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How to Run an Effective Meeting

August 2008

Like death and taxes, meetings are an unavoidable part of post-trainee life. Whether you are a part of a lab, hospital or practice group, you will find yourself either sitting in or running meetings.  Unfortunately, the time spent in meetings seems to grow exponentially with your career progress. I say “unfortunately,” because most people will tell you that most meetings are ineffective. They do not simply disrupt workflow and productivity. At their worst, the wasted time and energy spent in unproductive meetings results in a simmering frustration that is downright demoralizing. On the other hand, well-run meetings are vital for team-building and provide the interpersonal interactions needed to stimulate creativity and facilitate problem solving.
Running an effective meeting is a critical leadership skill. A poorly run meeting diminishes a leader’s credibility by reflecting badly on his/her organizational and communication skills. In contrast, a well-run meeting reinforces confidence and builds trust in a leader. A well-run meeting requires preparation and follow through. While the meeting structure and organization depends on its purpose and the size of your group, there are a few general rules you can follow to insure that the time your team spends together is worthwhile.

1. Make every meeting matter.

Meetings are not for the mere dissemination of information. They are for issues that require or would benefit from face to face discussion. Too often, a leader will hold a meeting as a convenience for him/her. Don’t hold a meeting simply because you think that face-time is important, or because it is routine. E-mails and newsletters are usually sufficient and often a more timely way to keep your team up-to speed.

Plan ahead. Decide who and what the meeting is for.  What do you need to accomplish? Is this a staff meeting, planning meeting, problem solving meeting?  If a meeting is needed, invite only the necessary people. Is there a key person without whom the meeting would be a waste of time? Make sure that person can come!! Or else, shelve that particular discussion for another time.

2. Set an agenda and distribute it before the meeting.

First, this allows people to prepare for the proposed discussions. One critical mistake that I have seen over and over again is having someone present a controversial or complex topic without warning at a meeting.  Avoid the Bombshell Effect by giving people a heads-up. Provide them with the necessary background materials ahead of time! Otherwise, participants often react emotionally, without thought and the discussion degenerates into a free-for-all. Second, this can serve as a gentle reminder of the upcoming meeting and also allow people to propose additional items of discussion.
Another common problem is the overly ambitious agenda. When you plan your agenda, be sure to include approximate discussion times. Sometimes there are too many things to deal within the scheduled time. Again, make sure the items that are being discussed need the input of the larger group.  Make sure you meet with key personnel ahead of time to get them on board and to help you identify key talking points. If needed, have them introduce the issue and provide background information.

3. Start and Stay on time.

Respect your team’s time. Is the discussion moving towards your goal? You may want to let a worthwhile discussion continue for a few extra minutes, knowing that another item may need to be deferred. If the conversation starts to stray, however, you need to refocus the discussion by reminding the group of the agenda. Be careful of cutting things off abruptly. Suggesting another time or place to continue the discussion lets the participants know that their input is worthy and also reminds them of the goals of the current discussion, and keeps your meeting moving forward.

Meetings don’t have to take up their entire allotted time.

4. Get the constructive input you need from everyone present.

It's easy for one or two vocal personalities to dominate a meeting. Similarly, discussions can be stifled if a meeting leader is too free with his/her opinion, as everyone assumes that the outcome is already determined. Since the point of a meeting is two-way communication, it's your responsibility to get honest input from everyone. Make a point of asking those who have not spoken yet to contribute. Stay positive and avoid the temptation to dismiss ideas immediately — even if they initially seem outrageous. You also need to actively moderate the discussion in order to maintain an atmosphere where embarrassing or insulting comments are not allowed, otherwise you run the risk of missing someone’s key input from because s/he felt shut out or not vested in the discussion.

5. Make an Action plan.

End each meeting by going around and reviewing the action steps each person has captured. This doesn’t take much time and often reveals a few items that were missed. The exercise also instills a sense of accountability by having the responsible person publicly declaring what s/he will follow up on. In addition to reviewing specific action items, make sure that who is responsible for accomplishing the action item, when it is due.  Make sure that you all agree about what constitutes completion of the task.

If there are no actions steps, then you need to seriously ask yourself and the meeting participants if the meeting was necessary.  Also, don’t let the fact that you are running out of time pressure you and your team into making a hasty decision.

6. Follow-up.

The meeting doesn’t end with everyone leaving the room. Minutes should be published within 24 hours, while items are still fresh in people’s minds and enthusiasm is high. Most people use the minutes as the ignition to get going on their particular assignment. Also, be sure to let the appropriate people know what was decided and what will happen next.  At the very least, send out a list of assignments everyone agreed to take on so you can follow up and keep things moving, even if you don't send out complete meeting minutes.

In summary, good meetings require good leadership.  Good leaders maximize the use of meeting time by planning ahead. By laying the groundwork and maintaining an open, but structured forum for discussion, a good leader facilitates creativity and the development of action items.  S/he provides follow-up to insure that assignments produce tangible results that move a group towards its goals.