Dear Jayme,

I keep having meetings with my people that don't accomplish anything. I set out with a purpose, but the meetings get off track and nothing gets resolved or decided. I'm back where I started and everybody's time is wasted. What do I do?


Dear Nathan,

Most people who have attended more than three meetings before will tell you, are generally boring, unproductive and a waste of time. Curiously, running an effective meeting isn't difficult or complicated (though you'd think it was like cold fusion given how few people know how). It does require a bit of effort and discipline.

Your meetings are like your golf game: If you don't practice, show up at the last minute, don't warm up and then tee off, and you'll be in the weeds. Do your homework, give it some thought, create and follow a game plan, and things will probably go better. Here we go:

  • Have a clear reason for the meeting. No reason? Cancel the meeting. Nothing worse than a meeting just to have a meeting.
  • Distribute the agenda in advance. If you can't take the time and energy to put an agenda together and send the agenda out at least a day before the meeting, don't call the meeting. Ask attendees for items they want on the agenda. 
  • Make sure each attendee knows his part in the meeting. An update? A presentation? Make it clear that they can't just wing it.
  • No meeting unless all required attendees are there, and attendance is mandatory. Meetings are often about decisions, and you can't make them without the key players input. Without the whole team, the meeting is usually a waste of time.
  • Include a time schedule. Use "clock time," i.e.: "9:00-9:05 AM: Overview by Joe, "9:05-9:10 AM: Bill update on new building status" etc. If Bill sees the agenda and says that he needs more than five minutes, expand his segment, but make it clear that people are expected to speak their piece in the time allotted.
  • Follow the agenda ruthlessly. If it's not on the agenda, it doesn't get discussed. They all had a chance to add to the agenda. If they ignored the chance, tough. You can schedule time for open discussion at the end, if absolutely needed.
  • Establish the rules. Start and end on time. One speaker at a time, no side conversations, no cell phones, no interruptions. Stay on topic, respect the schedule. Yes, this is picky. Yes, people will complain, but they're the reason meetings fail.

Note: Side conversations are particularly bad. They distract others, they're rude and the people involved aren't hearing the content of the meeting, which means they either have to be told again or miss their assignments entirely. Break people of this habit as soon as possible.

  • Document the proceedings. Document what was decided, who was assigned to do what and by when. What new issues were raised, and how are they to be handled. Assign someone to write everything down at every meeting, or record it and have it written up later.
  • Distribute the notes. Notes make everyone crystal clear on who's responsible for what and when. All attendees should review notes to ensure their part is accurate. This will prevent the statement "But I thought we decided..." will disappear.
  • Tie the follow-up to the last meeting. Use the notes/issues/assignments from this meeting to establish the agenda for the next. Get it?

Yes, I know that these rules won't work in every situation every time, but for 90 percent of your meetings, they'll do just fine.

You must actively run the meeting. If you don't, it will take on a life of its own and run itself which would, invariably, be a disaster.

As the boss, you have power to call your employees into meetings. You may use this power for good or evil. Wing it, and you'll accomplish little and frustrate everyone. Get organized, do your homework, establish and enforce the rules, and your meetings will be the stuff of legends.






Construction Business Owner, October 2008