If you are anything like me, you spend a substantial part of your day in meetings. Between meeting with clients, subordinates, various committees, and other stakeholders, meetings can take up time, energy, and motivation. A major time-waster is to spend time in meetings, agreeing to timelines and tasks, only to fail to meet those obligations due to poor meeting practices. This results in time being spent in the meeting and then additional time lost due to having to go back to one’s notes, which have grown stale and vague by that time, and reconstruct deadlines and next actions. By that time, agreements have been broken, deadlines missed, and tasks not done. On top of that, your credibility has suffered major damage and trust in you has been lost. You’ve become undependable to those in your group.
So, what are the best practices in being a meeting participant? What things can we do to make us more effective before, during, and after a meeting?
- Get an agenda ahead of time – Make sure you must be there. I resent being required to be in meetings where I have nothing to contribute, my areas of responsibility are not involved, and nothing that I am responsible for is assigned. These are a waste of my time and my employer’s money. I try to avoid meetings where decisions don’t affect me or my areas of responsibility. If my contribution to the meeting is tangential, I contact the meeting organizer and try to either move my agenda point to the beginning (where I can contribute and then leave like most of the NBC’s Tonight Show’s first guests) or solidify my agenda point time so I can show up close to the appropriate time. Keep in mind, however, that I do realize that there are meetings where I have to be there due to my employer’s expectations or requirements.
- Acquire the proper tools – Bring your meeting folder, reference material, any update reports for which you were responsible from the last meeting, and note-taking materials. I recently purchased a copy of Microsoft OneNote, which is the missing link between the linear note-taking that is possible in a word processor or list manager and mind-mapping software. One can place notes anywhere on the page, move points around as relationships begin to appear between data points, and add graphics and sound to the document. One can even add a microphone and tape important points of a meeting and make the recording part of the OneNote document. This is great for confirming who agreed to what on important agenda points. One can designate comments that have been typed into the document as Next Actions with appropriate check boxes. A few clicks transfers the Next Actions to Outlook’s Task Pad, which I’ve configured for GTD. Others prefer low-tech solutions and carry a Moleskine notebook and a pen, while others will bring a PDA and a fold-out keyboard. There’s no right method other than just having a way to record comments, decisions, and agreements.
During the Meeting
- Attend – This is not just showing up. This is paying attention. This is not drifting off and daydreaming. This is listening to others and taking notes. This is making contributions when you can. This is identifying comments, decisions, and next actions that belong to you and recording them in a trusted system so they can be acted on later.
- Assign Next Actions to Participants – All Next Actions should be assigned to someone. Many times decisions are reached and actions identified as needing to be done, but no one is assigned responsibility. Sometimes a project is deemed to be needed and no one given responsibility of it. David Allen states that if, in a meeting, a project is created, a next action does not have to be generated if someone is given responsibility for seeing the project through. Make sure that all Next Actions and project responsibilities are clear and established.
- Establish deadlines – The group should agree on deadlines for projects and updates. The secretary should record these in the minutes and each participant should record due dates on Next Actions (that are time/date specific) and projects on one’s own calendar. At the end of the meeting, if another meeting is required, that meeting date should be established and put into the minutes and everyone’s personal calendars.
After the Meeting
- Relax – Everyone should have a chance to unwind. This is especially true if various meeting points have been contentious. The extra few minutes of “fellowship” allows time to put “band-aids” on some of the emotional scrapes that may have occurred and give everyone a few minutes to calm down. This will help to prevent members from leaving the room with grudges, with the only relief being sharing their disgruntled feelings and, possibly, confidential information.
- Do all Next Actions That Take Less Than Two-Minutes – Process the Next Actions from your notes that meet David Allen’s two-minute rule. Make the call. Write the memo. Email your assistant (You do have your PDA with you, right?). Many Next Actions can be completed before you leave the room.
- Defer all Next Actions That Will Take Longer Than Two-Minutes – Place them on your context lists now. In OneNote, just a few clicks later, my Next Actions are in Outlook and in my context lists there. Place all Next Actions that are time/date sensitive on your calendar.
- Update Your Meeting File – Remember your meeting file? Update it now while the meeting — and its decisions, interpersonal interactions, emotional outbursts, personal comments, non-verbal signals, etc. — are still fresh.
Now you can leave with all your open loops closed and in your trusted system. You can relax knowing that nothing will be forgotten and many things are underway. What best practices have you seen, heard, or do in meetings?