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Three prongs to manage meetings

By Donald L. Caruth and Gail D. Caruth

Executive Summary
According to Thinkexist.com, humorist Dave Barry summarized meetings thusly: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” A more serious comment comes from the late management guru Peter Drucker: “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.” Unfortunately, some meetings are necessary. However, by following a checklist of things to accomplish before, during and after the meeting, you can shorten their timeframe and even eliminate unnecessary gatherings.

Meetings – the very word can evoke feelings of dread in some managers while conjuring up visions of long nights and wasted weekends in others. Nothing seems as ubiquitous in organizational life as meetings: big meetings, small meetings, formal meetings, informal meetings, scheduled meetings and spur-of-the-moment meetings. It has been suggested that in some large organizations a person literally could spend an entire working life going from one meeting to the next without feeling that he or she has accomplished anything remotely productive.

Someone once observed that “half the time spent in meetings is wasted, but unfortunately no one knows which half that is.” If there is any truth to this observation, the problem of meetings has reached such a critical point that something needs to be done.

Fortunately, something can be done to make meetings more effective: They can be planned; they can be controlled; and they can be evaluated. In short, they can be managed.

Meetings can be turned into effective endeavors by following a three-pronged approach that uses some simple but effective rules for managing meetings. The approach consists of preparation (those things that must be done before the meeting starts); control (those things that must be done during the meeting); and evaluation (those things that must be done after the meeting is over).

The first prong: Preparation

Every endeavor must begin with proper preparation or planning. Management typically assumes that every hour spent in planning saves three to four hours in execution. Thus, pay attention to what you need to do before the meeting starts.

A meeting that is planned carefully and meticulously will save time when you conduct or hold the meeting. Therefore, managers who plan meetings will find that they will decrease the amount of time they spend in them. One key consideration is preparing and distributing an agenda in advance. The agenda should identify at a minimum the purpose of the meeting, who will be in attendance, topics to be discussed, time limits per topic to be discussed, and the overall time allocated for the meeting.

Planning lays out goals and objectives, identifies ends to be accomplished, and specifies the means by which results will be achieved. This not only helps the manager planning the meeting but also those who will be attending the meeting. In reality, there is no such thing as a successful unplanned meeting. For successfully planned meetings, this means addressing the following 12 considerations:

  1. Identify clearly the purpose of the meeting. If the purpose for holding a meeting is not perfectly clear in your mind, don’t hold the meeting. Remember, if the purpose is not clear to you, it will not be clear to anyone else either.
  2. Never hold a meeting just for the sake of meeting. Unless there is something specific to be accomplished, there is no need to meet. In one large university a particular committee met every Thursday afternoon whether there was any new business to discuss or not. Obviously, this was not an appropriate  use of meeting time.
  3. Never hold a meeting when emails, telephone calls or memos can accomplish the same result.
  4. Make certain that you fully understand the role of the meeting chairperson. The chairperson is facilitator, coordinator, and the person who keeps things on track and participants on task. The chairperson assures that the meeting stays focused.
  5. For regularly scheduled meetings, always prepare and distribute a written agenda in advance. Attendees need to know what might be expected of them and how much time may be required.
  6. Always organize agenda items so that the most important ones are covered first and the least important items are considered last.
  7. Assign a specified time limit to every item on the agenda; e.g., 15 minutes for item A, 10 minutes for item B, etc. These time limits should be in direct proportion to the importance of the items being discussed.
  8. Limit attendance to those people who really need to be there. This has the added benefit of conserving the time of those who should not be there. The more participants, the greater the tendency for the meeting to run over its time limit as everyone scrambles to get in his or her 2 cents worth.
  9. Choose an appropriate time for the meeting. In business organizations, the time just before lunch and the time just before the end of the day are excellent choices because people have other things on their minds and are less likely to be long-winded. On the other hand, the worst possible time for holding a meeting is right after lunch because people are likely to be drowsy and are less likely to pay attention.
  10. If you have a choice, select an appropriate place for the meeting. The location should be easily accessible for all attendees, well-ventilated, adequately equipped and large enough to accommodate all attendees comfortably.
  11. Select appropriate audio-visual equipment, if it is needed.
  12. Get to the meeting location early to see that everything is ready.

Adhering to these 12 points will help assure that your meetings are well-planned and thoughtfully organized before they start.

