News & Insight
July 2004

Learn to Run Better Meetings

Deborah R. Bernstein

How much time do you spend in meetings?

According to a study conducted by MCI, approximately 11 million meetings take place in the United States every day. On average, business executives attend 61.8 meetings per month, or about three meetings a day.

At least one-third of all meetings are considered unnecessary and unproductive, and that estimate is conservative. This translates into the average executive losing nearly three days of productivity a month as a result of ineffective meetings.

To regain lost time and money, leaders need to learn to run effective meetings. Here are some steps to follow before, during and after meetings.

Prepare for Your Meeting

Meetings are shorter and more productive when leaders and participants are prepared. Taking as little as 30 minutes to prepare for a meeting can save hours of actual meeting time. Preparation allows all participants to be focused when they attend the meeting, which saves time and money and increases productivity.

To prepare for a meeting, you need to articulate the meeting’s purpose, identify the desired outcomes (including specific action steps or deliverables), and develop a concise agenda to achieve your desired outcomes. Ideally, you should communicate the meeting’s purpose, desired outcomes and agenda to the participants ahead of time. This allows them to come prepared to the meeting.

I once worked with a senior executive team who hired me to help it prepare for a three-day leadership meeting. When we started to design the meeting, I began by asking a basic question, “What is the purpose of the meeting?” To my surprise, they could not clearly and concisely state the meeting’s purpose, although they knew they needed a meeting. It actually took us a full day to reach agreement to articulate the purpose of the meeting and the desired outcomes.

This was an important step, because my clients were asking for a significant time commitment from participants, which represented a significant commitment of the organization’s time and money. Once we agreed upon the purpose and desired outcomes, it was easy to design the meeting, which was then executed very deliberately and effectively.

Facilitate Your Meeting Skillfully

Meetings are most effective when they are led by skilled facilitators who are trained in effectively managing group dynamics and employing techniques to achieve desired outcomes expeditiously. If you are running a major organizational gathering, it may make sense to retain the services of an experienced facilitator to help you plan and run the meeting.

Not all meetings require professional leadership, however, and you may achieve the desired results by attending training on basic facilitation skills. These can have a significant impact on the productivity of your meetings.

Other steps to consider during meetings:

  • Establish “ground rules,” or a “code of conduct.” These are behaviors expected of and agreed upon by all participants. Participants design the ground rules as a group and agree to follow them, holding each other accountable. Examples can include: arriving on time, finishing on time, turning cell phones off, paying attention, and other common courtesies. Ground rules proactively set the tone for effective meetings as well as expectations of participants’ behaviors.
  • Follow the agenda. The agenda is a powerful tool because it keeps the meeting focused, which results in a more effective use of time. The agenda serves as a road map for achieving the desired outcomes and is critical to follow -- unless there is a conscious decision to deviate, such as when other issues prevent you from following the agenda. For example, I once observed a meeting where a team was going to discuss how to communicate and implement a new onboarding process within the organization. When the meeting started, it became clear that the participants had several different definitions of what onboarding was, and there was no agreement that the organization even needed such a process. In that scenario the facilitator had to deviate from the agenda. Participants could not discuss implementation until they first agreed on a definition of onboarding … and also agreed to support it. Trying to follow the initial agenda would have been unproductive. (This example also illustrates the value of having a skilled facilitator, who can change courses effectively as needed.)

Evaluate the Meeting

Whether it’s a weekly staff meeting or a major national or international gathering, it is important to assess the effectiveness of your meetings. Ask participants: What worked well? What didn’t work well? Where could we improve for next time? This process takes all of 15 minutes, yet can provide important information to improve the productivity of future meetings.

Meetings consume resources. It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that resources -- specifically people, time, effort, and money -- are applied wisely, judiciously and effectively.

Deborah R. Bernstein is a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and organizational effectiveness faculty.

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