Seven strategies to design a better meeting

Steve Jobs ran meetings at Apple with an efficient and minimalistic approach that mirrored the sleek designs of the products he helped create. He did this with the help of a practical meeting agenda–a clear and detailed outline of what was to be discussed, when, and for how long.

Jobs even established a mandatory rule that, for meetings to be productive, an agenda had to be set and discussed at the beginning of each session. Why? Because an effective agenda makes a productive meeting. It’s a rule we also practice and have found great success with, and we’d like to share it with you.

Group meeting

We’ve outlined what creating an effective meeting agenda looks like below:

1) Clear objectives

Before you begin to piece together a meeting agenda, you must first clearly identify the objective of the meeting. Essential questions that aid in discovering the purpose are: Why do you want to hold the meeting? Is it reason enough to gather people together and take time out of their days? Is the matter better addressed with an email or a one-on-one? Do you have a prototype to share and explore with the group?

Once you know your “why” and have decided it’s a substantial reason to call a meeting, make your focus even more finite and identify if the purpose of addressing the objective is to inform, seek input for a decision, or receive help in making a decision. The angle will determine how you structure your agenda, and therefore your meeting. For example, if you wish to seek input for a decision, the meeting will likely include open discussion and collaboration activities to help generate ideas. If you are looking to receive help in coming to a decision, the meeting might also include time and process for a vote to reach a consensus among the group. Identify the critical topics and methods needed to address them.

Working together on a project

2) Only essential topics

Now it’s time to start constructing your agenda. Rule one of facilitation club is to help the group communicate as effectively as possible. An efficient way to help achieve this is by eliminating any topics or talking points that do not coincide with the purpose of the meeting and the goal of trying to be reached. Any time spent discussing irrelevant content is precious time taken away from achieving the goal. Clearly define the essential topics that need to be addressed and stick to them. Each topic should serve as a segment of the meeting. Outline them in order of importance or relevance to create a natural flow as the meeting unfolds.

3) Realistic time slots

It is common to underestimate the time required to address a topic and all that comes with it: answering questions, explaining and understanding varying points of view, creating possible solutions, and coming to a consensus after a discussion to make a thoughtful decision. Do the math and determine the appropriate amount of time necessary to address each topic adequately. A time frame also keeps attendees in check–when there is a limited amount of time, they must use it wisely by sticking to the topic, not oversharing, and making their responses concise. You may find those specific topics need more time than you have allotted once you’re in the meeting. If this should happen, adjust wisely as to accommodate for the need while also ensuring you do not run the meeting longer than scheduled. This may require you to cut time elsewhere as the meeting evolves.

Overall, it is vital to outline your meeting agenda as thoroughly as possible and include: the meeting’s start time, the start and end time of each topic being discussed as well as any activities that may take place, any necessary breaks, and the meeting’s end time. Then, follow the schedule as carefully as possible. A robust agenda helps facilitation run smoothly and produce successful results.

Speaker talking to group

4) Strategic date, time, and duration

Details are important. Each one helps create the meeting’s agenda, and therefore meeting environment. The chosen date, time, and duration of the meeting can have an impact on how attendees receive and retain information. A study conducted by a UK based scheduling firm, based on data from two million responses to 530,000 meeting invitations, found that the optimal time to book a meeting is Tuesday at 2:30 pm. It gives mercy to Monday blues but is not too late in the week, and the time is not too early in the day, which allows people time to get in “work mode,” i.e., be in a place of optimal focus and collaboration. While it’s unrealistic to schedule every meeting on a Tuesday at 2:30 pm on the dot, a general guideline is to try to hold meetings mid-afternoon and mid-week for prime effectiveness.

The length of the meeting is also significant. Here’s the thing: too lengthy of a meeting causes a decrease in attention span and retention and the ability to make good decisions, but having a moderate level of pressure, such as a time restraint, can lead to optimal performance. The latter is illustrated in the Yerkes-Dodson law, which maps the inverted U-shape correlation between stress and performance (up to a certain point). Holding a 45-minute meeting instead of 60-minutes, for example, will create a more concentrated and efficient discussion, providing a light sense of urgency to address and flush out the purpose in the time provided. Choose your meeting length wisely–if it’s too short, you won’t have ample time to discuss your objectives and reach your goal, and if it’s too long, you will lose productivity and waste time and money.

Theater group watching speech

5) Allot time for debriefing

It is imperative to schedule a time for debriefing at the end of the meeting. Taking time to summarize and reflect to the group what was discussed, the information generated, and the decision reached ensures everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect in the steps ahead. Part of debriefing is assigning appropriate people specific tasks to carry out once the meeting is over, duties that will allow forward momentum to continue and bring the decision made in the meeting to life.

Ask yourself, “How will the decisions reached during the meeting be carried out? What needs to be done when, and by whom to bring the idea to life?” then assign individuals responsibilities accordingly.

Set clear deadlines for when these tasks need to be completed before the meeting is adjourned so that everyone knows what is expected of them, and steady and timely progress can be made.

6) End on time

One of the top reasons so many people dread meetings is the fear of it being too long or running past the end time, cutting into their own work time. With up to 55 million meetings held each day, and employees averaging six hours per week attending them, it’s understandable. And unfortunately, most meetings are truly unproductive and a waste of time. A Harvard Business Review study found that 65% of 182 surveyed senior managers across various industries reported that meetings keep them from completing their work. When you build a reputation of ending meetings at the scheduled time, attendees are more likely to develop trust and increased liking to attending, which will boost morale and help productivity. Chasing the goal of ending on time will also hold you accountable to timely navigate the agenda to arrive at the decided upon time. Finishing on time is respecting everyone else’s time.

Three people discussion project

“Time is zero-sum. Every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into time for solo work that’s equally essential for creativity and efficiency.” -Harvard Business Review

7) Get ahead of it

An effective way to make sure that everyone in attendance shares an understanding of why they are gathering and what the purpose is that they are working to obtain is to send them the plan beforehand. Doing so allows everyone the opportunity to look it over and consider what will be discussed and prepare before they enter the meeting, which improves meeting quality and discussion.

It is also beneficial to hand out a physical copy of the agenda or display it on a projector or whiteboard from the start of the meeting. A visual reference present throughout the session helps to keep the group on task and schedule. It also serves as a reminder for attendees to know what is up next.

When you spend time to construct a thoughtful, detailed, and strategic agenda before your next meeting, you will significantly increase efficiency and overall success.