Welcome to the Meetings That Work blog.

This is where we put our helpful tips and hints and we discuss all aspects of meetings.

A-Z of Meetings That Work – D is for decisions

One of the key reasons often cited for holding a meeting is to take action in a particular area. Before this can happen then the meeting has to decide what needs to be done. This involves the tricky task of making decisions, which can be difficult to get a group of people to do. However without decisions the meeting will just keep talking round the subject meeting after meeting, leading to frustration and disillusionment

Here are some ways that, as the meeting leader, you can ensure those key decisions get made

  • Make it clear from when you send out the meeting invitation that you expect delegates to take place in decision making
  • Ensure that you provide delegates with all the information they need to make the decision. If key questions arise during the meeting then make sure they are well documented and assign actions to  delegates to collect the missing facts. However, avoid bombarding delegates with so much information that they are paralysed and can’t make a decision.
  • Make sure you allow sufficient time for the decision to be discussed and airs viewed. If necessary devote the whole meeting to the decision so you are not distracted.
  • Define and record the decision that needs to be made. Test the delegates understanding of this decision and allow them to question it. It’s important that the group have a common understanding of the decision they are making
  • In order to ensure all delegates understand and will support the decision then be prepared to “go round the loop” of discussing the decisions more than once. It’s important that all concerns are heard and addressed.
  • If all the delegates agree then as leader you may have to challenge their views. It’s important that the topic is seen from all angles and complacency should be avoided

If you get it right the whole group should leave the meeting feeling that they can support the decisions and champion it to others.

How do you ensure that decisions get made in your meetings?

A-Z of Meetings That Work – C is for Chair

In this context I don’t mean the thing you’re sitting meeting point symbol by rg1024 - Simple meeting point symbol in black and white.on but the person leading the meeting! Chairing is a skill that we’re expected to learn by osmosis and the thought of leading a meeting can strike fear into the inexperienced.

Here are some rules and tips to help you manage your meetings with confidence

  •  If you are leading a meeting then you are in charge of it. Some of the delegates may be more senior than you but it’s still your meeting. You may be able to draw on their experience and knowledge but this does not mean they can take over.
  • You need to be very well prepared and organised. Make sure you block out preparation time in your diary. Identify the minute taker and contact them well in advance of the meeting. Read through minutes of the previous meetings so you are up to date with proceedings. Draw up the agenda well in advance and review it to check items are in a logical sequence. Make sure there is adequate time for discussion. Think about which are the most important items on the agenda – which items would you drop if necessary.
  • Get to the meeting room well in advance of the start of the meeting. Check the layout of the room, Choose your seat and distribute papers if necessary. Welcome delegates as they arrive
  • Start on time and keep to time – everyone’s time is valuable including yours. Use the timings on the agenda to move items on and to keep the over talkative in check. Phrases like “ We’ve only got 10 more minutes on this so I want to move on from you, Susan” can be very useful
  • Ensure all sides of the debate are heard. Be even handed and dispassionate, give everyone a chance to contribute. Use your common sense to make sure debates are kept in proportion.
  • At the end of an item close the topic down by summarising the discussion and decisions made, reviewing the actions in the minutes and then introduce the next item. This gives the meeting a structure and keeps things under control. Similarly in a long meeting give a quick review of the morning after the lunch break
  • Keep your sense of humour and humanity! Admit it when you’ve made a mistake and see the funny side of things. Be understanding when others make mistakes or slips of the tongue.  People will appreciate a well run but humane meeting

What tips do you have for running a successful meeting?

A-Z of Meetings That Work – B is for behaviour

As people, we are all complex creatures and approach situations in many different ways. This is often seen in meetings. There are the people who like a meeting to be fast paced and decisive but also people who like to discuss, reflect and reach a consensus. When leading a meeting it can be a delicate balancing act to keep everyone on board.

Sometimes the behaviour of delegates can interfere with the running of the meeting so here are some tips to keep things on track when chairing a meeting

Know yourself – make sure you understand your preferred style and decide if it is appropriate for the meeting. Some delegates may really grate with you but you should always be even handed

Think what you want to achieve and make it clear to delegates what you expect of them – a decision, a point of view or information for example. Reinforce this at the start of the meeting

We’ve all met delegates who think their view is the only valid one or who just like the sound of their own voice. Make it clear you want to hear from all delegates and keep to timings on the agenda. Develop a supply of phrases along the lines of “Thanks Jane, let’s hear from John now”, “We’ve only got 20 minutes to hear from everyone, lets move on now”

Often there will be a delegate with a fixation on a particular issue, which they raise at every opportunity. Often their pet issue will be totally irrelevant to the meeting. One way to diffuse the issue is to have a “Car Park” sheet. You can say to the delegate “I appreciate that’s an important issue for you but it’s outside the aims of this meeting. I’ll put your issue on the Car Park sheet and you and I can discuss it at the end of the meeting”. Make sure you follow through and do this of course!

