A Step-by-Step Guide to Structuring Better Meetings

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Liane Davey for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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I am frequently flummoxed by the complete misalignment between a team’s mandate and the agenda for their meetings. My favorite example was a Corporate Affairs team that had an ambitious agenda to work collaboratively to transform the perception of the organization among members of the public, the regulator, and three levels of government. Yet they had only allocated 30 minutes per week to the task!

They aren’t the only ones. Inevitably, teams fail to link the structure (i.e., content, frequency, and duration) of their meetings with the job that needs to be accomplished in those meetings. A one-size-fits-all team meeting rarely works.

There are a few simple steps that will help you build a better meeting structure. I’ll use the example of a leadership team of a manufacturing plant to demonstrate the process.

First, define the work of the team. Exclude topics where one person has clear accountability and can proceed without input. Instead, focus on the items where the team’s input will change the trajectory of the work. The manufacturing leadership team would emphasize issues that cut across the plant and parse out topics that can be addressed by individuals or subgroups of the team.

Second, parse the items into different categories so meetings can be tailored to the content. Meetings become ineffective when they combine different types of discussions, because we aren’t good at changing the pace or tenor of a conversation once it starts. Make things easier by splitting discussions into categories. The manufacturing team could split operational discussions about issues on a line or scrap rate concerns from discussions about progress on the introduction of a new line.

Third, determine the frequency with which you need to discuss each category. The short time horizon topics (e.g., revising projections for the coming month) need to happen frequently. Less urgent topics and can be discussed less frequently. In a manufacturing operation, that operations meeting might even be a daily huddle, whereas the big projects could be discussed bi-weekly or monthly.

Fourth, set the length of the different meetings. Each type of meeting needs a very different feel. A regular operational meeting needs to be crisp and therefore as short as possible. Strategic meetings need more time because the topics require space for people to explore and dissent. The manufacturing team could start the morning with a 30-minute huddle and reserve a half-day for more substantive bi-weekly meetings.

Fifth, plan for overflow. If I could choose one meeting effectiveness tip that would make almost all teams more efficient it would be to schedule a regular overflow spot on the calendar. Having a receptacle for the overflow prevents cramming at the end of meetings and also reduces the likelihood that people’s time will be wasted on issues requiring only a small subset of the team. Those items naturally move to the overflow spot when needed.

Breaking out of the one-size-fits-all approach is the secret of effective meetings. The result should be a set of meetings tailored to the mandate of your team and differentiated in frequency and duration to suit the content. That will go a long way toward setting your meetings up for success.

For most leadership teams, a weekly operational meeting, a monthly business builder meeting, and a quarterly strategic directions meeting works well. Let’s look at each of those in greater detail:

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter.

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