How to run an efficient meeting

I often feel that there’s tremendous preventable inefficiency in meetings, so on the heels of Fred Wilson’s “How To Get Your Emails Read” post, here’s some of my quick advice on how to run an efficient meeting. This is somewhat project management-oriented.

The very first and sometimes non-obvious question to ask is whether you really need to have a meeting. Meetings chew up a lot of time and you better be certain that you need to tie up all those productive resources for an hour. Just think about the salaries involved: a fully loaded software engineer conservatively costs a company $200-$250K in San Francisco (fully loaded is with all benefits, taxes, rent, etc. allocated). That’s a minimum hourly rate of around $100 and that doesn’t even include the opportunity cost of them doing something else during that time. Now imagine the cost of more senior staff. It gets expensive fast.

Step two is to ask yourself if you really need all the people you’re considering inviting. Sometimes you can get away with a more junior person who knows the subject matter just as well, yet sometimes you just need that one senior person and you can ask the others to continue being productive by not attending. I’m ok with managers making judgement calls to bring one of their staff members with them to meetings as a silent observer for the purposes of training, but if that doesn’t lead to the manager soon relying on that person to attend in his/her place, it’s a waste of time. The goal here also is to have fewer, but the right voices in place so that a consensus/decision is reached more quickly.¬†Conversely, the question sometimes is whether you have the right people in place to make decisions. If you don’t, forget the junior people and don’t bother having the meeting. You will have wasted everyone’s time.

When you do create the meeting, preparation and planning is key. Like Fred Wilson’s emails, write a good subject line. This will tell people what you want to meet about. Then, take the 2 minutes to write a purpose into the invite and write a brief agenda, even if it’s a strawman for comments and revision prior to the actual meeting. That will tell the invitees why and how you want to have a discussion. Bonus points for allocating time to each item on the agenda.

Make sure the meeting starts on time. If you need time to set up a projector, “pre-attend” the meeting by booking the prior 15 minutes in your calendar and the room to do so. At a minimum, you need to be there and ready on the dot and as the meeting organizer, you really should strive to be the first in the room. If you’ve ordered food/drinks, make sure it’s there before you start. Interruptions suck. There are many other examples, but the bottom line is, you’re taking people’s time, so respect it and void any distractions.

Speaking of distractions, I usually maintain a no cellphones and laptops policy unless you’re taking notes. If you’re at a meeting, it’s simply rude to not pay attention when others speak. Moreover you’re there to engage with the content and you’ll probably waste the time of others later by missing stuff while you’re typing an email – directly because you need to ask them later or indirectly because you make a decision without taking into account the pieces that you missed.

When the meeting commences, the first question to ask yourself is, “do we have everyone here to make decisions?” If key members fail to show, try to find them and give them 10 minutes to be there. If not, cancel the meeting. Seriously, just cancel it. It may seem harsh, but you’ll have only chewed up 15 minutes of everyone’s time and that’s ok as a quick break, because you likely talked about sports and chilled out for a few minutes. I’m definitely not a big fan of proceeding with “let’s just make the decisions without them”, because inevitably they’ll want their say and will likely force you to revisit everything you did. Given that, I have no problem outing the missing person unless they have a very valid excuse and in general that does not include “my other meeting ran over”.

I realize there are some possible exceptions here. For example, if people traveled from far away to attend, the likely culprit is that the urgency and necessity wasn’t communicated for the missing attendees. That would be your fault, because it just ties back to the meeting invite, purpose and agenda you sent out. It likely wasn’t clear enough or you messed up who accepted and who didn’t.

Once the meeting does start, make the appropriate introductions, use one sentence to state the purpose of the meeting and show the agenda. Some folks may not know each other, so state who they are, what they do and why they’re here. You should not be surprised by a single attendee there. If you are, as meeting leader you should introduce yourself when they enter the room. This part of the meeting shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes, preferably less than 30 seconds. Be pithy, get to the meat.

Next up is controlling and facilitating the meeting. This is easy if it’s a presentation and there are whole books on effective presentations, so I won’t cover those. Many meetings involve resolving issues, ideation, brainstorming or other relatively creative tasks. The simplest way I can put it is to focus on three broad rules:

  1. Get ideas on the board. Stand up (or use a projector + computer) and write what is being talked about on the board. Focus on highlighting topics to be covered later and items which later will require action items to be assigned. Note that if you’ve asked nobody else to take notes, you will need to later.
  2. Be an active listener. This means articulate back a summary of major points the members of the meeting make such that you can confirm you understood them. This also is a well-known tactic to put people at ease and make them feel like you’re really letting them get their point across, even if you disagree. Active listing also tends to help if you’re the one to take authoritative notes…
  3. Keep the pace. You’ve created an agenda, so try to stick with it. The more public the display of the agenda is, the easier this is, so consider having it on the whiteboard at all times. A good task for the “pre-attend”. This also makes it easier to silently out those attendees who drag the meeting on unnecessarily. If things are really running awry, you may have to cut your losses at some point and state that there will need to be a follow-up.

Speaking of time, end the meeting on time. As much as you want people to be there on time, you’ve got to give them a chance to be at their next meeting on time. I’ve had situations where meetings are specifically kept to 5 minutes less than the full time slot to allow for this. The dynamics of your company may vary, but be cognizant of the expectations for meetings and don’t be a contributor to the viscous circle of meeting delays.

Lastly, if you didn’t ask anyone to take notes, you will need to assign action items and send out a meeting review. It’s best to set up action items in the flow of the meeting, but I always try to take one minute at the end to review them again with everyone. You’d hate for people to be surprised or not know the context by blindly assigning. Also, never assign an action item to anyone who wasn’t a part of the meeting. By default, you need to be on the hook to follow up with that non-attendee. The meeting review does not need to be lengthy in any way, just makes sure to hit the highlights and major decisions made, besides including the actions items. Send this as soon as you can after the meeting.

This all is of course one person’s opinion and while I certainly slip on parts of it from time to time, sticking to this as much as possible has definitely helped me craft better meetings. I firmly believe that the 10 minutes it takes to perform some of these seemingly excessive and extraneous steps is a vastly lower cost than the cost of miscommunication through not doing them. It may seem like a large-company idea, but even the smallest startup will benefit from this.

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2 thoughts on “How to run an efficient meeting

  1. Hi Tim,

    excellent guidelines. One item I would add here is the courtesy call re cells, BB’s etc. There are certain enterprise/national habits which will need to be respected, but kindly asking attendees to leave their devices in their pockets during an important session will definitely help to focus and get your results quicker.

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