How to Run a Meeting

Meetings are a great equalizer -- they subject nearly everyone to needless suffering, writes Stephen J. Aguilar, who offers advice for making them more productive.

November 29, 2018
 
Istockphoto.com/farbentek
 

Meetings. I am not a fan of them, and chances are you aren’t, either. Faculty members, administrators and students all suffer through meetings and (occasionally) accomplish something during one. In a way, meetings are a great equalizer -- they subject nearly everyone to needless suffering.

I hold that meetings can be classified into three categories:

  • The best kind of meeting: the one that doesn’t actually occur and instead accomplishes its goals through some other asynchronous process.
  • The meeting that does occur, but is (miraculously) run well.
  • The bad meeting that wastes time and could have -- should have -- been avoided altogether.

Unfortunately, most meetings fall under this third category

I’ll discuss each one and provide some recommendations.

The Nonmeeting

The purpose of all meetings is for people to come together and accomplish a set of goals or tackle a thorny problem that requires obtaining multiple perspectives quickly. Before you decide to hold a meeting, you should first ask yourself if it is absolutely necessary to do so. As part of that, you should establish your objective(s) before you schedule it. Knowing what you hope to accomplish will help you determine if a meeting is necessary. Do you need multiple people to comment on a new policy or procedure? If so, does scheduling everyone to voice those opinions in person add any value, or would collecting asynchronous feedback via email suffice?

If you need fast feedback, then perhaps three separate 15-minute phone calls can accomplish the same goal as one large meeting that lasts 45 minutes to an hour. Doing so saves three people 30 minutes each, in addition to the time it takes to schedule a meeting.

Regardless of what your objectives are, write them down, because that will help you determine if a meeting is actually necessary.

The Well-Run Meeting

Some meetings are actually necessary. If you are the person organizing the meeting, then the responsibility falls on you to try and keep it on track and prevent it from devolving into an irrelevant discussion. Here are some suggestions for how to do that.

Have an agenda. Your first -- and most important -- defense against a bad meeting is having an agenda. That agenda should be goal oriented so it is clear when an item is completed, thus allowing you to move on to the next one. As the meeting organizer, you are responsible for knowing when an agenda item has been resolved and when more discussion is needed.

If possible, send the agenda out before the meeting. If you’ve done the necessary legwork, then you are in a position to send an agenda to everyone in advance. Note that this does not necessarily mean that those whom you send it to will actually read it. Yet even a skimmed agenda helps attendees to understand why they’re there and how they can contribute.

In addition to sending the agenda out before the meeting, you should also make a version of it accessible to everyone. That includes printing out an agenda (my favorite method, because it lets me physically check things off), having a shared document or writing the agenda on a whiteboard/screen.

If you can’t come up with an agenda in advance, then do it at the start of the meeting. That will impose needed structure and help keep the meeting focused.

Stick to your agenda. No one likes attending a meeting about topic A only to be blindsided by a discussion of topic Z. Treat your agenda like the implicit contract that it is: those who come to your meeting expect a specific set of topics to be covered -- no more and hopefully less.

If someone at the meeting chooses to complain about something irrelevant, or share a story with person A while assuming incorrectly that persons B through D also care, you are well within your rights as the meeting organizer to interrupt and bring the discussion back to what’s on the agenda. If you can’t interrupt, then take the first opportunity that presents itself to return to the agenda. It is often sufficient to simply say, “In the interest of time, I would like to bring us back to [agenda item].”

Have you accomplished your goals? End the meeting. If you budgeted one hour but accomplish all of your agenda items in 45 minutes, then I will go so far as to say that you are morally obligated to call the meeting to a close. Note: that does not mean that everyone needs to leave. It just indicates that it is OK to do so. This is less of a concern for tenured faculty members who may not need to be aware of how their actions are interpreted. But it is absolutely necessary for graduate students who may feel pressured to stay, even if the meeting has turned into a gossipfest.

Running out of time? End the meeting. Conversely, if it is clear that you cannot accomplish all of your agenda items during the allotted time, then end the meeting before it runs late. Sometimes this means completely ignoring an agenda item. That’s fine. It is better to end the meeting 10 minutes early having not accomplished all you planned than to force a meeting to run over by 30 minutes in the name of addressing everything.

Doing the former respects the time of your meeting’s attendees; doing the latter disrespects it. Unless, of course, you ask and everyone agrees to stay late -- just know that it is possible that someone said it was OK for them to stay late because they felt pressured to do so, not because they actually wanted to.

The Bad Meeting

We’ve all been to meetings that are tedious because they are unfocused and have no agenda and thus lack shared goals to accomplish. Some meetings start perfectly fine but are quickly derailed by disagreements that have nothing to do with the original goals. Other meetings, in contrast, resemble social functions that are fun but, again, are ultimately unrelated to the stated purpose of the meeting.

Whether or not a meeting can be saved is a function of the its organizer and attendees. Some meetings, unfortunately, are both required and doomed to fail from the start. In those cases, all you can do is clench your teeth and suffer through them. Other times, you can avoid attending meetings you know will be a poor use of your time. Occasionally, you can leave a bad meeting with minimal consequences.

Can the meeting be saved? If the meeting has strayed from the agenda -- because another person attending the meeting has co-opted it, for example -- you may be in a position to bring focus back to it. You can do this by referring to the agenda or stated purpose of the meeting. Simply saying something along the lines of “I want to make sure we address [agenda item] before we run out of time” can go a long way to getting back on track.

How to leave a bad meeting. In order to leave a meeting that has turned into a waste of time, you must first acknowledge that is it your right to do so. That will help you not feel guilty and will communicate to others that you are willing to be helpful but not to the point of being a pushover. How then, do you leave?

There are many ways to leave a meeting. Picking the right one requires you to read the room and have a good understanding of your relationships with everyone who is attending. Often, you can just wait for a pause in the conversation, apologize and say that you need to run.

Do not lie. Giving a reason you are leaving is one thing; lying about the reason is another. The former is often assertive, while the latter never is. Lying about the reasons you are leaving a meeting communicates not only that you do not want to be there but also that you are too scared to simply leave.

Don’t have a “good” reason? Don’t give one. Literally say, “I’m sorry/Excuse me, but I need to run.” The apology is, of course, optional. Another way to leave without apologizing for it: “Hey, everyone, I need to run. Let me know if/how I can be helpful moving forward.”

Note that any of the above is easier if 1) the meeting has gone over time or 2) the meeting is about to end and you sense that the meeting will go over time. Saying you need to run 15 minutes into a one-hour meeting -- without giving a reason -- will undoubtedly seem strange.

Meetings are inevitable in professional life. I hope the above suggestions will help you avoid needless meetings, organize efficient ones or mitigate the costs of bad ones. With that said, remember: the best meeting is the one that isn’t held.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.

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