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The Keys to Effective Team Meetings

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How to turn meetings into a springboard for productivity.

We all need meetings. But we probably all dread meetings too. Meetings can seem time-consuming and inefficient, interfering with our work rather than helping it.

If you feel this way, you’re not alone. Research shows that a vast majority of employees daydream or do other work during meetings. Executives can spend up to half their time in meetings, with as much as a quarter of meeting time spent discussing irrelevant topics.

But well-run meetings add significant value to your organisation by facilitating communication, teamwork, and decision-making. And the ability to run effective meetings is a trademark of the most productive professionals, according to a recent international study by MIT.

We reviewed meeting advice from top business experts and distilled their input down to two key areas that can transform your team meetings: structure and content.

The consensus is that meetings should be kept short—ideally no more than an hour. When given time constraints, we work more efficiently and make decisions faster. Some organisations even rely exclusively on stand-up meetings, which prompt shorter discussions and greater engagement.

It’s also important to limit the number of meeting participants to as low as four to seven individuals, or only those who really need to be there are are more likely to participate. Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos likes to go by the “two-pizza rule”: no meeting should require more than two pizzas to feed everyone. Bigger meetings are sometimes necessary, but they require proportionally more preparation and facilitation to produce positive results.

When it comes to meeting content, the key lies in setting an effective agenda ahead of time. Meetings shouldn’t just be about giving updates. According to Paul Axtell, author of Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, “If you’re only meeting to transfer information, rethink your approach. Why take up valuable time saying something you can just email?”

While a brief portion of the meeting can be spent on updates, the bulk of the time should focus on topics that are relevant to all attendees and require input or coordination. If you’re not sure what these topics are, ask your colleagues for suggestions beforehand.

Once you select the meeting topics, take some time to frame these on the agenda. “List agenda topics as questions the team needs to answer,” suggests organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz in the Harvard Business Review. “A question enables team members to better prepare for the discussion and to monitor whether their own and others’ comments are on track.” He also recommends assigning someone to lead each topic, and explicitly stating whether the topic requires information sharing, input from team members, or a decision.

The most effective meetings direct us to action, so make sure you and your colleagues walk away with clear decisions and next steps. And always give others the opportunity to provide feedback on the meeting itself, either at the end or afterwards. Was the agenda well structured? Were the topics of discussion important and relevant? How could the meeting facilitation be improved? What more do team members need to stay engaged?

Setting the stage for an effective meeting does requires some time and energy. But the pay-off, in terms of meeting time saved, higher morale, and greater productivity among your colleagues, is far greater. And, hopefully, you and your team members can actually start looking forward to meetings.