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How To Keep Meetings Focused And On Course

How To Keep A Meetings Focused And On Course

The proven process for making the most of every business meeting―from the coauthor of the international bestseller Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, Dr. Rick Brinkman.

I have found it useful to think of people at meetings as passengers on a plane. They are trapped together in a contained space for a period of time. The flight may be delayed, while the meeting may not start on time. Both can go off course or even be hijacked. The flight may arrive late, while the meeting may not end on time, and both cause you to miss other connections/meetings. They can both be uncomfortable or seem like a waste of time. And on contentious issues, people can bring too much baggage. 

A good meeting begins with a clear purpose and an agenda to accomplish that purpose. The agenda is your flight plan which let’s everyone know where we are going and when we are going to get there. It is also critical to keep the meeting focused and staying on course. In the words of Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you end up someplace else.”

The first question to ask when creating an agenda, is this item worthy of group time? According to the Cambridge Psychological Society, 24 hours after a business meeting, the average person only remembers 9% of what occurred and half of that is inaccurate in some way. Meetings should be for interaction. Dissemination of information is not an ideal use of meeting time. Information should be given to people ahead of time so when they come into the meeting having read it, they are ready to interact about it. Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. The agenda item requires group interaction.
  2. The agenda item involves everyone at the meeting.
  3. The time/benefit ratio of the item is favorable to including it. The item is worth group time in general, and it is worth the amount of time allotted in relation to the other agenda items that must be covered during the meeting.

On the volunteer boards I have served on, I usually put our vision, mission and values at the top of the agenda to remind people of our greater purpose. Research has shown that people can only pay attention consciously to seven, plus or minus two things at a time. Putting the greater vision in their consciousness is always a good idea.

Another important part of the agenda is what time will we focus on the item and for how long. Be as accurate as you can. Don’t round off. In fact, I highly recommend you use times on the agenda that are not in the usual factor of 5. For example:

Agenda item: What are the pros and cons of the new move?

Time: 8:36 to 9:38 (62 minutes)

This gives the impression that time actually matters, (which it does) and that you intend to stick to the schedule. You don’t have to be random. Try to be accurate.

Two other items to put on each agenda item that will keep the meeting flight on course and focused are a statement of “Purpose” and a statement of “Focus”. This is huge! Write a sentence or two that tells everyone why this item is worthy of precious meeting time and why it is important for them to be there and not doing a million other things they know they have to do. This helps people relax and focus on the item and supports a feeling of accomplishment:

Purpose: Because the new move will disrupt work flow for a week and will affect all departments, it is important that we examine its ramifications.

It is critical for participants to focus in the right way on the item. For example, you may want the participants’ opinions, or their analysis of the positives and negatives, or for them to understand what is going on, or to have their questions answered. The clearer people are on what is expected of them, the more effective, efficient, and focused they will be. This will also support the elimination of irrelevant tangents. For example:

What do you need from me? We want you to consider how this move will directly affect you and your department. Considering the projects you have, when is the ideal time to move?

I have found these two items to be transformational. A successful meeting begins with preparation of the flight plan / agenda. The better and more specific the preparation, the more likely you will be successful at achieving the goals of the meeting.

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How To Keep A Meetings Focused And On Course

Dr. Rick Brinkman is the coauthor of the international bestseller Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, which has been translated into 25 languages. His new book, Dealing with Meetings You Can’t Stand, How to Meet Less and Do More is available now. He is a top keynote speaker and trainer on leadership, teamwork, customer service, effective meetings, difficult people, and managing multiple priorities.