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How to make the most of meetings

October 2019

Why: defining the goals

Before you start planning, ask yourself this question: do we really need a meeting? If the answer is yes, the next step is to define its purpose. Talks about company values or one-way communications do not count: you need to draft a detailed agenda, specifying the issues to be tackled and the decisions which need to be made. All participants should receive this document ahead of time, so they can be prepared when the actual meeting rolls around. It’s always a good idea to sum up the agenda in a single “title” sentence which expresses the main goal, then kick off the proceedings from that very sentence, as if it were a statement of intents, reminding everyone exactly why they’re there.

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When – Timeliness from start to finish

It is crucial to begin the meeting on time and also set a timer to mark its ending, as even the slightest delays can end up hurting everyone involved. Popular wisdom suggests that delays are multiplied by the number of participants: one person arriving 15 minutes late to a 6-person meeting equals 90 minutes of wasted time for the group as a whole! If you haven’t reached the desired results by the end of the session, don’t let it drag on: best to schedule another meeting, possibly with clearer and better-defined goals. So what is the ideal length of a meeting? 10 to 30 minutes for updates on the state of a project, 50 minutes if several topics are to be covered, and 90 minutes for brainstorming sessions. Remember: the good old 60-minute hour is not the only unit of measurement!

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Who: defining roles

Who should attend? It's best to include both the decision-makers and those who are contributing during this particular phase, but never exaggerate: plenary affairs can be draining. Participation should be limited to no more than seven, and an update report should be sent out after the meeting. Everyone should also know exactly why their presence is requested: sometimes it’s to gather opinions, while other times the decisions are in the hands of a select few. Being crystal clear can help reduce the sense of frustration. Before you start planning a meeting, make sure that the key people will be available; only afterwards should you communicate a definitive place,date and time for the meeting, in order to avoid chronic rescheduling.

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What: deciding the next actions

The final minutes of the meeting should be devoted to a list of actions needed to move the project forward. Opt for a pragmatic approach: assign the individual tasks (sending an email, obtaining specific data, contacting a supplier, etc.) and establish the upcoming deadlines. By the end of the meeting, everyone should know exactly what to do and when. Each task should correspond to a specific individual: one of Steve Jobs’ contributions to business administration was introducing the notion of the DRI, or Directly Responsible Individual, whose duty is to complete an assigned task.

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Other types of meeting

If you just can’t escape the daily office grind, start over: eliminate all the weekly meetings clogging up the schedule and reintroduce them one by one – but only if strictly necessary. Another possibility is to convert the classic format into a “stand-up meeting” where, as the name suggests, everyone stands and answers three simple questions (What has been done? What needs to be done? What are the obstacles?). These kinds of meetings should never be longer than 10 minutes, and can be held weekly or - if necessary - even daily. Another option is to set up a “topless meeting” in which laptops, tablets and phones are strictly forbidden. Sometimes, the best way to plan a meeting is to make it a non-meeting, using messaging apps and systems like Skype or Slack.

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