5 Tips For Fast And Focused Meetings

No more crowded rooms or rambling opinions—meetings can be speedy and productive with these five tips.

If you slowly feel your soul draining and your mind turning to mush right now—and if you're reading this on your smartphone—there's a very good chance you're currently sitting in on a truly unproductive meeting.

Rather than getting bogged down in any more overcrowded and underproductive business meetings, try implementing these five tips, and start refining those daily tests of endurance.

1. Cut the numbers

When too many people cram into a meeting room, solutions gravitate toward the lowest common denominator. As film director Darren Aronofsky puts it, "Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla."

That’s why small meetings are mandatory at travel site Kayak’s headquarters—as a vivid reminder, CEO Paul English even has one of those clickers for counting people tied to the conference room door.

"No innovation happens with 10 people in a room," English once told the New York Times. "It’s too easy to be a critic and say why something won’t work."

2. Check the climate

Sometimes people arrive upbeat and updated on the meeting’s topic. Other times they’re clueless or downcast.

By determining the mental climate as people enter, you can easily adjust time and content to fit needs and attitudes.

Use a white board or easel pad to display a four-quadrant chart with these labels: stormy, calm, clear, foggy.

Before the meeting starts, have each participant add checkmarks to quadrants that reflect their understanding and outlook about the topic. Leave the room or have your back to the chart during this process.

If checkmarks cluster in stormy and/or foggy quadrants, you’ll need to add time for questions, explanations, and maybe pep talks. But if checkmarks cluster in calm and clear quadrants, surge ahead with new business.

3. Watch the clock

Meetings expand to fill their allocated time, so structure your sessions to be fast and focused.

When surgeon Jon Lloyd wanted to reduce wound infections at a Pittsburg hospital, he held a series of 30-minute, small-group meetings with nurses, doctors, janitors, food workers, and patients, asking how they would solve the problem. As reported by author and physician Atul Gawande, the hospital lowered wound infection rates to zero, thanks to ideas from those rapid-fire meetings.

Keep time top of your mind. I once had a boss whose constant companion for meetings was an antique wind-up alarm clock. Its vintage tick-tocking loudly prompted us to summarize points and shortcut discussions. We typically covered lots of ground in record time—and I don’t recall anybody ever complaining about meetings ending too soon.

4. Start with study hall

Meetings at Amazon sometime start with "study hall." Everybody silently reads a summary from the meeting’s leader or presenter before discussions take place.

These study halls enhance and accelerate meetings, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos told interviewer Charlie Rose. Since presenters must put thoughts on paper, they carefully think through what they want to communicate. And by reading without interruptions and digressions, people rapidly absorb content so discussion afterwards takes place at a higher level.

5. Eschew a cozy atmosphere

Unless you relish rambling, drawn-out meetings, replace cushy, tranquilizing chairs.

The Amsterdam communications firm KesselsKramer furnishes one of its meeting rooms with a picnic table. This informal, intimate seating triggers rousing discussions—but after 45 minutes, backs start aching and people eagerly wrap up and move out.

Another time-saving tactic is to get folks on their feet. When meetings I facilitate start droning on, I’ll often call for a 10-minute break—just long enough to haul away all chairs. Creative energy goes up and soliloquies go down when everybody stands throughout a meeting.

[Image: Flickr user Jeffrey Zeldman]

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