7 Ways to Run Meetings That Don't Waste Your Time

09/17/2013 10:15 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Meetings are the scourge of modern professional life. Sometimes, they're vital to exchanging information and hashing out innovative ideas. Other times, they're a vampiric force that sucks the lifeblood out of participants. Which kind of meetings does your company have? Here are some strategies to fend off the more pernicious elements of contemporary meeting mania.

1) Know Why You're Meeting. Having a meeting to provide "general updates" can devolve quickly, because -- while it's nice for your colleagues to know what you're up to -- it can morph into "see how hard I'm working/how many projects I'm juggling!" time. Make it clear whether the goal of a particular meeting is to provide updates, discuss general strategy, or deal with a particular issue. Sharply limit the time you spend on update meetings (some organizations have daily 10 minute check-ins in which participants literally stand to disincentivize babbling), be sure to schedule periodic (at least quarterly) meetings to discuss broader strategy, and don't hesitate to call for a targeted "ad hoc meeting" to deal with a particular issue that warrants further discussion.

2) Have the Right People There. Are you bored stiff in a meeting? That's a good warning sign you shouldn't be there, and have nothing to contribute. The meeting's convener should think carefully about the "guest list" in advance to ensure both that everyone relevant is in attendance, and that no one is there without a clear understanding of what they're expected to contribute. If "keeping them informed" is your only goal, you can probably do that a lot better with a follow-up email they can read in two minutes, rather than wasting an additional 88 minutes of their lives. And encourage a culture in which employees feel empowered to ask, Why am I here? If they don't know, odds are, they're wasting your company's time and money by sitting there, so you'd better either clarify or let them move on to more important tasks.

3) Group Your Agenda Items. Every meeting should have a written agenda to keep you on track. And every agenda should be grouped into four categories -- A) Consent Agenda; B) Discussions; C) Decisions; and D) Information.

  • The consent agenda consists of procedural matters you can get out of the way in seconds -- approval of minutes or other formalities. All attendees should understand they need to read over material prior to the meeting, not when they get there, so they're ready to approve the consent agenda.
  • The real meat of a meeting is the discussions you have, which lead to the decisions you make (Should we approve the merger? Hire Tom or Mary as our next executive director? Expand to California or Florida next?). But almost always, you need to discuss the issues first. In effective meetings, a good 95 percent of your time should consist of discussions and decisions based on them.
  • Finally, you have the information piece of your meetings ("Let me explain my research." "Here's what happened in that meeting last week." "I'm going to a conference in New Jersey.") This is the biggest potential time-suck. Leave it for the end of your meetings, and if you don't get to it, fine. You can ask everyone to write up a short email and send it around. FYIs are nice, but don't have to happen in a group setting -- whereas discussions and decisions do.

4) Start and End on Time. This starts with the leader -- the person who calls the meeting. If a culture emerges of meetings that start and end late, eventually you're playing "meeting chicken." No one wants to waste their time arriving at 3 p.m. if the meeting won't really get going until 3:15 p.m. Eventually, it slips even further. Don't let it happen, even if it meets starting without key participants and shaming them as they saunter in late.

5) Don't Be Afraid to Spin It Off. The way to keep your meetings on task and not drop the ball on important topics that emerge? Identify critical issues you don't have time to address in the meeting (sales slippage in the Midwest, high employee turnover, ways to capitalize on a major industry award) and call for a "spin off," ad hoc meeting to deal specifically with that issue.

6) Keep It Moving. The meeting convener needs to take responsibility for keeping to the agenda. If someone's rambling, the "boss" of the meeting needs to call them on it politely ("That's a great point, and I'm glad you brought it up, but I know we're all on a tight schedule. Perhaps we can move on to our next topic."). Developing this skill (the ability to focus) is fundamental to overall business success -- but if the convener still can't seem to get it together, he (or his boss, if he's too obtuse to see this failure) should appoint a designee in the meeting to ensure progress.

7) Always Record Next Steps. Every meeting must have a secretary (it can, but doesn't have to be, the convener) who records the basics of the discussion and -- most importantly -- the next steps that everyone has committed to. This should be emailed out to all participants within 24 hours to keep everyone on task and eliminate any future confusion (real or purported, in case you have "shirkers" in your group).
With any luck, these steps can make your professional life more engaging -- and less painful.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.