8 Ways to Avoid Unproductive Meetings


July 9, 2008   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Have you watched CareerBuilder.com’s hilarious “Donut Jungle” commercial? The one where naïve employees are lured with delicious desserts into attending pointless meetings? The commercial is hilarious because it contains a hint of truth: many meetings, especially in larger organizations, are utterly pointless and devoid of usefulness.

The phenomenon of chronic, pointless meetings is also known as the Dilbert Meeting in some circles. Dilbert Meetings happen every day, wasting people’s time and patience.

Meetings can be quite productive, but most organizers simply don’t take the steps to guarantee that a meeting will be useful. Here are 8 things you can try to help make your meetings more productive:

  • Have a clear agenda
    What do you want to cover during the meeting and why are you holding it? Do you want to go over new ideas, or perhaps review some old ones? Prepare a clear agenda of things that you want to discuss during the meeting and hand it out in advance.

Don’t hold meetings just because your department always has biweekly meetings; only hold meetings because you need to and because you have a clear plan of what needs to be said and discussed.

  • Make sure that only attendees are people who need to be present
    Don’t hinder the rest of your organization by dragging everybody into a meeting if only four or five people actually need to be there. If people other than the attendees need to be informed about what was discussed at the meeting then take notes and email it to them afterwards. 
  • Establish objectives for the meeting
    Establish clear objectives for what you want to get out of the meeting – the agenda covers what’s going to be discussed during the meeting but your objectives cover what the discussion is going to accomplish. Discussion is great, but it’s not productive if it does not have a goal.

Here’s an example of a good goal for a production meeting for a multi-author blog: we’re meeting today to determine the schedule for all blog posts over the next six months. It clearly states what the discussion should work towards and makes the expectations for the meeting clear.

  • Have the attendees prepare in advance (if necessary)
    If your meeting requires its attendees to present information and plans then you should require them to prepare materials in advance like handouts, PowerPoint presentations, and outlines. 

Do you really want to sit through another meeting where you watch your attendees scrawl unintelligible impromptu graphs on the whiteboard instead of giving you the information in a neatly summarized handout beforehand? No? Then tell your attendees to prepare in advance.

  • Keep it short
    Everybody has something to say – unfortunately there isn’t enough time in the day to listen to all of it. The law of diminishing returns applies to meetings too – the longer a meeting runs past a certain threshold, the less productive each additional minute becomes. 

There are a number of things you can try to keep your meeting brief (time boxing, limited speaking time, etc…) but the most important thing is to do something to keep it short. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the attendees and organizers of the meeting make a conscious effort to keep things brief.

  • Record key points and decisions
    It’s crucial that key points, ideas, information, and action items are recorded during a meeting – attendees and other people influenced by what’s discussed during the meeting need to be able to go back and review what was discussed and more importantly, what was decided during the meeting. 

Most people record meetings using hand-written outlines, which they often compile into typed notes; others sometimes record the audio of the meeting and use that to produce a written outline after the meeting has concluded. Again, it doesn’t matter what system you use as long as someone records what was discussed and decided during the meeting and distributes those notes to all of the other attendees and interested parties.

  • Create action items and assign them
    The most important part about making a meeting productive is to make the attendees accountable for implementing the decisions rendered during the meeting. The best way to do this is to create “action items,” actionable tasks that are assigned to some or all of the attendees. 

Obviously action items must be recorded and distributed along with any notes from the meeting; it’s important that you or one of the other attendees record to whom each action item has been assigned and when each action item is due. This kind of public assignment helps hold the attendees accountable for implementing the decisions rendered during a meeting.

  • Report progress and follow-up
    Lastly, you want actively investigate the progress of the meeting’s action items and to inform the other attendees of the progress of the action items that all of you agreed upon. 

Post-meeting communication is simply another tool to help keep your meeting attendees accountable for implementing the decisions made during the meeting and it also helps eliminate future, unnecessary “progress meetings.”

There are probably millions of other ways to help make meetings more productive, but I think these tips will produce the best return on your investment. If you have any other thoughts on the subject feel free to leave comments below.

Written on 7/09/2008 by Aaron Stannard, editor of Working Smarter.

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