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Running Efficient Meetings

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When meetings are necessary, we can make them both useful and efficient, advises Pat Brans. By clarifying the purpose of the meeting, establishing who's in charge, and following some straightforward practices once the meeting starts, you can get in, get it done, get out, and get on with your day.
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Let's face it: Even though meetings are potential time wasters, they are necessary. No matter where you go in the world, people need to get together to build relationships, share information, or make decisions. Different styles suit different cultures. I've been in Israel, where they serve fresh fruit during a meeting, and I can tell you it's the tastiest fruit I've ever eaten. I've also been to Japan, where people dress up and the mood is quite formal. Nobody speaks out of turn there. In France, it's common for people to straggle in late. And I've attended meetings in California, where people might prop their feet up on the closest unoccupied chair.

The way people conduct meetings in different parts of the world might be different, but the purpose is the same. If you get right down to it, regardless of the culture, there are primarily three reasons for getting people together:

  • Building relationships
  • Sharing information
  • Making decisions

Any given assembly might accomplish a mix of these three goals. Some meetings seem to have bigger purposes, but it still comes down to some combination of building relationships, sharing information, or making decisions. For example, take brainstorming or planning meetings, which are both special cases of decision-making. Brainstorming is in preparation to making a decision; and planning involves deciding who does what and when.

Since there is value in getting people together, let's take a look at some of the best ways to organize and conduct meetings.

Running Single-Purpose Meetings

First let's consider some simple cases to illustrate how the purpose drives the style and setting.

  • Building relationships. If you're mostly concerned with building relationships, make sure that everybody feels comfortable. Serve coffee and maybe something to eat, or have the meeting at a restaurant over lunch or dinner. In Japan, they tend to do a lot of relationship-building after work by going out to eat together. Avoid tackling complex problems, and stay away from contentious topics. The objective of this kind of meeting is to develop trust.
  • While you're less concerned with substance when building relationships, sometimes it's good to have a pretext for getting people together. You might call the meeting to discuss a particularly light subject. You could discuss general principles that are unlikely to generate disagreement, such as those guiding your relationship. For example, you can seek agreement that it's better to work together than it is to remain apart, or you can discuss how you'll work together in the future.

  • Sharing information. When you get people together just to share information, you might take a different approach. Keep it short and to the point. One way of doing this is to hold standup meetings. Some CIOs I know have weekly status meetings that last only 15 minutes. The director chooses a place with no chairs, so nobody gets too comfortable. Then each person goes over the progress in his or her area. The other attendees listen, and comments are kept to a minimum.
  • Making decisions. If your meeting is about decision-making, make sure it's understood what constitutes a decision. Is unanimity required? Majority? Or does the boss have the final say? Once a decision is made, make sure that everybody knows that you've reached a decision, and write it in the minutes. Few things are less productive than a bunch of people leaving a meeting with no two attendees having the same idea of what was actually decided.
  • If you're building up to a decision that will be made later (as might be the case when you're brainstorming), make that fact clear. Sometimes you intend to make a decision, but it becomes apparent that you don't have all the information you need, or maybe some of the key players are absent. In this case, you should make sure that everybody understands that the decision will be postponed. Make it clear when the decision will be made and how.

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