8 Steps for Running Productive Meetings

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How many times have you been to a meeting that bored you, lead nowhere or ran too long leaving you with the thought of how much you could have accomplished if only you could get those hours back?  It’s common for workplace meetings to run in a variety of ineffective ways. This happens when the organizational culture allows for it and people within the organization go with the flow.

Yes, your coworkers may grumble at the water cooler how tired they are of having “meetings for the sake of meetings” or how they didn’t get to make their point because someone kept interrupting them at the meeting and there was nothing they could do about it. This is how people feel at the end of ineffective meetings – drained and frustrated, but isn’t it their inaction that’s keeping up the status quo? As soon as the next meeting invite pops up on their screens, then click the “accept” button as if on an autopilot. And then, the toxic pattern of “complaint, accept, complain some more” repeats itself.

What if it was your meeting causing all this misery? What would you do? Would you wait for a wind of change to sweep away the current norms of your organization and replace them with a new mentality one day? Or would you take matters in your own hand and take action to improve the quality of your meetings? Here are a few simple steps you can take to turn meetings from toxic to productive.

  1. Set a clear intention. What is the outcome you desire to achieve as a result of this meeting? Is your intention to inform others? Is it to solve a quality problem? Or to reach a consensus on an important company decision?  Believe it or not, but there were times when simply going through this process and asking myself these questions, made me decide against calling a meeting and, instead, I was able to resolve the issue through other forms of communication.
  2. Identify the key players. Who are the stakeholders or the interested parties to the issue at hand? How will they be affected by the change you are proposing? Are all affected areas represented well? Sometimes those cause and effect relationships are not too obvious – so you have to thoroughly evaluate everyone’s need and expectations? Whose participation is necessary at the meeting? And most importantly, do you have the right expertise and the needed diversity of mindsets in the room?
  3. Prepare an Agenda. Create a list of key issues to discuss – with the right amount of detail on each line item. Distribute in advance, to give people enough time to familiarize themselves with the issue and to do their homework as necessary. If it’s important to you that the agenda is read before the meeting – set a reminder leading up to the meeting for the participants to read it.
  4.  Take ownership of your meeting. Anyone can be the owner and the moderator of a meeting. For this, you don’t have to be in a managerial role. At the beginning of the meeting, remind the attendees the intended outcome and ensure full understanding. This is also a great time to set some ground rules for the course of the meeting. For example, do you want everyone to turn off their gadgets or at least to put them in the silent mode? Let them know what other expectations you may have.
  5. Adopt a format and stick to it. Follow the agenda and despite the occasional side discussions always bring the team back on track. Actively moderate the meeting by making sure that everyone around the table has a chance to speak. As I witness often, overbearing personalities in the room tend to take over, while the naturally quiet team members tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. There are many reasons for this behavior, including the office politics and power imbalance. In the meetings I run or moderate, I make a point to keep the discussion balanced. To engage everyone around the table I specifically prompt the quiet team members to speak by directing questions at them. Without the direct encouragement to speak up, people may feel the pressure to comply with the group’s view, instead of expressing themselves. This results in groupthink. The danger of groupthink is that it suppresses alternative ideas, and prevents the team from seeing the issue from all perspective and making the decision that is truly in the company’s best interests.
  6. Stay on time. To keep the meeting on track, at times you will have to steer people back to the main discussion; at times you will have to politely cut them off. Not everyone will be thrilled by the interruptions,  especially if your team is not used to the culture of productive meetings. But at the end of the day, you will earn respect by using the company’s time wisely. Sometimes it’s hard to stay on time because of a particularly interesting turn the discussion takes. In rare cases, when the team is on the verge of making a major breakthrough, you can allow the momentum to take the discussion to its logical conclusion. In all other cases, I make sure that I cover everything on the agenda in the time allocated to the meetings. Any additional necessary discussions can be held afterward with a smaller group, or in a separate meeting entirely.
  7. Develop an action plan. As the moderator of the meeting – take notes of key points or ask someone to take notes for you. In either case, summarize the plan at the end of the meeting, and turn each point into an action item. This is the best time to assign a responsible person for each task and agree on a reasonable completion date.
  8. Follow through with your plan. Within the agreed upon timeframe, follow up with each teammate who had an action item assigned to them. Are they making adequate progress? Are they facing any unforeseen barriers? Do they need the team’s help? Ask your teammates for a status update prior to the next meeting. Even people with best intentions get sidetracked and pulled in many different directions – so it will help if you stay on top of things as the original owner of the issue.