Some delegates are naturally more quiet and reflective. They can find robust debate harsh and aggressive. Try and draw them into discussion by asking them easy questions or using their name in an example. “So if we make Mark a super user he’d be able to change the master list”. Flattery can also be a good technique “Sue, I know you worked on a similar project last year, it would be really useful to hear your views”

What techniques do you have for dealing with behaviours in meetings?

A-Z of Meetings That Work – A is for Agenda

The agenda is a key tool to ensuring a successful meeting. It makes the leader think about the best use of the time in the meeting and outlines to the attendees what will be happening during the meeting. Timings on the agenda are very useful especially if you have a few talkative attendees. The chair can use phrases like “We’ve only got 20 minutes to discuss this so thanks Janet, lets hear from John”

Here are a few tips for drawing up a successful agenda

  •  Allow time for opening and closing the meeting. Everyone needs a few minutes to settle in and the chair needs a few minutes at the end to summarise and close the meeting.
  •  I find that meetings flow better if you start off with routine matters and then move on to items that need more discussion. This allows delegates to find their feet and generally “warm up” to the tasks of the meeting.
  • We all lose concentration after a while so keep your meeting to an hour or less in length or at least have a break every 90 minutes wherever possible. Even a 5 or 10 minute comfort break will refresh people and break any tension.
  • Be ruthless about what you put on the agenda. Concentrate on what you are trying to achieve and include items that move you towards your goals.
  • Give delegates the opportunity to add items to the agenda, but give a clear deadline and stick to it. Make it clear you will question any items that don’t contribute to the aims of the meeting. If you are chairing a regular meeting work towards an agenda that is 50-75% standard.

What tips do you have for preparing an effective agenda?

Play Candy Crush Saga in a meeting – would you?

Evidence that even the Great and the Good can get distracted! In the UK The Sun newspaper has published photos of MP Nigel Mills playing Candy Crush Saga during a recent meeting of the work and pensions committee. Mr Mills is a member of this committee and the meeting was discussing pension reforms. He admits

“There was a bit of the meeting that I wasn’t focusing on and I probably had a game or two.”

This has led to comments about the arrogance of MPs and hasn’t done their general image any good. However, if we are being honest, is there any one out there who has not got distracted during a meeting? We’ve all seen fellow attendees with that glazed look in their eyes and also experienced that feeling of “coming to” when we’ve drifted away from the discussion. So what can we do to minimise these distractions?

  • Have regular breaks. It’s hard to concentrate on anything for longer than 90 minutes so make sure breaks are built in, even 10 minutes will help
  • Set a length for the meeting and decide what you can realistically achieve during this time. Delegates are more likely to stay on focus if they can see the light at the end of the tunnel
  • Be prepared for the discussion. Make sure you read any papers that are sent out before the meeting and familiarise yourself with the minutes of the previous meeting.
  • Participate in the meeting – ask questions, offer your views, get points clarified if you don’t understand them
  • Remove potential temptations. If you know you will be tempted to check your emails, turn off your laptop and phone. Keep games such as Candy Crush Saga for travelling or at home, never touch them at work
  • Follow our other tips on whether to accept meeting invitations so you can minimise the time you spend in meetings

What are your downfalls in meetings? Which distractions do you find hard to resist?

Play your part!

I’m the first person to say that the leader of a meeting plays a key part in it’s success. If the leader does not have a clear purpose for the meeting, select the delegates who can contribute to these aims and keep things on track then the meeting will be ineffective.

However I also believe that all the delegates at a meeting have a part to play in ensuring a successful meeting. These are some of the key actions a delegate should take to make a positive contribution to the meeting

  • If the invite to the meeting do not spell out the aims and you are not clear why you’ve been included then ask before you decide whether to accept the invite
  • Do your homework – if you are asked to prepare information or read documents beforehand then do so. Also make sure you’ve familiarised yourself with the minutes of the previous meeting and the agenda
  • Be early so you have a chance to settle yourself down before the start of the meeting. You also get the choice of seats as well!
  • Focus on the meeting. You may be desperate to catch up with one of the other delegates but save up the chat until there is a break. Practice Active Listening to focus on the discussions and contribute with your views
  • Signpost your contributions. We all know how hard it can be to follow a rambling contribution to a meeting. Make it easier for the leader and other delegates by using phrases such as ” I’d like to make three points..”, “I’ve got a couple of questions/comments”
  • Follow the rules. Where the group agrees ground rules for a meeting or you are asked to keep to a specific length for a presentation then make sure you comply. This shows respect for the process of the meeting
  • Give feedback. If the leader asks for your views on how the meeting went then make constructive comments.

How do you make sure you make a good contribution as a delegate?


The one key question you should ask before accepting a meeting invitation

Talk to a senior manager in any large organisation and it will soon become apparent that they spend a great deal of time in meetings. Their staff can struggle to get time with them and they often feel that they aren’t doing any real work.

