The Best Meetings Are Short

I once told a Programme Manager at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu that I liked my meetings short. “How short is short?” she asked. “15 minutes or less works for me” I replied. She told me that she wished she could persuade some of her customers that 15 minute meetings were a good idea. Clearly she was not a fan of long meetings.

She is not alone. Time magazine’s article What We Hate About Meetings reveals that the most common reason for people disliking them is that they are “disorganised and rambling”. This isn’t exactly a new problem either. Way back in 1996 Fast Company published The Seven Sins of Deadly Meetings one of which is “Meetings are too long. They should accomplish twice as much in half the time.” They even quote Richard Collard of Federal Express as saying “We just seem to meet and meet and meet and we never seem to do anything.”

So how can you make sure your meetings are kept short and to the point? Here are four techniques that I use to achieve exactly that:

Use an Achievement Agenda

The vast majority of agendas I see look like a list of items to discuss. For example:

  1. Ted to report on system test progress
  2. Discuss how to structure user acceptance testing
  3. Consider product marketing

For a meeting to be effective you need to focus on what you are trying to get out of it. Wording an agenda in terms of what you are trying to achieve helps you to do this. The above items could be transformed into:

  1. Decide how to structure user acceptance testing
  2. Nominate someone to take responsibility for product marketing

You might ask what happened to Ted reporting on system test progress? Guess what, that item had no business being on a meeting agenda in the first place. Reporting factual information can be done more efficiently by writing a report, sending an email or even giving a presentation. It does not require a meeting.

Select Attendees

It can be tempting to invite to a meeting anyone who might have something to say about a topic. However for meetings to be effective you need to narrow down your list of attendees to people who fulfil at least one of the following criteria:

  • They have knowledge or expertise that no other attendee has and that is vital to the purpose of the meeting (as defined by the agenda)
  • They can make decisions (whether to approve a budget or commit resources)
  • The meeting will result in them having to do something (i.e. they will be taking actions)

If you discover at this stage that you need some attendees for one agenda item and others for another agenda item then consider splitting your meeting into separate and more tightly focussed gatherings. Better to have three short and effective meetings than one long one where half the attendees have nothing to add for half of the time.

Prepare

Before your meeting takes place you should prepare yourself by:

  • Collecting together any information that is likely to be required (financials, specifications)
  • Deciding on what your preferred outcomes from the meeting are

By spending a small amount of time preparing in this way you are paving the way for each item on the agenda to be dealt with quickly. If you were well prepared for the agenda items above then you would end up saying something like this during the meeting:

For item 1 I prepared and circulated to you all a proposal for user acceptance testing that I based on the strategy we successfully used on our last project. If everyone agrees I suggest we adopt this. I have already talked to Jenny about item 2 and she is happy to take on responsibility for product marketing assuming you are all OK with this?

Total meeting time: less than five minutes.

Record the Results

The outcomes from a meeting should be documented. However do not feel that every meeting you have needs to result in a formal set of minutes. Often an email summarising the key points is adequate. Also avoid the temptation to record every detail of what was said. Writing down the outcomes (i.e. the decisions and actions) with one or two key justifications is all that is needed.

By applying the above rules I have managed to keep my meetings quick and useful. Not only does this save me and my colleagues time but it also makes it easier for me to get the people I really need to attend (no one likes to waste their time). What’s more, short meetings are more enjoyable for everyone concerned, and that has to be a good thing.

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5 comments so far

  1. daviddaly on

    Stefan Töpfer over at The Small Business Blog also recomends keeping meetings short in a post entitled 10 Minute Power Meeting Technique. His recommendation is to plan how long a meeting should be in advance and stick to it.

  2. daviddaly on

    I was interested to read here that when Steve McConnell was at Microsoft in 1990-1991 he typically spent less than 5 hours per week in meetings. Now apparently employees can spend up to 30 hours a week in meetings (which seems to be backed up by this post). I really don’t know what to make of this. I couldn’t credibly say that Microsoft is not a highly successful company but equally I don’t think the sure fire way to becoming a software giant is to pencil back to back meetings into everyone’s calendars! If anyone has any explanations or answers I’d love to hear them…

  3. Penny Pullan on

    Great post! So many people nowadays are in back to back meetings and have no time to actually do the work. You’ve hit on some key things that really ought to be sorted out at the start of meetings. I’ve summarised these (and a couple more) in a graphic form – which really helps to make it easier to remember. Also, you can pop a poster of this on the wall summarising each point for people to refer to during the meeting.

    Have a look here:

    http://www.makingprojectswork.co.uk/Home/LatestNews/tabid/951/Default.aspx

    If anyone would like to receive a card of this, sign up and you’ll also receive ’12 1/2 ways to make your meetings work’:

    http://www.makingprojectswork.co.uk/Default.aspx?tabid=966

  4. daviddaly on

    Hi Penny,

    Thanks for your comment – sounds like you are doing some great work in this area. Please keep me updated with any other useful techniques you discover.

  5. Penny on

    Hi David,

    Just to let you know that I’ve found that a lot of my clients have issues with meetings over conference calls. (They are typically project managers in global organisations.) I’ve been working on how to package up all the meeting knowledge with the specifics for conference calls – and have launched http://www.conferencecalls.com. Let me know what you think. Cheers, Penny


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