to prepare, and to speak up if they're moved to. And if the first agenda item is "Approve the agenda" they'll know about their opportunity to amend it. Including a "not-agenda" lets everyone know what's off limits for the meeting.
2. Exclude from the agenda any items you cannot influence
Groups sometimes try to address problems in their meetings that they aren't authorized to address. This is a waste of time and energy, and it takes time away from agenda items the group is supposed to address.
3. Include time allocations for all agenda items
Time allocations enable the chair or facilitator to track meeting progress, possibly with the help of a Time Keeper. If an item overruns its time allocation, cancelling another agenda item might be wise. Without time allocations, the decision to cancel some other item might be difficult indeed.
4. Make clear distinctions among What, How, and Why
When we're talking about what we're describing the thing itself. When we're talking about why we're explaining its purpose. When we're talking about how, we're outlining the steps for achieving it, or the steps by which it came about. Mixing these up into a single discussion is a recipe for trouble.
5. Have a Designated Digression Detector
A Designated Digression Detector (DDD) is someone who is empowered to announce — without being recognized — that the meeting discussion has digressed when it clearly has. By having a DDD the group gains a valuable asset that enables participants to focus on the matter at hand and not the process of the meeting. Moreover, that asset acts as a deterrent. Nobody wants to be the person who is interrupted by the DDD.
6. Write agenda items as "to-resolve" instead of "to-discuss"
Agenda Useful things do happen in meetings —
just not enough useful things for
the time we spend in meetings
item titles expressed as commands are more likely to produce a result than those expressed as processes. For example, "Decide on an approach to resolving the race condition" is more likely to produce a result than "Discuss the race condition."
7. Beware of shared information bias
Shared information bias is the tendency of groups to focus discussions more on topics the participants already know about, and less on topics with which they have less of a sense of familiarity. The effect of this bias is to waste time on already-plowed ground.
8. Avoid being seduced by technology
Software tools can be very effective for managing group efforts, but few tools are meant to be used during meetings of those groups. Data entry and editing processes are usually too slow and cumbersome for meetings. Make notes and deal with the tools later, after the meeting.
9. Impose a three-exchange limit
When two participants go back and forth about something, the likelihood of resolving their differences after three exchanges is low, and it drops with each additional contribution to their exchange. Impose a three-exchange limit. After that, have the pair pursue a resolution after the meeting and report back later or at a subsequent meeting.
10. Make exhibits meeting-friendly
During the meeting, whether in-person or virtual, we often need to talk about exhibits (documents) that had been distributed to everyone for review. Most of the time, we reference specific sentences, phrases, lines, or cells in those documents. Waiting for everyone to locate those items takes precious meeting time. Make exhibits meeting-friendly. Save time by numbering pages, numbering lines, inserting bookmarks, or highlighting in color the items that you plan to talk about.

Last words

Eliminating all wasted time from meetings isn't possible, in part, because we can't determine in advance all time that's wasted and all time that's productive. All we can do is focus on producing what we believe will be useful, and let the rest take care of itself. Go to top Top  Next issue: Allocating Action Items  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

A late rabbitGames for Meetings: III
We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part III of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
A single-strand knotTangled Thread Troubles
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
An early automotive assembly line trialThe End-to-End Cost of Meetings: III
Many complain about attending meetings. Certainly meetings can be maddening affairs, and they also cost way more than most of us appreciate. Understanding how much we spend on meetings might help us get control of them. Here's Part III of a survey of some less-appreciated costs.
A computer mouse, the tool we use so often to hijack our own mindsPreventing Meeting Hijacking
Meeting leads, meeting chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation, or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing hijacking.
A meeting of meerkatsOn Working Breaks in Meetings
When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step.

See also Effective Meetings and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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