The Seven Imperatives to Keeping Meetings on Track
There’s nothing more annoying than a meeting that goes on and on and on. As a manager, it’s your job to make sure people don’t go off on tangents or give endless speeches. But how can you keep people focused without being a taskmaster or squashing creativity?
What the Experts Say
The good news is that meeting management isn’t rocket science; you probably already know what you should be doing. The bad news is that keeping your meeting on track takes discipline, and few people make the effort to get it right. “The fact is people haven’t thought about how to run a good meeting, or they’ve never been trained, or they’re simply too busy,” says Bob Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, senior fellow at Brookings Institute, and author of Extreme Productivity. “Organizations are moving faster and faster these days and few managers have time to think through their meetings in advance,” says Roger Schwarz, an organizational psychologist and author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. But rushing now is only going to cost you more time later. So whether you’re getting ready for a weekly team meeting or convening a larger group to discuss your division’s strategy, it’s important to put in the effort. Here’s how to make your next meeting your most productive one yet.
Make the purpose clear
You can head off a lot of problems by stating the reason for getting together right up front. Schwarz recalls seeing a sign in a conference room at Intel’s headquarters that read: If you don’t know the purpose of your meeting, you are prohibited from starting. This is a wise rule. Send an agenda and any background materials ahead of time so people know what you’ll cover. Consider sending a list of things that won’t be discussed in the meeting as well. Schwarz suggests that you list agenda items as a question — rather than “Discuss video schedule” write “When will videos be completed?” to show what outcome you have in mind. Next to each item, you can also indicate participants’ roles — are they sharing information, contributing ideas, or making a decision?
Control the size
Meetings can get out of control if there are too many people in the room. “Chances are they won’t be attentive or take responsibility for what’s happening,” says Pozen. But with too few people, you may not have enough diversity of opinion. Only include those who are critical to the meeting. “Don’t feel you have to invite everyone who ever thought about the problem,” he says. “If you think someone might be offended, you can send out a memo and loop back with them afterward so they know what’s happening.”
Set the right tone
As a manager, it’s up to you to ensure that people feel comfortable enough to contribute. “You’re there to be a steward of all the ideas in the room,” says Schwarz. Set the right tone by modeling a learning mindset. Instead of using the time to convince people of your viewpoint, be open to hearing other’s perspectives. Explain that you don’t have all the answers, nor does anyone else in the room. Be willing to be wrong. Schwarz says you want “participants to see the team meeting as a puzzle — their role is to get the pieces out on the table and figure out how they fit together.”
“People often give speeches instead of asking questions,” says Pozen. It’s tough to cut a rambler off, but sometimes it’s necessary. Schwarz suggests saying, “OK, Bob, you’re absolutely right and is it ok if we talk about that later?” Getting his buy-in will ensure that he doesn’t return to his speech at the next opportunity. For someone who is prone to long-windedness, talk with her ahead of time or during a break, and ask that she keep her comments to a minimum to allow others to be heard.
Sometimes it’s not that an individual goes on too long but he raises extraneous points. “If two or three people bring up things that are contiguous but not really related, the meeting can degenerate,” says Pozen. Try to refocus them on the stated agenda. On occasion, someone may intentionally go on a tangent. Maybe he feels territorial about a decision you’re making or is unhappy with the direction you’re taking the conversation. “Rather than accuse the person of trying to derail your meeting, ask what’s going on. Pozen suggests you say something like, “You’ve diverted us several times. Is there something’s that bothering you?” Addressing the underlying issue head on can help appease the dissenter and get your meeting back on topic.
Make careful transitions
“Typically leaders go from topic to topic, moving ahead when they’re ready to,” says Schwarz. “But people don’t always move with you and they may get stuck in the past.” Before you transition from one agenda item to another, ask if everyone is finished with the current topic. “You need to give people enough air time,” says Pozen. This will help keep the conversation focused.
