Project Practitioners > You Call That a Good Meeting?

You Call That a Good Meeting?

By DeAnna Burghart

"Great meeting," was absolutely the last feedback I'd expected to receive. It had been one of those days, and as a result I'd walked into a big planning session totally unprepared and five minutes late. I presented my apologies and launched into what felt like a fast and loose high-level meeting, got consensus around a few items, and got the group to agree to a second session next month. Total time spent: about 40 minutes for what was supposed to be a highly detailed one-hour one-off meeting.

So when I got not one but three emails complimenting me on how well the meeting had gone, I had to fetch my smelling salts. If that's what you consider a good meeting, I thought, I'd sure hate to see a bad one!

But these people know meetings. For some of them, meetings are practically their primary job task. And as it turns out, I wasn't nearly as unprepared as I felt. There are certain things I do for every meeting, every time, no matter what – my meeting commandments, if you will – and they absolutely saved my bacon. Here's how.

Thou Shalt Write an Agenda

I do not call a meeting more complicated than a two-way phone call without an agenda. The agenda may be nothing more than a two- or three-item bullet list, but by golly, it gets done. The agenda goes out with the invitation, and I bring extra copies to the meeting as a reminder. Even if they only glance at the memo, everyone has a vague idea before we meet of what they should bring to the conversation. (Not sure what should be in an agenda? I use a variation on this model, but we have several. This one and this one are both Member-level items.)

How It Saved Us: All of the right people were there, and they came prepared to make decisions and take action items.

Thou Shalt Take Useful Notes

When I finish a meeting agenda, I immediately set it to triple spacing and send it to the printer. I staple those pages and file them in my cron folder for the meeting date. That morning I get a reminder that I have a meeting, what's on the agenda, and roughly how much ground I should expect to cover, plus a ready-made note-taking pad. I know, I know, dead trees are evil. And most of the time, I agree with you. But I find I take better meeting notes using pens and dead trees. When I'm in front of a laptop, I don't look at people.

How It Saved Us: I ran into that meeting without any of the prep work I'd intended to create. Because I was using the agenda to take notes, I had an instant attendance sheet, I knew where to start and how long to go for, and mad scribbles like "Sherrie will send" and "Edgar needs counts by Thanksgiving" were made next to the relevant agenda items instead of on a random legal pad. Not only do I have notes, I have notes that make sense in context. That's gold, even if they never get typed up. (These did.) It makes it very easy to see whether or not you've actually achieved your meeting goals.

Thou Shalt Begin with the Ends In Mind

Sometimes the meeting objectives are the agenda, but in this case there was a lot of detail underlying those four bullet points. For longer or more formal meetings, I always make sure the objectives are spelled out separately at the very top, right under the attendees.

How It Saved Us: I didn't get to walk in waving my badge of honor ("Look! Look how organized I am!") but my brain had been working on those objectives in the background – mulling them over, considering what a win might look like, thinking about information or decisions that might be necessary. I walked in feeling unprepared because I hadn't created a bunch of lists, but I'd actually been thinking about it for weeks. That allowed me to keep things focused.

Thou Shalt Learn from Thy Mistakes

Our first order of business was lessons learned from last year. Yes, it meant time away from this year's planning, but I'm a firm believer in making use of the past to improve the present and future.

How It Saved Us: With several participants going over their notes and raising things they thought went well and things they wanted to improve, I wasn't responsible for all of the meeting content. (Good thing, given the day I'd had.) More importantly, several of those discussions resulted in group consensus about things I thought I'd have to beg for. People who feel they're truly included in decision making are much happier to contribute.

Thou Shalt Watch Thy Watch

Ten minutes into our lessons learned discussion, the same person was still talking. She asked me for feedback on something, and this is how I responded. "Yes, I agree. And also … [watch check] … We're taking up quite a bit of time. Is everyone okay with spending another five or ten minutes on this? Are we getting good actionable stuff out of this?" There was a chorus of approval and assent. "Great, I think this is really valuable. Back to your question, yes, I agree, and I think …"

How It Saved Us: At this point we weren't focused on the agenda, but we were focused on the work that mattered to everyone, and the results we wanted. You can't ask for more than that. The agenda is a tool, not a cudgel. I showed them I respected their time, I respected their input, and that I held them in higher regard than the paper I was writing on. Speaking of which …

Thou Shalt Maintain Respect. ALWAYS.

