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5 steps to saving time in meetings

Posted on from HRM Global

Would you like to spend less time in meetings and make the ones you do have more productive? Hannah McNamara outlines a simple coaching model which can help you to achieve this.

Step 1: T – topic

Make sure you and everyone else is clear about what's to be discussed in the meeting.  All too often meetings are scheduled into people's diaries with ambiguous titles such as 'update meeting'. There's no point having meetings for the sake of them.  The person chairing the meeting owes it to all the people invited to tell them what the meeting is about to give them a chance to prepare. 

Not telling people what a meeting's about is like inviting friends over but not mentioning you're having a barbecue and you'd like everyone to contribute some food. People come unprepared, are embarrassed and they end up disappearing out to the shops to get burgers, beer and lemonade, rather than spending time with the group.  In the same way if you don't tell people what to prepare, you can't blame them if they want to nip out to get some information or can't give you all the facts.

Step 2: G – goal

Without a goal or purpose, meetings drift into pointless debates or points scoring exercises. Starting the meeting with a particular goal in mind means that it's easier to keep on track, make sure everyone gets what they need and the meeting is more likely to finish on time.  Whether you're organising the meeting or attending someone else's meeting, think about what you need to get from it and how you'll know you've got what you need.

It's a bit like when you go into the kitchen, open the cupboards and see lots of ingredients in front of you. There are lots of things you could cook and unless you make a decision on what you're going to make, you can end up mixing the wrong ingredients together. Setting a goal for a meeting reminds me of following a recipe book.

Once everyone's clear about what you're cooking and you know what the dish looks like, it's easy to follow the steps to making it.

Meetings are scheduled for a variety of reasons and the commonest ones are below together with suggestions on the goal for the meeting:

  • To keep 'everyone in the loop' – examples of goals: at the end of the meeting for everyone to be clear about what other people are doing and what they need to do to support; to give everyone a chance to air their thoughts and agree on which projects are to be prioritised
  • To plan for a project – examples of goals: to leave the meeting with a Gantt chart showing the major activities which need to happen and when; to identify possible obstacles to the project and make a contingency plan
  • To formalise decisions which have already been made – examples of goals: to do a 'sense' check on the proposed course of action and get everyone's agreement on it; to inform the rest of the group about the reasons behind the decision.

With the final point on formalising decisions, for the meeting to be productive everyone around the table needs to be aware of what the decision is. This type of meeting often backfires when only a selected number of people have been involved in the decision and present it without getting other people's input – or worse are trying to conceal the fact a decision has already been made. Unfortunately this often happens in highly political companies where certain people have closed ranks and it has the effect of singling out and embarrassing an unpopular person in front of the group if they hold an opposing view – not good for team working.

Where there are multiple goals for a meeting, the best course of action is to circulate an agenda in advance. Not only does this allow people to prepare, but it also means that it's obvious there is going to be limited time for each point before you as a group need to move on to the next one.  The agenda doesn't need to be a formal document; it can be bullet points on the meeting invitation. The important point is sticking to the agenda when in the meeting and being mindful of time.  If there are important topics to be discussed, don't leave them to the end of the meeting when you are likely to be running out of time. If items crop up which aren't on the agenda, agree with the group to 'park' them for another meeting or for the AOB section if there is time.

Step 3: R – reality

What's going on right now? This is the stage of the meeting which can take up the most time if you're not careful. If there are wafflers in the group, be clear with everyone about what information people will need to know from them and what you don’t need to know. I've found that this stage of the process can be made more effective by asking people to answer more specific questions:

  • What have you tried so far?
  • What worked and what didn't?
  • Who have you asked for help?
  • What obstacles are currently standing or could stand in your way?

As a coach myself, I know it's much easier to ask these kinds of questions in the privacy and honesty of a coaching session than in front of others in a meeting. So start with using this approach in the meetings with your team. They'll get used to you asking these kinds of questions and come to meetings more prepared and also taking greater ownership of their work, rather than team meetings being a chance to pass the buck or have a moan about how busy they are. You might want to adapt the questions so you're taking a less direct approach in meetings with your peers or boss.

Essentially what you're doing at this stage is information gathering. It can also be the catalyst for ideas for step 4. But before we come onto that, let's go back to the kitchen cupboard we talked about earlier. Once you've decided what you're going to make, you need to check you've got all the ingredients you need and they aren't past their 'use by' date on the pack. If some ingredients are missing, you now know you need to pop out and buy them before you can complete the meal – that’s why this stage of the process is so important.

Step 4: O – options

Essentially this is the step where suitable options are put on the table an evaluated. Depending on the nature of the meeting, this could take the form of brainstorming or it could just be a case of presenting two or three possible solutions.

When I have one-to-one coaching sessions with clients and run team coaching sessions, this can be the most enlightening stage of the process. With some encouragement, people come up with ideas that they either might have been embarrassed to share for fear of being thought silly or ideas which simply didn't occur to them because they were previously under too much pressure.

In the context of a meeting, however, the set-up isn't the same. People are eager to get through the agenda quickly and it's not the place for unstructured blue-sky thinking, especially if you get the sense that a decision has already been made or the group already have a preferred option. It's a fact of life that the process of deciding on a course of action is tinged with political game-playing or buck-passing - even if people don't admit to themselves that they're doing it. We can argue it shouldn't be like that and try to change the way business is done, but that's part of a bigger discussion and what we're talking about here is saving time in meetings.

For you to get what you need out of meetings, come prepared with a couple of well-thought-through options and be ready to present your reasoning behind it. Unfortunately some of the best suggestions get rejected by groups because they seem vague, too hard to do or people say they'll take too much time. Be ready to counter any objections if you've got your heart set on a particular course of action. If you believe that strongly about it, solicit support from the individuals in the group before the meeting so the meeting is held to formalise a decision that you've already reached with others (see earlier).

Step 5: W – way forward

In coaching sessions this is the stage when the coachee sets actions to be completed with deadlines of when they are going to do them by. The final stage of a meeting is no different. It should end with everyone clear about what's going to happen, who's responsible for making it happen and when. The taking of meeting minutes doesn't happen as much as it used to in business and people have got out of the habit of making firm commitments to themselves and their colleagues. You can take control back by volunteering to record the minutes, write them up and circulate them. It really doesn't have to be a big job. After all, it's simply a list of decisions made, next steps, who is responsible and a deadline. Being in control of the minutes means you can push people to make decisions and commitments by saying, 'For the minutes, who's going to do that?' It's less intrusive and you’re less likely to be seen as the annoying person who's always trying to get other people to do things.

While taking the minutes might feel like a pain, it gets things done. When the minutes are circulated quickly the momentum keeps going. It also means people have got something to refer to when they 'cram' for the next meeting - you know, when people run around in the hours and minutes leading up to it thinking, 'What did I say I was going to do last time? Eek! I'd better get it done before the meeting or I'll be in trouble.'

To sum up, meetings can be made more effective by using some simple tools. Just because they are simple, doesn't necessarily mean they are easy. It takes work and knowing the model isn't enough to make a difference. Taking the coaching approach means the emphasis is on action, rather than talk or intellectually knowing something. “If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got”.

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