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Is Your Meeting Worth the Time?

A couple of days ago I fired up my online calendar and started to schedule a meeting with my manager.  Our meetings are typically less than 30 minutes long, but I had  a lot to talk about, so I was going to make it an hour long.  Yessirree.  I had a lot of stuff on my mind, I needed an audience, and he was the logical person to hear me out!

Fortunately, we have a little meeting protocol where I work.  In our organization, you can’t schedule a meeting without identifying the objective of the meeting and the desired outcome.   At first, I didn’t think it would be difficult to get my thoughts around those things and document them.  (Did I mention I had a lot to talk about?)
But when it came to actually spelling out the objective in the invitation, my fingers froze. I hadn’t really gotten much past “To talk about all the stuff I need to talk about.”  That, of course, left me with nothing to describe in the way of desired outcome. 

So I took my hands off the keyboard, put them on my forehead and started to think:  What is the purpose of this meeting?  Why should he take his time, that is, the organization’s most valuable resource, to meet with me?  What do I have to say that is worth his time to discuss?

The truth is, I did have a lot on my mind.  I was feeling overwhelmed and unfocused with more to deal with than I had bandwidth for.  I had ideas and thoughts about some things I was excited about and wanted to be able to address all of it, but I couldn’t.

The truth is also that I did not have a lot to discuss.  I just needed to know the current priorities of things on my plate.  My objective was to clarify my priorities, and the desired outcome that I needed at the end of our meeting was a list. 

Once this became clear, the meeting got a lot shorter.

How long ago was it that you attended a meeting with 3, 5, or 10 people without a clear understanding of the purpose and deliverable expected out of the meeting?  When was the last meeting you attended that got off track in the absence of a meeting objective?  How many meeting agendas have you seen that included extraneous items that wouldn’t have been necessary had a purpose been identified?  Most importantly, when was the last time you were sitting in a meeting that you might not have needed to attend if a clear meeting objective had been defined?  

The time it takes to be thoughtful about a meeting objective and desired outcome is not free, but it will always be cheaper than the time squandered in meetings without clear objectives defined.

So the next time you are inviting people to a meeting, consider identifying the objective of the meeting.  If someone were to ask you why your meeting is worth their time and organizational money, could you answer?  Maybe your objective is to get a decision about something.  Or identify options.  Or prioritize choices.  Whatever it is, define it first – before developing an agenda, deciding how long it will be, or whom to invite.

And then write down what it is you need to walk out of your meeting with, your desired outcome.  Maybe it’s a decision.  Or signatures of approval.  Or a list of options.  Whatever it is, write it down.  You’ll find your meetings are more likely to end on time because you know when they’re over – you’ve named it!

Try it.  But don’t expect to like it.  It’s a lot easier to just send an invitation to a bunch of people for a meeting about…you know…that thing we need to talk about.  

But once you have defined an objective, the rest of the meeting will become a lot more clear.  Your desired outcome will probably reveal itself.  Who really needs to be there will become evident – and will probably result in a shorter list of invitees than a meeting with no defined objectives.  Your agenda will begin to take shape and, again, probably be shorter than with an undefined meeting.

I ended up scheduling our meeting for 40 minutes, which is longer than we usually meet, but shorter than I initially intended to request.  I’m pretty confident it’s going to be a good use of organizational time and resources.  I think my manager is, too.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Andrea Brockmeier is the Client Solutions Director for Project Management at Watermark Learning.  Andrea is a PMP® as well as Certified ScrumMaster.  She has 20+ years of experience in project management practice and training. She writes and teaches courses in project management, including PMP® certification, as well as influencing skills. She has long been involved with the PMI® chapter in Minnesota where she was a member of the certification team for over eight years. She has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and is particularly interested in the impact of social media and new technologies on organizations and projects.

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