End the meeting well
A productive meeting needs to end on the right note to set the stage for the work to continue. Pozen suggests you ask participants, “What do we see as the next steps? Who should take responsibility for them? And what should the timeframe be?” Record the answers and send out an email so that everyone is on the same page. This helps with accountability, too. “No one can say they’re not sure what really happened,” says Pozen.
Principles to Remember
- Make the meeting purpose clear and send an agenda out ahead of time
- Talk to anyone who might monopolize meeting time before you get in the room and ask him to keep comments to a minimum
- Send out a follow-up email after the meeting that lists next steps, who’s responsible for them, and when they’ll get done
- Feel obliged to invite lots of people — only include those who are critical to making progress
- Move on to a new topic until everyone feels they’ve been heard
- Let the group get distracted by tangents — ask if you can address unrelated topics another time
Case study #1: Let everyone be heard
As the vice president of maintenance, repair, and overhaul at American Airlines, Bill Collins was tasked with improving the company’s relationship with unionized workers. To help facilitate conversation, Bill set up town hall-style meetings with Tulsa operation’s 6,500 employees. He quickly realized that these gatherings weren’t efficient or productive. “There hadn’t been town-hall meetings in 15 years and people had a lot of pent up anxiety that they wanted to get off their chests. They wanted to hang me,” he says. The meetings were scheduled for one hour but often lasted two.
Bill decided to make some changes. First, he made the meetings smaller by dividing them up by business and shift so that each only had about 250 people. “They still wanted to hang me but as least the conversation was manageable,” he says. Second, he changed the tone of the meeting by opening with a proposed agenda and asking for input. “I’d say, ‘Here’s what we want to discuss. What do you want to discuss?’” And if someone wanted to talk about something that wasn’t on the agenda, Bill would respond, “We’ll go to any level of detail you’d like on that topic during the Q&A. Is that OK?” He’d then wait for at least a head nod before moving on.
When Bill first described this approach to his fellow executives, many expressed concern that the meetings would take even longer if everyone had the chance to be heard. But he was invested in making it work. “The natural tendency for the workforce is to not trust management,” he says. “This process builds trust.” And, after the first of these newly revamped meetings, he had the proof he needed. “There were no raised voices,” he says. “It was calm, cordial, and it ended well. Leaders of the local union said it was the best meeting they’d been to.”
Case study #2: Actively manage disrupters
When Betsy Stubblefield Loucks took over as executive director of HealthRIght, a nonprofit focused on healthcare policy in Rhode Island, one of her responsibilities was to convene a monthly meeting with 20 people from various organizations with a stake in healthcare reform, such as labor, hospitals, insurers, and consumer advocates. The goal was to problem-solve and reach agreement about how the organization should approach different aspects of reform. In the past, the meetings were structured around specific topics but they didn’t have stated outcomes or a process for reaching resolution. As a result, participants would often just talk about issues they cared most about. “People had hot button issues and would make speeches about them,” she says.
Betsy decided to do something different with the agenda; she put the desired outcomes for each meeting at the top. This helped focus the conversation. She also made an effort to build relationships with people who tended to dominate the conversation. “Health care reform is a very broad — and deeply sensitive — topic. Our members are very passionate about their issues, and some people would have the same debates over and over because they didn’t feel heard,” she says. She set up meetings with these participants in advance of the monthly coalition meeting to let them vent to her personally and check her understanding of their perspective. Then when the group was together, she would represent that person’s opinion — with their permission — in a more concise way.
For particularly difficult people, she would assign someone to actively manage them during the meeting. “There was one person who would give the same stump speech over and over,” she says. So she asked a member of her executive committee to sit next to him, and when he started going on, to interrupt him. The executive committee member did this respectfully saying, “I think you’re making a great point,” and then would summarize his perspective. This helped the rambler feel like his point had been understood. It also helped Betsy keep focused on the meeting. “That way I wasn’t the only one playing traffic cop and he didn’t have to get mad at me,” she says.
Betsy uses these same approaches in smaller meetings as well. “Anytime I meet with more than one other person, I use these tactics. When I have the right people in the room, send out a clear agenda, and talk to any difficult people in advance, my meetings go much more smoothly,” she says.