Productive Meetings


{Header image courtesy Pexels and used under a CC0 public domain license.}

Note: as of April 2011, this article will be published in the May 2011 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

Having over 10 years of experience with working with various arts organizations in the Kansas City metro area, I have attended a lot of meetings. From board meetings to committee meetings to planning meetings, I have spent way too much of my volunteer time in meetings — many of them not very productive and too few of them quick and painless.

As the past president of the Platte County Arts Council and as the unofficial ‘agenda maker’ for KC Stage‘s staff meetings, I know that meetings are a necessary evil. But they don’t have to be that evil: there are several things that can be done to make sure meetings are efficient and beneficial.

Photo courtesy Microsoft Office
Photo courtesy Microsoft Office.

Make sure the meeting is necessary.

I am constantly surprised by how many meetings I am invited to that are not necessary in today’s age of e-mail and online collaboration. While there is a case to be made for face-to-face interaction and the inevitable brainstorming that can provide, if the reason you’re having a meeting is mainly because you feel you have to (i.e., you always have meetings on the first Saturday of the month, or there hasn’t been a meeting in a while), think twice and consider sending what updates there are via e-mail.

There are many free e-mail discussion list options out there where you can set up a closed discussion group just for your board members (or committee members) if you want that give and take still available. Many of those offer up ways to upload documents as well, which helps if you want to share a new budget or brochure design.

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay and used under a CC0 public domain license.

Come with an agenda.

Unfortunately, the idea of having a meeting agenda seems to scare away a lot of people. They seem to think there needs to be an outline with Roman numerals and even time limits on each item to be considered an agenda. And yes, while an outline may help you organize what you want to cover (and even time limits, but we’ll get to that in a moment), having an agenda just means making sure you know what all you want to cover — and in what order. It can just be a sheet of paper that states you’re going to cover this topic first, then this topic, and so on. This helps your group stay focused and gives them an idea of a timeline.

Also, be sure to send out that agenda ahead of time: everyone likes to be prepared, and will contribute more efficiently if they know in advance what topics are going to be discussed.

Photo courtesy Pexels and used under a CC0 public domain license.
Photo courtesy Pexels and used under a CC0 public domain license.

Keep the meeting efficient.

Notice I didn’t say to keep the meeting short: there are meetings I’ve attended that have been a couple of hours long, but every part of the meeting has been needed. Keeping meetings efficient will make sure the people attending the meeting know they have spent their time well. There are several ways to keep a meeting effective.

  • Limiting your time: Above, I mention that there is an agenda style that states the various topics, and then gives a place to put a time limit on said topic. While I personally don’t subscribe to limiting the amount of time devoted to certain subjects, I also see the point of making sure you don’t spend too much time on one topic. One recommendation I’ve come across is that if you’re still discussing a topic after 15 – 30 minutes, that’s when you know the topic deserves either its own committee or a separate meeting.
  • Start and end times: One thing I’ve learned that helps meetings I run be more efficient is by having a start time that I stick to (i.e., unless absolutely necessary, I don’t wait until all the attendees are there to start), and having an end time in place as well. If attendees know they have a limited time to discuss, there will be less chance of rehashing every topic. Also, if attendees know you’re going to start at a specific time and won’t go back for latecomers, they’ll understand that it’s up to them to get an update if they come in late.
  • Limiting the topics: No one likes long meetings. Well, no one I know likes long meetings. Try to keep the topics to items that have to be discussed at that meeting. Also, let your meeting attendees know to have off-topic comments and discussion kept to a minimum. This includes social chit-chat. While it’s nice you want to keep up with what your fellow meeting attendees have been doing when not helping out the project, I always ask to keep that until after the meeting. That way, people can decide whether they want to socialize and the meeting isn’t being held for it.
Photo courtesy Pixabay and used under a CC0 public domain license.
Photo courtesy Pixabay and used under a CC0 public domain license.

Have follow up to the meeting.

So many of the meetings I attend seem to be covering the same topics over and over again, and I bet it’s because there is no meeting follow up. As with the agenda, minutes don’t have to be a complicated affair: it can just be what was discussed and what was decided. And most meetings supply some sort of minutes afterwards.

However, where it breaks down is in the follow-through. If certain people agreed to do certain tasks, those minutes need to have some sort of ‘action list’ that states just that. For example, when I do the minutes for KC Stage, a sample action list includes who’s writing the monthly spotlight (and if someone not on staff, which staff member is in charge of following up with that writer), who’s following up with a specific potential advertiser, and so on. (In fact, I have a separate Excel document that tracks each of the action items for each staff member.)

Even then, it is — for better or for worse — the task of the meeting organizer to follow through with those meeting attendees to confirm they are completing the tasks assigned to them. Otherwise, the next meeting will no doubt still be discussing what needs to be done.

Photo courtesy Pexels and used under a CC0 public domain license.
Photo courtesy Pexels and used under a CC0 public domain license.

In summary ….

These are only a smattering of tips on how to keep meetings productive. There are a ton of resources out there on keeping meetings productive. And this isn’t a New Year’s Resolution type of thing: I’ve held meetings where I’ve either intentionally broken one of the above rules or just didn’t have the time or ability to make sure my suggestions were in place. But inevitably, those meetings where I didn’t do the suggestions lasted longer than they should and felt like the time involved didn’t correlate to what I got out of it. The more likely your volunteers feel like they’re being productive, the more likely they’ll want to be more involved: I know there’s more than one group I stopped helping because I felt I was attending too many pointless meetings.

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