Agendas and time limits make meetings work

Janet Arrowood

Over the course of your career, you’ll probably attend thousands of meetings — everything from one-on-one counseling sessions to heavy duty conferences. Most meetings, of course, fall somewhere in between those extremes.

What do all of these meetings have in common? They’re usually inconvenient, waste time and only rarely productive.

There’s a better way. Ask and answer three simple questions to make meetings convenient, efficient, productive and maybe even enjoyable.

Do you really need to schedule this meeting?

Is there a way to handle the items intended for the meeting without convening the usual suspects? Is it a recurring meeting that never seems to break any new ground? Could the number of attendees be reduced? Could the meeting be conducted virtually or the presentation recorded for future playback?

Who really needs to be there?

Many people go to meetings because they were told to be there or don’t have much else to do. The first group of attendees could be pared back. Those deemed non-essential to the meeting could be assigned to receive the details from someone who attends. Then the actual attendee can brief his or her assignees. The second group of attendees needs one-on-one meetings with their supervisors to reassess the scope of their work assignments and job duties.

What’s on the agenda?

Finally, and most important, put together an agenda, distribute it ahead of time and limit the speaking time for each participant. 

Meetings without agendas are almost certain to degenerate into aimless discussions and complaints. Having an agenda, distributing it ahead of time, soliciting input before the meeting and then adhering closely to the agenda ensures you will accomplish the goals of your meeting. With an agreed agenda, the meeting coordinator can assign time limits to each topic and speakers to those topics.

Meetings without time limits for each speaker can spiral into chaos as one or two people take over and won’t stop talking. These people interrupt and talk over others and show little regard for the information presented by other attendees.

How does this approach to productivity work?

Here’s an example.

As the adjutant of my Army unit, I coordinated and attended weekly staff meetings. There were nine attendees, including me. When I attended my first staff meeting, it was absolute chaos and a total waste of time. Non-stop complaints, finger-pointing, moaning and more. No agenda, coordination or time limits. This resulted in a meeting that routinely lasted two hours and accomplished little.

I asked the colonel if this was how staff meetings always went. He said, “Yes, unfortunately.” I requested, and obtained, permission to develop an agenda, coordinate it and assign and strictly enforce speaking time limits for each attendee — including me and the colonel.

At our next staff meeting, everyone had an agenda on which they’d been given an opportunity to comment. They also were given 5 minutes to address their concerns, accomplishments and other matters. The colonel and I had the same time limit, plus an additional five minutes each to address administrative and command issues. In other words, the meeting was scheduled to last 55 minutes.

To make time limits work, we used a five-minute timer with a buzzer. When the buzzer sounded, the speaker had to stop talking and sit down. Since the colonel was fully supportive and followed the rules himself, buy-in was immediate, the meeting ended in less than an hour and the officers quickly became effective at just the facts, ma’am.

How can this approach apply to your meetings?

First, substitute supervisor or management for colonel. Then substitute staff or attendee for officer. Next, develop and circulate a written agenda with speaker names and time limits. Finally, enforce adherence to both the agenda and time limits.

While the preceding isn’t a solution for every meeting, most of what I’ve suggested applies to most, if not all, meetings.

The end result? Better use of such scarce resources as time and people and lots less aggravation and grandstanding.