The steps above are simple to implement and ready to be applied to your very next meeting. Weaving this practice into your existing organizational culture is not necessarily going to be easy though. It might even feel like an uphill battle if everyone around you is still doing things the old way. Despite the natural forces of resistance, adopting the culture of running productive meetings is still a cause worth pursuing. It will lead to many benefits such as improved efficiency, problem-solving and employee engagement. Set your personal bar high and sooner than later, your peers and superiors will see the benefits and will want to step up their game as well. Starting the change with yourself, you can set in motion a small-scale cultural revolution that can have big ripple effects on your organization.


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  1. Introducing structure to meetings within a group where no structure was present in the past does have its challenges. I recently implemented a process very similar to Natella’s recommendations and noticed that the change was met with early resistance specifically from the person(s) responsible for running the meetings. I agree that it is very important to consider the fact that you may also be required to manage the change that is taking place with people who may be resistant and/or defensive of their position (and ego)….Even if that position results in poorly run meetings. The benefits of running a well-planned, well-organized, and efficient meeting will become apparent to everyone in the room and will yield the expectations and results the meeting was originally intended to deliver.

    1. Thank you, Jason, for sharing your experience so pertinent to our discussion here. It’s very interesting that the person in charge of the meeting was the one who resisted most in your case. I would be curious to find out how long it took this particular group to catch on the numerous benefits offered by the structured meetings and start adopting them on their end. Once they see the improvements this system yields for their daily operations and for resolving strategic action items I doubt they would to go back to the poor format they had before.

    2. Jason, sounds like you did such a great job with changing the way meetings were run in your company. If we had someone like you in my workplace to champion this kind of cultural change it would have been a better place for everyone. Maybe I wouldn’t have to leave it either.

      Looking forward to hearing more from you on this website 🙂

  2. I simply want to share my experience here. I had to participate in boring, exhausting meetings in the past. Oh how I hated them! Hours and hours of time completely wasted with no conclusions or no actions items originating from them. No one was interested in changing the format or taking accountability. When I saw the format improvements were not underway I started coming up with valid reasons or even excuses to decline every time I got a new invitation. Eventually I left that place altogether.

  3. Great post, thank you! At a company I worked for we had a long-standing history of disorganised meetings. These meetings often lead nowhere or at times even ended with one of the participants leaving the room in the middle of a discussion no longer able to take the stress of the situation. We realised we had a problem. With the help from a consultant we implemented the concept of smart meetings. Through following the new process and keeping each other accountable, things did improve. But now a couple of years later I definetly see how people are slowly falling back into their old patterns.

    The key to successful change is to stay on top of the new initiative. Top management has to be a living and breathing example of the change.

    1. Hi Alan, thank you so much for sharing about your experiences. I totally understand the situation. As a team, you have to make a conscious and consistent effort to keep the new initiative alive by enforcing the new practices, showing management commitment and accountability. Otherwise, the change becomes nothing more than a flavor of the month.

  4. Sticking to a schedule and staying on track is definitely something that is overlooked at a lot of meetings. Even when valid points are brought up, if it’s not within the agenda, it should be brought up at another meeting.
    You make some great points, some that are very easily forgotten! Very informative.

    1. Hello Sarah, good to hear from you. Thank you for contacting us all the way from Australia! Clear agendas and meeting minutes are very important for effective meetings. As a bare minimum : a list of action items with due dates and the responsible parties’ names should be kept.