Where two or more are gathered together, someone will lose focus. Eventually, there will be a side conversation, or even a complete disruption. You can ignore it, be offended, or handle it as a meeting issue rather than a personal issue. It's probably no surprise which strategy I favor.

How It Saved Us: We had several side conversations, especially after the half-hour mark. One involved four people and completely hijacked one end of the table. But I hold these colleagues in extremely high regard, and I simply waited calmly. Once they had a break I asked for clarification on the point they had been discussing. Turns out, it was material to the agenda item. The conversations simply split up for a moment while a functional group quickly solved a problem that affected them. I thanked them and took down the relevant notes. Hey, they saved me work! I don't have to call them and ask about it now! (More suggestions for keeping meetings on track.)

Thou Shalt Stay at the Right Level of Detail

It's so tempting to solve problems as soon as you see them, but unless you're in a problem solving meeting it's almost always a bad idea. Likewise taking action item status. *YAWN* Is there anything more mind-numbing than sitting through 45 minutes of "Francisco, what's status on this? Carl, what's status on this? Alison, what's the status on this?" It's like that teacher you had who used to stand in front of the room and read the textbook. Problems are solved in problem solving meetings, status is handled through email and phone calls, and planning meetings are for – wait for it – planning.

How It Saved Us: Like any other human gathering we wandered off topic a few times. The minute I saw eyes glazing over, I redirected the conversation. "Well, we don't have to involve everyone here in that decision. Can I put that on the issue list and email you about it later? Great. [takes a note] That's on my action item list. OK, what's next?" Knowing there is an end in sight keeps people engaged.

Thou Shalt Direct without Controlling

A meeting is presumably held because a group of people will accomplish their goals most rapidly by collaborating in real time. (If this is not the reason for your meeting, consider whether you really need one.) When one person holds forth for 45 minutes while everyone else listens, it's not a meeting; it's a keynote address. I can monopolize a conversation with the best of them, so I try to diffuse this known flaw by handing the floor to someone else early in the meeting. Then I tell myself to shut up, take notes, and listen.

How It Saved Us: These are serious people with busy lives, and they don't have time to listen to me think. Because I handed off the floor almost immediately, we launched the meeting with a fantastically productive lessons learned discussion instead of a rambling 15-minute bout of logorrhea while I tried to organize my thoughts. Everyone got some work done while I was collecting myself. I don't even want to think about the alternative.

Thou Shalt Be Grateful

Hey, people don't have to show up, you know. And even if you've managed to compel them, they certainly don't have to participate. I'm not talking about expressing gratitude here, I'm talking about feeling it. When you feel gratitude you're more likely to express it frequently and appropriately. People really respond to being appreciated. (More in the next couple of weeks on grateful leadership.)

How It Saved Us: I scurried in breathless, five minutes late, with nothing but my file, my triple-spaced agenda, and an attitude of gratitude. I thanked them for their patience, apologized for my tardiness, and respected their time by getting down to business. I thanked people for meeting contributions as they happened, for taking on action items, and for volunteering to look into risks and issues. And when it was over I thanked everyone for their time, and for their work that day and to come. It's easy to be annoyed when someone disrespects your time by coming late and unprepared. It's very hard to stay annoyed when you're being treated with respect, consideration, and appreciation.

Looking back over these notes, I can think of many things I would have done differently. I'd intended to prepare an action item log and issue list in advance. I would have done the lessons learned as a round robin instead of an open discussion, because several people stayed pretty quiet. I would have appointed a separate facilitator, and for sure I would have allowed extra time to get there and set up. But as it is, we had clear objectives, good attitudes, and a room full of people rallied around a common vision.

Sounds like a pretty good meeting after all.

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