One consequence of this is that staff further down the ladder believe that to get on in the organisation they need to be seen at lots of meetings. Often they will accept a meeting invitation just to be seen there as that’s what the boss does. However they may then find themselves sitting in a meeting of little relevance and the temptation to do work during the meeting becomes overwhelming.

This scenario is described in much wittier terms by David Grady in his recent TED Talk “How to save the world or at least yourself from bad meetings”


So before you accept the next meeting invitation ask yourself this key question

What is the purpose of the meeting?”

If you don’t know get in touch with the organiser and ask them. You may find that they struggle to answer the question, in that case you’ve prompted them to clarify their thinking. If they can answer the question and it’s clearly a meeting you can contribute to then accept the invitation. If it’s not clear why you have been invited ask them what they expect you to contribute. If  you cannot make a valuable contribution to the meeting then decline the invitation. This will allow you to focus on preparing for the meetings you do attend and stop you from spending precious time in meetings that are irrelevant to you

What’s your approach to meeting invitations? How do you assess an invitation?

Action! A vital part of a successful meeting

We’ve all heard the term “talking shop” and most of us have probably sat in one! It’s the sort of meeting where you spend a long time talking about an issue, only to repeat an almost identical discussion at the next meeting. This can happen when no decisions are made and hence no actions agreed and progressed.

At the end of a successful meeting everyone needs to leave fully understanding what actions they need to carry out. Every action has three components and they all need to be specified before the action can be completed successfully. These components can be thought of as the Action Triangle

  • Who is going to be responsible for the action?
  • What are they going to do?
  • When are they going to do it by?

In the heat of a busy meeting it’s very easy to forget to set a deadline for an action or to not assign an owner for an action. If everyone at the meeting remembers the Action Triangle then these oversights can be corrected during the meeting, making it more likely for actions to get completed. The talking shop will then become a place of action and progress


How do you make sure that actions are clear and get completed?

Chair of a meeting – subject matter expert or jack of all trades?

Recent news coverage of an appointment here in the UK has made me think about the expertise the chair of a group should bring the their meetings. I’m not trying to take sides or make a political point but the coverage I’m thinking of is about the appointment of Fiona Woolf to head the public inquiry into historical sex abuse.

Some of the concerns expressed are that Mrs Woolf has no background in these issues and so should not be chairing the inquiry. She is a lawyer and currently Lord Mayor of London. I understand that she will be chairing an inquiry team of nine others

In my experience this is a misinterpretation of the role of a chair of a group. I see the role of the chair to

  • Understand and clarify the aims of the meetings
  • Use the meetings to ensure that progress is being made so that the timescales for the inquiry are met
  • Ensure that the nine members of the team are all given a chance to contribute to the investigations and discussions during meetings
  • Set expectations of the nine panel members that they will treat each other with respect and show this by listening to each other
  • Ask probing questions to ensure that all the issues are fully investigated
  • To show trust and confidence in the members of the group and develop working relationships with them all

The role of a chair needs a different skill set to that of a subject matter expert, though often this is not taken into consideration when appointments are made. There are risks with appointing an expert on a subject to lead a group, these include

  • Familiarity with a subject can mean that the chair does not question presented information as they think they already know the answer
  • If you are knowledgeable about a topic then it’s easy to stop listening because you think you already know what’s being said. I sometimes refer to this as “yeah, yeah, yeah” syndrome.
  • The chair may have well known views on the topic, which may lead people to believe the investigations are biased or that sensitive topics have been avoided
  • Other panel members may have “history” with the chair if they work in similar fields which could impact on their working relationship in the group

What do you think? Can knowledge get in the way of chairing a group?

Do you need a meeting at all?

“We need a meeting about this” can be a knee jerk reaction from some managers. Meetings take people away from their core tasks and managers can easily find themselves going from meeting to meeting all day. That’s before you’ve taken into account the driving, printing of documents and the work left undone.  There is comfort in sharing a task or issue with other people and it can give the illusion that something is being done. However a meeting is not always the most effective way to deal with an issue, think about the following issues

  • Is this something I need to collaborate on or is it a unilateral decision? Discussing an issue and getting the views of others is sometimes necessary but it can also be a way of avoiding a decision. Be tough and make the decision on your own if necessary. Allow yourself to take time to think the issues through.
  • Can I just discuss this with one person? – if so perhaps a quick visit to this person’s desk where the issue can be dealt with may do
  • Could information be collected and circulated by email? – this way you can ensure that everyone gets the same information and has time to consider a reply and consult others if necessary
  • Create an Aunt Sally and collect reactions – writing documents or agreeing on key wording is always difficult by committee. Instead you could create a document on your own and send it round for comment
  • Use a collaboration tool or app – many groups find using tools such as Basecamp give them a way of sharing info and discussing ideas
  • Teleconferencing – useful for teams when geography is a problem. With the correct ground rules in place these can be used very successfully
  • VoIP options – when teams find it difficult to get together but you want to make eye contact consider options such as Skype

Are you overwhelmed by meetings? How do you control the number of meetings you attend?