I can’t begin to count the number of meetings I have attended that broke up without anyone having a clear idea about what was going to happen next. Meetings typically have only three purposes:
1.To provide an informational update—in which case, perhaps no actions are needed.
2.To reach a decision on how to proceed on the matters discussed—in which case, hopefully someone confirmed the decision reached so there is agreement and clear understanding.
3. To advance toward a decision point, and involve the attendees in that progress. This is a common meeting purpose that might lead nowhere—or worse yet—leave people thinking it was leading somewhere when it wasn’t.
It is this latter purpose that I am primarily referring to, but the point I want to make could easily apply to all three. Every meeting needs a few key parts. These are:
- An Agenda: What will be covered? Is there a goal? And who owns this meeting—who called it and will run it?
- A Timetable: Meetings can go on and on without a timetable. Discussions can wander far afield from the primary purpose—unless someone keeps the meeting on topic and on time. Meetings do not necessarily require a full hour to accomplish their purposes—so why do so many people schedule them that way?
- Minutes: To record what was discussed, agreed to, and, most important of all, what was assigned
In these days of computer-based spreadsheets and calendar software, it is easy to prepare minutes, and distribute them to all attendees. One important rule must be covered at the outset. When someone agrees to do something by a certain date, they are expected to do it. If they are unable to do it, they are obligated to inform all the attendees that they cannot meet their commitment and provide them with a revised deadline.
This may sound like common sense, but it is anything but that. Issues linger on unresolved, usually leading to more meetings where nothing is committed to—or ever fully completed. This is very common in early stages of projects, when many of the issues and obstacles are not quite so clear-cut. People feel that time wasted in the early stages of a project is not the same as in the late stages. It is exactly the same.
Waste time early in a project, and very possibly, it might delay the entire result. It’s hard to make up for lost time. There is a critical need for meeting commitments and the appropriate follow-through, or failing that, timely follow-up and resetting the commitment.
Finally, one of the most effective ways to create the appropriate sense of urgency for making and meeting commitments agreed upon in meetings is to calculate the monetary value of delays. Many new products, new programs, and especially improvement programs are justified on the economic returns. These can be broken down into a cost per day, week, or month. When this is done, the realization that each week wasted on a broken promise costs say, $50,000. That opens eyes.
Failing to set and track deadlines leads to missed commitments, delayed schedules, and economic penalties. Create an Excel file, and then a paper-based worksheet with the three columns: What, Who, When. Assign the “Who” to a person—not a department, not a team, not a committee—a person, by name. If everyone is responsible for seeing that something gets done, then essentially no one is really responsible.
Try a few 15 to 20 minute meetings too. Emphasize punctuality. Every minute a key attendee is late is a waste of a minute, times the number of attendees, and those valuable minutes add up fast. One executive I knew would not allow a late attendee to enter the meeting—thus creating a substantial penalty for lateness and emphasizing the value of time.
This works. Use it. It will change the way everyone thinks about and manages meetings—and the commitments that result from them.