Career Tools: How To Run Effective Meetings

Agendas and time management among keys to productive and valuable meetings

Part of the Career Tools Series
Isabel Taylor, left, facilitates an OIT project team meeting with Lenore Ramm, Shilen Patel, and Rob Carter. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Isabel Taylor, left, facilitates an OIT project team meeting with Lenore Ramm, Shilen Patel, and Rob Carter. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

As the clock in the conference room turned to 1:15 p.m., Isabel Taylor called the six people chatting around the table to order.

"Let's get this meeting started," said Taylor as she looked at the one-page agenda. "Let's start with updates on last week's action items."

Within five minutes, the project team from the Office of Information Technology reviewed items assigned during its last meeting to plan a migration of digital storage space from one platform to another. Over the next 15 minutes, the team discussed next steps and generated action items for the following week. At 1:37 p.m., Taylor, project manager for OIT's Project and Consulting Services, ended the meeting eight minutes early.

"I like it when we can end early," Taylor said. "People appreciate it."

Ensuring that meetings start and stop on schedule is an important technique to create productive and valuable meetings. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that ineffective meetings are one of the top time-wasters for employees. According to Wendy Hamilton Hoelscher, team leader for Learning and Organization Development at Duke, structure can keep most meetings short and sweet.

The best place to start, she said, is by writing an agenda with discussion items and updates, including whether action is necessary. Creating that agenda is also a test for whether a meeting is needed.

"If you can't come up with problems to be solved or information to share, then you should ask yourself why you are having a meeting," Hamilton Hoelscher said. "People get frustrated with routine meetings that don't produce much."

Taylor's Project and Consulting Services group in OIT uses an agenda template that includes the meeting purpose, location, time, facilitator and attendees at the top of the page. The middle section of the agenda is for discussion items and the bottom is for action items.

"It keeps us on track," Taylor said.

Hamilton Hoelscher also recommended creating a "parking lot" for items that come up during the meeting that aren't part of the agenda. Rather than letting the off-topic item derail the meeting, the facilitator can recognize it as an important question, write it down and return to it at the end of the meeting.

"That gives the team a chance to resolve the issue or agree to add it to the next agenda," Hamilton Hoelscher said.

Well-crafted agendas help Taylor estimate how much time she needs for a meeting. She rarely schedules a meeting for more than 45 minutes and prefers starting and ending at odd times, such as 1:15 p.m. or 1:45 p.m.

"It tends to give people a bit of time to breathe before their next appointment," she said.

Effective meetings close with a review of decisions and plan of action. For Taylor, that offers the opportunity to clarify next steps on a project.

"People like going away knowing what we've just accomplished and knowing what they need to do next," Taylor said. "It makes them more willing to come back for another meeting."