How to make meetings effective – the way they’re meant to be

How to make meetings effective – the way they’re meant to be

Meetings: the universal time sink and productivity destroyer in today’s organizations. And they shouldn’t be.

Theoretically, a meeting is where the best action in the organization should be happening. It is where we brainstorm together; where insights are shared and integrated; where the minds of employees – the organization’s most precious asset – come together to generate value. A well-run meeting is a focal point of incredible creative energy. And when have you last seen a well-run meeting?

In the real world, meetings are notoriously counter-productive. They are also time-consuming, and in many companies, they gobble up a major fraction of people’s time. Managers, especially, spend most of their workweek in meetings of all kinds, so the fact that these are not effective means they are getting paid to waste their time… which leaves them frustrated and overloaded, because they need to make up the loss, often after hours.

Companies have good reason to solve this problem, which is costing them dearly; unfortunately, they rarely get down to it, perhaps because management is too bogged down in meetings – or because they really forgot that things could be different. In my business I find myself advising them how to implement a solution, usually in combination with email overload, the other great productivity sink. Here I share some of what is to be done, at both the company and the team level.


How to conduct effective meetings:

The most effective solutions are run at the company level, because meetings span the company’s structures and are affected by its culture. Ideally, therefore, the company should invest in a serious program to understand its own meeting and communication culture (including email and other channels, which I have found have a complex interaction with meetings). Once this study is done, it is possible to analyze (using a cross-organizational task force) what purpose meetings serve, the proximal and root causes of their ineffectiveness, and how solutions can alleviate the important causes. This process is extremely valuable in every case; you learn so much about how the operation is managed, and about the accumulated cruft of bureaucracy and misplaced controls that has attached to it over the years. Solutions developed from all this might include revised organizational processes regarding responsibility, decision authority, knowledge sharing and cross-departmental cooperation; new meeting behavior norms (see below some examples); and a change proliferation program, complete with name, logo, employee communication campaign, training classes in small organic groups, and so forth. It isn’t an easy process, and it can take 5-6 months to complete, followed by ongoing monitoring of key indicators to catch any necessary revisions or lapses.

But even if your company is unwilling to go that far, there is a lot you can do for meetings held in your own group. It helps if you’re the group manager, naturally, but even if you aren’t you should be able to become a change agent and secure the manager’s support to drive a change. You should then get a few coworkers to become the project team with you, both in order to recruit their brainpower and in order to get wider support in the group.  Again, the team should study the situation, and propose to the group and its manager solutions that can be applied in intra-group meetings, without depending on the rest of the company. This still allows many solutions to be put in place.

So now I share a few typical norms meeting chairpersons should consider, while cautioning you to adjust them to your group’s “DNA” – not every solution works for every organization!

  1. Before a meeting

  • Clearly articulate to yourself the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting (if any – can the meeting be cancelled altogether?)
  • Plan carefully who to invite to each meeting, striving hard to minimize attendance: Only invite people who really have a useful and indispensable role for achieving the desired outcome.
  • Set the duration of the meeting to the minimum needed for attaining the required outcome. And remember – just because Outlook likes half-hour increments doesn’t mean you can’t set a 41-minute meeting, if that will suffice!).
  • Compose a clear agenda for the meeting and include it in the meeting invite. This allows invitees to decide whether to come, send a replacement, or maybe plan on attending only a part of the meeting.
  1. During the meeting

  • Remember: your role as meeting chairperson is to lead, facilitate, and keep the meeting on track. This is a serious responsibility, and a burden that often seems like herding cats. Take it seriously! You may want to read up on it or take training about facilitation techniques.
  • Keep the meeting going according to the published agenda with ruthless punctuality.
  • Articulate firmly what each agenda item is to attain, what decision is needed, and how it will be made. Record the decisions and action items and assign an owner and completion date to each one.
  • Prevent any wandering digressions and “rat holes”. A good process is to keep a “Bin list” – a flip chart where off-topic ideas and subjects are recorded for future reference or agenda items.
  1. After the meeting

  • Issue the minutes the same day. Keep them short and clear, with special attention to action items, owners and dates.
  • Have a process in place to track execution of the action items in the week following the meeting. Don’t leave this for the next meeting, when people will tell you they never got to them, or present hasty results from remembering their duty the same morning.


Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? But try to drive this sense into a 100,000-employee organization… still – do try, it’s worth it!

Nathan Zeldes
Nathan Zeldes

Nathan Zeldes is a globally recognized thought leader in the search for improved knowledge worker productivity. After a 26 year career as a manager and principal engineer at Intel Corporation, he now helps organizations solve core problems at the intersection of information technology and human behavior.

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