Do you remember the last time your team members were eager to attend a meeting? I know you don’t. Meetings have a tendency not to just spontaneously spring out of thin air and bore the life out of you; they also can easily fall into the abyss of unproductive nonsense. That’s why you need to have a clear, goal-oriented meeting agenda. Following these guidelines is an excellent place to start.

Have a clear purpose

You need to have an apparent reason for having a meeting. If it doesn’t serve a clear, relevant and productive purpose, kill it. Moreover, you need to have a good reason for having a meeting.

Never set a meeting just to update people on a certain issue. If you can say it in an email, don’t say it in a meeting.

You have to identify the reason why you want to have a meeting and write it down as clearly as possible so that you can communicate it to the rest of your team. After identifying the purpose set out an agenda of items you want to go over during the meeting. Ask yourself: What do I want to achieve? Then write your goals as clearly as possible. This doesn’t only make the meeting more productive, it saves massive amounts of time and allows you to reach precise decisions faster.

Harvard Business School professor and psychologist Francesca Gino points out in her book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan that lack of clarity is often the reason behind teams struggling to make decisions.

It also doesn’t hurt to hand out a copy of the purpose and agenda to your team before the meeting. Give them time to prep and allow them to come to you with bright ideas and focused minds.

Don’t spend more than one hour in a meeting

There is no golden rule when it comes to the duration of a meeting. It depends on what the purpose of your meeting is. Ask yourself: Do I want to discuss a specific issue, brainstorm ideas or just assign weekly tasks?

However, the shorter, the better. One staple study about transitions in group tasks found that groups change their rate of work according to the time they have been appointed for such tasks. In most cases though, an hour is plenty of time to go over a particular point, discuss it and assign team members tasks.

Even more important than not making your meeting too long is making your team members actually show up on time.  Punctuality is key. If your team is late to your perfectly planned, perfectly timed meeting, you defeat the purpose of having a productive, time-saving meeting.

How to make them show up on time? Simple. Lock the door after one minute. You won’t need to do this too many times before they get the message. No one likes to see a door slam in his or her face. Also, make sure your meeting even ends on time. Setting explicit time constraints will allow you to stay on track and waste less time.

Make everyone talk

Encourage the introverts and underperformers of the office-verse to speak their mind. You can do that easily by constructing the meeting in a way that allows participants to take turns in sharing their thoughts. Another way is to keep a written log to keep track of who spoke; this added pressure makes everyone talk.

The number of attendees also matters. You don’t want to waste people’s time, so make sure you limit the number of meeting participants as much as possible. You only need to invite people who are directly or indirectly affected by the purpose and agenda of your meeting. Gino suggests you keep the limit at seven people per meeting.

Also, make sure you give all participants a particular responsibility to execute during the meeting. This helps them contribute more effectively. For example, if the purpose of your meeting is to brainstorm ideas for an upcoming project, you can give each participant the responsibility of brainstorming ideas for a distinct part of the project.

Collaboration or oppression?

Regardless of your preconceptions about team members, the best ideas can come from the most unlikely sources. Moreover, the best ideas are usually collaborative, not individual. You need to make it clear to your team that they shouldn’t be scared to speak of an inkling they think it doesn’t worth.

One mediocre idea can spark the path that leads to a better, original and collaborative idea.

You need to make your team feel like they have the right to be heard without judgment, and that their opinions matter just like yours do. Moreover, if you include people who have different areas of expertise but are still relevant to the meeting, make sure you give them the space to share their ideas even if the topic at hand is not related to their area of work.

Collaboration leads to better thoughts, and an outsider’s perspective can often be valuable. Yahoo’s former CSO and strategist Tim Sanders often talks about how the legend of “the lone inventor” is a myth, and that collaboration is what births innovation.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to go with the idea they choose. You’re the leader, and you call the shots. In this particular area, it’s helpful to think up some ground rules to distinguish between a few common areas of concern.

For example, former CEO of Drugstore.com Dawn Lepore told the New York Times that she differentiates between “light bulbs and guns.” Light bulbs are ideas she just happened to have and would, therefore, appreciate it if her team thought about them too. Moreover, guns are legitimate tasks that meeting participants must perform.

Chief executive of Care.com Sheila Lirio Marcelo differentiates between three types of meeting decisions: Type 1 decisions are “dictatorial, ” and therefore only the leader gets to decide. Type 2 decisions include people’s input, but the leader still makes the final call and type 3 decisions are based on consensus, and therefore all participants decide together.

Eliminate distractions

I hate to break it to you, but it turns out multitasking doesn’t work. The American Psychological Association states that the human brain isn’t designed to perform more than one task at a time and that this not only “takes a toll on productivity,” it also causes mental overload that “can result in catastrophe.”

So if you want your meeting to be productive, you have to eliminate distractions. That means prohibiting all social media-bearing devices and interruptions from co-workers. Everything else can wait. Keep your team’s focus on the job at hand and nothing else. More focus means more productivity and better performance.

Write everything down

Writing things down creates three positive effects:

  • It allows you to craft a clear purpose and agenda.
  • It makes all participants aware of what they need to do when they step out of the door.
  • It allows you to hold them accountable for it.

Make sure you have a written meeting agenda (that includes the purpose and focus of the meeting), a written record of all ideas said in the meeting and a written record of your action plan (the conclusion and results of the meeting).

Don’t leave the room without a plan

Make sure your meeting ends with a clear conclusion. Ask yourself and your meeting participants: What have we agreed on? What do we know now that we didn’t know an hour ago?

And most importantly, make sure you ask the question North American Properties managing partner Mark Toro questions at the end of every meeting: “Who will do what by when?” In fact, Toro suggests using this question in all office communications, not just meetings.

Another way is to use the Five Ws and H: What, who, where, when, why and how. Whatever terminology you use, make sure you leave the room with a clear plan of action that outlines what task each participant will perform and what its deadline is. It’s a great way to adequately summarize what the meeting produced and held people accountable for their responsibilities.

In Short…

Understand that when it comes to meetings, it’s about quality, not quantity. You’re probably having more meetings than you should, so try to reevaluate the number of meetings you’re holding.

Remember this solid piece of advice from the chief executive of the QualCare Alliance Network Annette Catino: “If I don’t have an agenda in front of me, I walk out. Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting. It’s crucial to me to focus people and to keep them focused.”

How many meetings do you have per week? How well do they go? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

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