The second prong: Control

Control is something that must be handled during the meeting. Once it begins, the leader must keep the meeting focused so that it remains on target, on task and on time. Managers who control meetings will find that they achieve greater results.

One key consideration in controlling an effective meeting is managing time effectively. A meeting must always start and end on time. There must be no exceptions. Never delay the start of a meeting because someone is not present. It is the chairperson’s job to see that the meeting moves smoothly and expeditiously to a successful conclusion.

For successfully controlled meetings, this means addressing the following 14 considerations:

  1. Begin the meeting on time. There is no substitute for a timely start, and there is no excuse for a late start. Those who typically arrive late will get the message, and those who arrive on time will be rewarded for their punctuality.
  2. Do not open the meeting by attempting to be a stand-up comedian. Get straight to the point.
  3. Specify that the agenda will be adhered to strictly, and the meeting will end at the specified time.
  4. Assign timekeeping responsibilities to someone at the beginning of the meeting. A timekeeper helps to keep the meeting on its timeline.
  5. When stragglers wander in, do not go back and rehash material that already has been covered. Those who were there on time will become bored, and the behavior of the latecomers will be reinforced.
  6. Do not permit distractions, diversions or deviations from the agenda. Unscheduled business can be put on the agenda for the next meeting. Keep all discussions on track and in focus.
  7. Maintain appropriate control over the meeting. Stick to the agenda. Adhere to the time schedule.
  8. Listen to and acknowledge questions or comments made by participants.
  9. While chairing the meeting, indicate genuine care and concern for making the meeting effective and efficient.
  10. When appropriate, such as in regularly scheduled staff meetings, consider having participants remain standing instead of sitting down. It is surprising how quickly business can be conducted when people are without the comfort of a place to sit. There is, in fact, one organization that reduced the time of its staff meetings from one hour to 10 minutes simply by having everyone stand up.
  11. Keep an eye on the time and the mission of the meeting. Time and purpose have a way of getting away if they are not monitored.
  12. Always accomplish the purpose of the meeting. A meeting cannot be considered successful if it does not achieve its purpose.
  13. At the conclusion of the meeting, quickly summarize accomplishments, agreements and assignments.
  14. End the meeting on time every time. This sends a positive message to participants.

Following these 14 considerations should keep the meeting on track and ensure that it accomplishes its purpose.

The third prong: Evaluation

When the meeting is over, it doesn’t mean that your job is finished. No task is complete until follow-up has been done to see how things went. When it comes to meetings, evaluations seldom happen. All meetings and other efforts must be subjected to evaluations to determine if these activities are necessary, beneficial or efficiently accomplished.

At the conclusion of a meeting, tie up all loose ends, evaluate how events transpired during the meeting and make other assessments. Managers who evaluate meetings will save time and money for their organizations. One key consideration is to ask if this meeting was necessary. If the answer is no, consider eliminating future meetings of this nature. Among the things to be done after the meeting are the following six tasks:

  1. Follow up on all assignments made during the meeting. Make certain that these assignments are being completed in a timely fashion.
  2. If the meeting was a formal one, distribute minutes of the meeting as quickly as possible after the meeting is over.
  3. Grade the effectiveness of each meeting. If a meeting does not receive a grade of A, ask what could have been done to make the meeting more productive.
  4. Calculate the cost of a meeting. (Estimated hourly pay per attendee multiplied by the number of attendees equals estimated cost.) Does a meeting produce enough benefit to justify holding it? If it does not, explore alternatives to meetings, such as emails, telephone calls and memos.
  5. Distribute an evaluation checklist to participants to determine their opinions relative to the quality of meetings. Use any positive suggestions that are made.
  6. Review all subcommittees periodically and eliminate those that are not needed.

Obviously, when a meeting is over the work associated with it is not. No job is complete until thorough follow-up has been done. Completing these six tasks after a meeting will help ensure that management has followed up correctly.

Stop wasting meeting time now. Start using the three-pronged approach for managing meetings — plan, control and evaluate — and see the difference it can make in your organization’s overall meeting productivity.

Donald L. Caruth is an independent management consultant. He is a senior professional in human resources. His articles have appeared in numerous academic and professional journals. 

Gail D. Caruth is a Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership at Texas A&M University-Commerce. She is a former human resource manager and a senior professional in human resources. Her articles have appeared in a number of academic and professional journals. 

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