5 Secrets for Effective Meetings

Unproductive meetings are the blight of our work lives — and we all have the stories to prove it. Meetings in which there are no clear agendas or leaders, the least pressing issues run out the clock or it goes into overtime without having reached a consensus. Worse yet are those in which an agreement is finally reached, but everyone walks away with a different idea of what that was.

To ensure that decisions, rather than discussions, become the focus of your next meeting, try these simple tips:

1. Understand the difference between urgent and important

If urgent issues (those demanding your immediate attention) have a habit of overshadowing important ones (those that impact your long-term goals), it’s time to recalibrate. “What is important is seldom urgent,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower was fond of saying, “and what is urgent is seldom important.”

2. Distribute materials several days in advance

Giving everyone time to review the agenda, get up to speed on important topics and form thoughtful questions ahead of time, eliminates the need for lengthy explanations and time-consuming summaries.

3. Include a cover sheet

Highlight each item on the agenda with the reason for their inclusion — for information purposes, for discussion and debate, or for action and decision. This practice, employed by Cadbury Schweppes for nearly 20 years, allows participants to absorb information in advance and seek input from others on issues designated for discussion and debate. “In other words,” writes Geoffrey James in an post for Inc., “use your valuable meeting time to create the future rather than summarize the past.”

4. Use a timer

There’s a reason TED Talks are capped at 18 minutes. It’s the point at which we as an audience become mentally and physically fatigued. Time constraints also force speakers to be concise. Though the newfound popularity of the stand-up meeting does encourage creativity and collaboration, it’s likely that the sheer discomfort of standing for prolonged periods is what guarantees their focus and efficiency. The humble analog kitchen timer, with its audible tick-tock urgency, has even succeeded in bringing meetings at the likes of Google Ventures to heel.

5. Include only those who are essential

Pulling people away from productive work to attend meetings can be costly and risks over-complicating the decision-making process by adding too many voices. Keep the maximum number of participants to between seven and ten and consider designating what Apple calls a DRI (directly responsible individual) for every task on the agenda, so everyone walks away understanding their own responsibilities. Or, “throw out the least necessary person at the table,” suggests Ken Segall, a close collaborator of Steve Jobs and the author of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success. “[Jobs’s] expectation was that everyone in the room would be an essential participant,” Segall recalls. “Spectators were not welcome.”
 The shape of meetings continues to evolve in favor of efficiency. So be it a walking meeting or something as simple as creating a “parking lot” for off-topic ideas that are worth revisiting at a later date but not entertaining now, it’s likely your meetings could use a tweak or two.

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