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How to perfect your agendas and meetings

Never mind the coronavirus. One of the biggest epidemics in the business world is badly run meetings.  You know the ones – poorly prepared, dominated by one or two voices, interminable agendas and achingly boring topics. 

The average employee wastes nearly 13 working days every year in unproductive meetings.  That’s a lot of valuable time and money down the drain. And the way your company runs its meetings speaks volumes about your culture.  I’ve always felt that meetings hold a mirror up to an organisation – if they start late, have no structure and are generally disliked by employees, that’s not an organisation that’s heading for greatness. 

If you’re looking to grow your business this year, you need to tighten up these fundamental building blocks.  Changing the nature of meetings requires you to learn new ways of doing things and also unlearn bad habits. This can be hard.  It takes effort and time – a deliberate practice that you’ve prioritised as important. It’s worth it though. Fix meetings and your company will take a massive leap forwards.

Here are my tips for perfecting your agendas and meetings.

Do a meetings audit

A good place to start is by auditing your current meetings. Look at their frequency, length and composition as well as the way they run.  Think about the value of the people in the room. No junior member of staff would be allowed to sign off an invoice for £100K but if they put the most senior staff in a room for an hour, that’s often worth the equivalent.

If your meetings are generally an hour long, could they be 45 minutes?  Are they scheduled back to back, meaning it’s impossible to attend the next one on time?  It’s common sense that people need intervals between meetings to go to the loo or have a coffee.  And yet so many times, there’s this mindless management of people’s diaries. Defaults can be set in Gmail for meetings to be 25 or 50 minutes. This is good etiquette.

After a meetings audit recently, one of my clients came up with a set of rules for everyone to follow.  From now on, they have a maximum number of hours per week for the SLT to spend in meetings. If they’ve reached that allocation, staff aren’t allowed to book any more meetings without cancelling something else.

Create agile agendas

How many times have you been to meetings where people are unprepared, no one seems to know why they’re there and discussion goes off on more tangents than a complex trigonometry equation? This is always down to poor preparation and the main culprit is the agenda.

There are some simple ways to fix this.  Firstly, instead of choosing a dull, general title for the meeting such as ‘Budget Problems’ or ‘Overspend Issues’, be more specific.  Phrase it as a question. This could be, ‘How can we save £250K by end of March 2020?’

Doing this gives the context and purpose of the meeting.  You’re actively inviting someone and preparing them. Rather than being a passive attendee, they’ll have time to prepare and think about what they want to say.  You can invite them to send in relevant agenda items.

Don’t produce the agenda in advance with an endless list of topics and AOB slapped on at the end.  (Another one of my personal hates – anyone who wants AOB on the agenda should be punched in the face and thrown out the window!)   People should decide the agenda collectively at the start. After agreeing on the length of the meeting and the start and finish time, they should work out what’s achievable in the timescale and prioritise the most important items.   

By doing this together, you’re getting collective buy-in over the most important issues that will help establish the purpose and outcomes of the meeting.  Start every meeting with a discussion of the purpose and revisit this often as the meeting progresses, particularly if it’s steering off course and may fail to deliver the desired outcomes.

Agree on a structure

I’m a big fan of a proper structure for meetings that’s agreed and followed by the whole company. 

Start with a check-in – a round of personal good news. Share a win or a big ‘Aha’ moment.  This gets everything off on a positive note and builds psychological safety. Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ identified this as essential to high performing teams.  It’s important to reinforce the belief that everyone should share airtime equally.

Depending on the type of meeting, scorecards can be really useful. If you’re having a weekly management meeting, for example, the scorecard could be based on the functional accountability chart with leading and lagging indicators. Or maybe it’s based on the key process flow map.  Are any of the metrics on red? If so, they should be added to the issues list. 

Also important are the top five corporate objectives for the quarter. Again, review whether any of these are red and, if they are, add them to list. Then share both the employee and customer feedback (I suggest executives get into the habit of speaking to at least one customer and one employee not in their team every week).

All of the above should take no more than five minutes each. As should the ‘Who, What, When’ from the previous week. Did everything get done?  If not, what’s the current status? Once you’ve whipped through these areas, you can focus on the main bulk of the meeting – the issues list. This is when you identify, discuss and solve problems.  Prioritise together which of these you’re going to tackle in the next 30 – 60 minutes. Don’t try and do everything. Work out what can be parked or needs to be worked on separately by a subset of the team. 

At the end, spend five minutes wrapping up. Recap on ‘Who, What, When’. Then ask everyone to rate the meeting on a scale of 1 to 10. If below 10, discuss what you could have done differently to improve it. This is how you get better – together.

Decide clear roles

Facilitating a meeting is a skill so don’t automatically make the person who called the meeting the chair. They may not be great at taking the lead or shutting up extroverts so the introverts have equal airtime.  Similarly, if you’re having a meeting about budget overspend, the CFO may want to take an active role and it’s virtually impossible to do this if you’re the chair. Pick the best person or rotate to give everyone experience.

Decide on a note-taker who can capture what everyone agreed.  My preferred system is Google Docs Live because it’s shared instantly.  You can see your commitments come up in real-time and agree on them in the moment. It also saves the need to write anything up later.

I’m not talking pages of minutes here.  All that needs to be noted is ‘Who, What, When.’ It’s not necessary to record everything as all the relevant people should be in the room. What are the commitments you made? What did you say you would do?  By when? And what was the definition of completion that everyone agreed? Then it’s much less easy for people to weasel out. 

It’s a good habit to adopt and reference ‘FAST’ goals at this point – goals that are discussed frequently, are ambitious in scope, measured by specific metrics and transparent, for everyone to see.  Unless there is a reason not to share all meeting notes, then by default they are public to be viewed by anyone in the organisation.

Also vital is a timekeeper.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to start and finish on time. And also, to ensure that conversations don’t run on too long. Something I’ve seen work well is an approach agreed by everyone in advance. Meeting participants give a thumbs up or thumbs down if a topic’s rumbling on for too long.  Then it’s the timekeeper’s job to shut this down and move the discussion forward.

Run meetings in line with your values

How about overlaying the structure of your meetings with your core values?  This can be really effective. Sometimes certain behaviours creep into meetings that you tolerate, even though they contravene this fundamental framework.  Think about each value and how it translates into meeting behaviours and lay this out to staff. Get their input and decide together how you’re going to stick to it.

Imagine if a Martian landed in your meetings.  What sense would they get of your business? What would be their impressions of your culture?

And finally… ban tech!

There is nothing more frustrating than chairing meetings when people are only half present. And why are they so distracted? Because they’re checking their emails or instant messaging about something completely unrelated to the discussion around them. It’s rude and disrespectful. 

My view is that all phones should be banned from meetings.  This will minimise distractions and ensure that conversation is focused on what’s important – the objectives of the meeting.

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about him here.

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