Some of my clients go crazy with meetings. They schedule them back to back, invite a cast of thousands, start late and in disarray, drag on unproductively, and end late without closure. Suddenly, everyone is grabbing their stuff, still talking as they push past the people standing clustered outside the door, waiting to come in for the next meeting.

At these meetings, even when discussions seem to result in agreements, it’s hard to tell afterwards if anything actually gets done. Days later, various groups and individuals disagree about their responsibilities, and much aggravation ensues. If any activities commence, many people criticize them.

If you take a structural approach to meeting management, you’ll improve both output and productivity so you don’t have to keep revisiting the same content and the same tensions. If you’re not the leader, get the leadership backing you need to start working on these crucial aspects.

Let Your Agenda Do the Work

The requirements of agenda planning create a discipline around why you’re meeting. Agendas reinforce the meeting’s purpose by identifying who will meet, what content you’ll tackle, for how long, and for which result. Instead of packing the room with folks who’ll share unnecessary opinions, make sure everyone present has crucial data to discuss or decision-making capability. It’s better to hold separate, focused meetings and report conclusions out to a larger group than to have everyone in the room all the time.

Time the agenda to help you focus on meaty discussions and decision making. Designating specific ranges of time for each topic gives you a tool for keeping participation on track, and lets you use your valuable facetime to reach the outcomes you’ve specified as the meeting’s purpose.

Circulate relevant reports and other information in advance to insure that participants prepare. Then you can skip the usual top-of-mind airing of opinions and irrelevant questions.

Keep Accountability in — and Out — of the Meeting

Label related or sidebar topics for later review instead of pursuing them during the course of the meeting. “Let’s take that offline” or “Let’s put that in the parking lot” are terrible business clichés, but they limit distracting conversations. Use these sidebar topics to build subsequent meetings’ agendas, and assign relevant people to research and report so the next discussion can be enlightening, efficient, and productive.

Clarify all decisions and assignments before the meeting ends so that every participant understands who has responsibility or authority for which items, and what will be reported out to non-attendees. Note that this may take longer than anyone expects: Participants often agree conceptually about what needs to be accomplished but disagree fervently about who’s going to implement these agreements.

It can take as much time to get this right as it takes to air the original discussion, so in the early stages, assume that half of the meeting time will be allocated to discussion presentation, and half to clarifying and documenting what’s going to happen before the next meeting. With experience, you may be able to get the clarification portion down to 10 to 20 percent of the meeting.

A Couple of Unusual Recommendations

Dismiss the meeting early to give attendees a few minutes to gather their things, speak briefly with their colleagues on the way out, and clear the room. This will be a boon to both the people waiting to come in and start their meeting on time and your meeting’s attendees, who may be heading to another meeting rather than simply returning to their desks to digest what just happened and do a crucial few minutes of follow-up.

And there’s something else to consider. How any employee behaves as a meeting attendee or leader should be part of their performance evaluation. Poorly-run meetings are an extraordinary waste of organizational time and talent, and people should be held responsible for the productive use of energy and capability. Well-run meetings move events, initiatives, and people forward.

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