Business Basics: How to run productive meetings like a pro

22 March 2017

Each month, we enlist the help of an industry expert with the skills and expertise to offer practical help and advice which could prove useful to your small business. So far in the series, we’ve covered things like planning for future business growth, writing a successful business plan and how you can get the most from social media. All previous editions of the Business Basics series can be found using the links below.

In the March instalment of Business Basics, we’ll be chatting to organisational development consultant, Will Woodward about how small businesses can improve the productivity of their business meetings. Will is an experienced facilitator and meeting fixer, and the founder of No More Rhubarb, which aims to help businesses keep their meetings optimal and time-efficient.

We spoke to Will about all aspects of planning and hosting a meeting, including the importance of a written agenda and how short meetings can often garner better results.
will woodward no more rhubarb

Read our full Business Basics interview with Will below.

 What meeting kick-off and management tips do you have to keep everyone aligned and on-topic?

By far the biggest difference to the success of any collaboration comes from having full clarity on the purpose of the meeting. Some very successful people I know simply decline any meeting invitation which isn’t upfront about what will be accomplished by the end, and what part they’re required to play.

A close second is clarity on the structure: how time will be used, what contributions will be necessary, and how they can most effectively be made. For instance, if the purpose of the meeting is to decide how to move forward with a project based on two options, then it may be appropriate to state that no new ideas will be considered. Conversely, if new ideas are what is required, it may be essential to exclude conversation about options which already exist.


How necessary is it to have a written agenda? And should participants have this in front of them during the meeting?

Participants certainly need a roadmap of what will be happening when, but a simple agenda listing the subject matter may not be enough. For instance, ‘Q3 Budget’ as an agenda item isn’t necessarily going to keep things on track, because it might mean any of the following activities and more besides:

  • Presentation of the budget for your information
  • Ideas for how we can best use the expenditure allowed in the Q3 budget
  • Suggestions for how to reduce expected expenditure
  • A request for feedback about the budget that has been set
  • A workshop to co-create the budget with input from all

If five people attended the meeting, they might each interpret the agenda item differently as above – and consequently their contributions may be a really poor match for what is required!

A far more successful agenda item might read:

‘Gathering reaction to the Quarter 3 budget. It is essential that all attendees have familiarised themselves with the budget before the meeting, as it will not be presented.’

agile and short business meeting

What’s the ideal length for a business meeting – and does this vary by type (pitch, negotiation, brainstorm etc.)? Is there a maximum number of people that should be invited?

Every outcome will require different people to contribute and drastically differing durations. I wouldn’t claim that there is a maximum number of attendees either, but what is required of the organiser will escalate as numbers rise. It’s easy to overlook the preparation required on the part of the person convening, chairing or facilitating any meeting, but this is the critical factor which determines success.

It’s perfectly possible to hold an ‘all hands’ meeting for a whole organisation made up of hundreds of people and make this valuable, interactive and engaging – as long as you’re willing to do the work to support this. It’s equally easy to waste an hour of six attendees' time by omitting the modest amount of preparation a meeting that size would require.

I have a friend who manages a team of seven and spends two hours each week preparing his team briefing.  Does that seem a lot? By doing this, he manages to keep that briefing to 15 minutes, so the total of his team’s time used is 105 minutes (seven people X 15 minutes). Imagine if he were less prepared, but the meeting took an hour.  That would be seven working hours of his team’s valuable time used up!

Can ‘micro’ meetings of just 10-15 minutes produce just as effective results? What can small businesses learn from the agile meeting styles pioneered in software development and tech companies?

You’ll guess from the example above that I’m a big fan of short, highly focused meetings, but it’s not enough to simply declare them to be shorter. It’s necessary to structure the time and ‘timebox’ the activities to be undertaken in the short meeting. A project update can be reduced from 60 minutes to 15 by insisting on the timeboxes below:

  • Welcome and quick check on how everyone is feeling about the project – 2 mins
  • Good news – participants only speak if they have a specific piece of good news – 3 mins
  • Bad news – nobody speaks unless they have a report of something undesirable – 3 mins
  • New Information – snippets of news which are neutral, no presentations here – 3 mins
  • Suggestions – ideas for consideration, particularly in reaction to news just given. No discussion of the ideas, just a quick share of thoughts – 2 minutes
  • Close – what will happen next as a result of this update, actions and follow up conversations – 2 mins

News is an important word in the format above. Everyone needs to commit to only sharing NEW information, which is where the time is saved. Usually, everyone might take a turn going around the table and people feel they must say something. We’ve all been in regular meetings where the same things get said each time!

Follow-up is the other thing that makes this work. You might argue that this brief meeting just creates a need for more meetings and it does! The point is that the follow-ups don’t all involve the whole team, in fact many are just one-to-one chats. Also, each follow-up concentrates on a specific need, so is more focused and therefore more effective!

efficient business meeting

It can often feel like great ideas come out, but aren’t followed up. How can meeting moderators ensure what is talked about in the meeting is acted upon?

I’m going to keep saying it – focus and structure!  Separate out the constituent parts of the meeting:

  • Firstly, list all of the ideas without investigating their value
  • Secondly, investigate which ideas are most useful
  • Thirdly, ask what could be done to progress each idea that you’ve selected
  • Finally, assign who is doing what and by when

That said, how do you shelve off-topic suggestions and ideas without risking alienation?

The key here is to establish the ‘rules of the game’ before you start. If everyone present is clear on both the outcome and the route you’re going to take, that is a start. If you can also describe clearly what contributions are required at each stage and what will not be useful, then people will understand when you act to get the conversation back on track.

In addition, if you can engage everyone to understand the structure in use, they can help spot if the conversation drifts off track and call it. That way it doesn’t all have to be the organiser’s job.

What steps can moderators take to handle those voices that dominate the conversation? How can they create opportunities for others to speak without bruising egos?

If everyone is aiming for the same goal within the same format, and what is happening is understood, then that tends to filter out some of the ‘holding court’ and ‘history lessons’ that dominating voices tend towards.

You can ask everyone in turn whether they have a contribution – focusing especially on those who have spoken less. In addition, use a time boxing format the excludes repetition.

managing meetings at work

Can the room setup and seating arrangement influence collaboration and efficiency?

Certainly – and as with each of the other elements that we have considered so far, it is a case of choosing carefully how location, layout and other environmental factors can contribute to the success of the meeting or detract from it.

Creativity is encouraged by informality, so the boardroom table layout is your enemy, as is any location which is connected to ‘the way things have always been done’.  It’s easy to understand why people might think along the same lines as they did last time they were in the same room, at the same time, with the same people!

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Along the same lines, it’s worth considering what tools will help you reach your outcome. Slides can be a helpful visual aid for explaining things, but are difficult for attendees to interact with – whereas paper on a wall is something everyone can access at once.

Should meetings have a decision-maker responsible for taking things forwards afterwards? Is there a case for decisions to be made at once?

If the outcome required from the meeting is a decision, then this should be clear from the invitation – as should any pre-work necessary. Each participant’s level of accountability needs to be clear too – so you don’t end up with a junior team member substituted for the accountable representative that you needed.

By their very nature, meetings take up a lot of time resource – something that’s extremely valuable to small businesses – what other steps can be taken to ensure they’re delivering value?

One big one that I would add here is to think very carefully about who needs to be at any particular meeting. Are the essential people going to be there – and who might be attending that isn’t required?

There have been too many meetings where attendees’ time was wasted because they weren’t required, and plenty more where a satisfactory outcome was not reached because key people did not attend.

Enjoyed this article? Don’t forget to check out the rest of our Business Basics Q&As, which you can access using the following links:

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