Meetings - ah, that bête noire of the corporate world! How many of us fret when called for meetings? Along with email, most executives view meetings as one of the most unproductive aspects of day-to-day life of the corporate world. Based on several years of reading on the topic and empirical experience of figuring out the best way of conducting meetings, here are a few tips to make them productive:

executive_productive_meetings1. No meetings without an agenda: How often have we attended meetings wherein we figure out the agenda as we go along? Needless to add, a meeting of minds is well-nigh impossible if a focal point or targeted goalpost is missing. The agenda needs to be clear so that people share their thoughts on the topic and not talk about their life history.

2. No agenda without action items: A fundamental premise underpinning the usage of language is the intent to execute. I have seen that action-oriented executives typically think in terms of verbs. A meeting on "the strategic approach for the next three years" tends to be far more unproductive than a meeting on "the top three actions to ramp up revenue by 50 percent."

3. No action items without owners: How often have we heard that what belongs to everybody belongs to nobody? Ownership needs to be defined in terms of a single individual (even if there is a need for co-ordination). Dual/multiple ownership very often leads to lack of execution since each person thinks the onus is on the other person.

4. Stand-up meetings: Practiced by several executives with a fair degree of success, the physical aspect of meetings (sitting comfortably in chairs, mulling over endless cups of coffee) can lead to meetings becoming ends in themselves rather than being viewed as means to an end. The very act of standing up conveys the intent to finish the meeting quickly; and the physical discomfort of standing for a long time brings in brevity.

5. Ruthless focus: It is essential to have two aids (a time-keeper and a visual display of the goal of the meeting) to ensure that people do not digress. Scope creep is one of the most under-estimated, oft-recurring reasons for unproductive meetings.

6. Metricize: We don't measure what we don't manage. A great way to ensure that meetings do not take up more than, say, 20-30 percent of our time is to add all meetings to the calendar so that everyone can clearly see the number of hours blocked for meetings.

7. Follow up: Every meeting on a recurring theme needs to ensure that the first few minutes are spent reviewing the progress on the action items from the previous meeting. Otherwise there is a real danger that people can very quickly become cynical in their approach towards subsequent meetings with a view that "nothing happens anyway" during these meetings.

8. Time caps: Attention spans are very limited. A golden rule is to ensure that meetings do not last beyond, say, two hours. The tendency to have the "mother" of all meetings to discuss everything under the sun needs to be curbed!

9. Add value, not weight: There is a tendency to involve senior executives (when they are not really required) because people think they add weight to meetings. The crux is to involve only those who add value (even if it means restricting the meeting to people at junior levels who execute stuff) so that discussions are meaningful.

My own view towards meetings (as a leader & organizer and also as a participant & invitee) has evolved over the years, based on these simple tips. Today I view them as productive tools to help accomplish organizational goals rather than as drags on otherwise productive work.


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