Tips for Running Highly Efficient Meetings
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Nancy Settle-Murphy
Nancy Settle-Murphy
Nonprofit managers who, nearly universally, want more time to get everything done can get their wish granted by taking concrete steps to make better use of time spent in meetings.

How we spend our time in meetings makes all the difference in the world between a great use of time and a big waste of time. Here are 10 tips for planning and running super-efficient meetings that help get needed work done in the shortest possible time.
  1. Invite only the people you need, and no more. You simply can't get much done with a crowd. Who really needs to be there to achieve the goals of this meeting, and who can be involved another way (or perhaps not involved at all)? If it's a project team meeting, perhaps only the decision-makers are needed, and not necessarily the entire team. If you must invite more people than can reasonably be included in the conversation, think about how you can let others know that they are being asked simply to listen.

  2. Invite only the right people. If a critical decision is called for, those with authority must be present. Sending a subject matter expert (SME) who is not empowered to make a decision will only waste everyone's time, as the decision will likely need to be revisited, if not reversed. On the other hand, some decision-makers may lack the proper context and knowledge to make a well-informed decision. Consider asking the SME's manager to give the expert authority to make any needed decision.

  3. Do a stakeholder analysis in advance, especially if there's a weighty decision to be made. Reach out to people you know and trust to find out more about key decision-makers, their likely perceptions and predispositions, communications styles, relationships with other participants, and other important information that will help you facilitate the decision-making process. If there's a lot on the line, vet this information with others in the know, in order to anticipate and minimize, if not eliminate, any surprises.

  4. Create an agenda that facilitates the conversation, and send it in advance. Make objectives clear, and explain how each topic will be treated during the call. For example, an update about the disposition of current issues might be listed as information-sharing, letting people know they won't have to participate actively. (Note: A topic that doesn't require active participation should be an exception rather than the rule!) However, if the team needs to decide whether to postpone a delivery date, then a discussion is required, as well as preparation by all. The more people need to be prepared to actively participate, the more you'll need to set clear expectations up front.

  5. Insist on the necessary preparation. Nothing drags a meeting down like people who come unprepared to participate actively. If several people come unprepared, you may need to reschedule the meeting for another time. If your meeting is tightly-orchestrated, you simply won't have time to review content that everyone was expected to read ahead of time. Other options: Ask those who didn't prepare to step out of the conversation to catch themselves up and then rejoin the conversation when they're ready. Try scheduling a content review call in advance of your meeting as an option to independent prework. Create a culture where completing prework is expected, and a lack of preparation carries consequences.

  6. Stay on schedule. You may want to allow up to five minutes for people to arrive, but don't delay the start much more, especially for a 30-minute meeting. If key people are five to 10 minutes late, you may need to reschedule the meeting. Another option: Re-order the agenda so you can go ahead with at least part of your meeting. When latecomers arrive, you have a choice as to whether to let them catch up by listening for a minute or two, or by offering to catch them up ”“ very quickly.! Keep in mind that the more concessions you give to latecomers, the more likely they'll come late next time.

  7. Keep people actively engaged, but not too much. It's important to strike a balance between keeping things going at a brisk pace and allowing enough time for people to have needed conversations. Be ready to call on people by name when their participation is most needed. At the same time, keep a watchful eye on the clock. You never want to cut someone off once you've invited input, so be clear about what you're asking, to encourage brevity.

  8. Summarize actions and decisions at the end of each meeting. You should give a verbal summary to ensure shared understanding and clear commitments. Whether or not to send formal meeting minutes depends on a variety of factors, including the extent to which everyone took their own notes, especially related to their actions and commitments.

  9. End the meeting early if you're all done. If you finish what you set out to do before the scheduled end time, by all means declare the meeting over. No one will be unhappy that you've just given them a gift of more time in their day, and people will be impressed by your ability to help people get so much done in such a short time.

  10. Question whether your meeting is really needed. Even though you have a weekly standing project review meeting, for example, no routine meeting should always be sacred. You may want to cancel the meeting if your objectives can be met in other ways. (Test this assumption with others to make sure they're in agreement.) On the other hand, if your team is at a critical stage where relationship-building is important, rethink how best to use the scheduled meeting time to facilitate this. Most meetings have tangible objectives as well as experiential objectives. Before you call off a given meeting, understand what participants may be losing as they gain more time back in their day.
Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of Guided Insights, helps nonprofits design and run more productive meetings, whether face-to-face, virtual, or both. Call her at 978.263.2545 or email
October 2017