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How To Prevent Your Meetings from Going Off the Rails

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by Derek Homann No Comments

Everyone has been in a meeting that’s gone way off subject. You had a specific goal in mind when you started the meeting, and then somehow the meeting ends up getting derailed by one seemingly innocent question or comment, and all of sudden the meeting is over and you didn’t make any decisions and you seem further from accomplishing your goal than when you started. One person may start drilling into a piece of information that just isn’t that critical and start analyzing it to death and they take the whole group down with them. Sound familiar? We’ve all been there, so we’ll share our best tips for how to keep your meetings laser-focused on achieving your desired outcomes.

Create an agenda

Making sure everyone knows the game plan going into the meeting is critical to the success of the meeting. Without some sort of outline of what you plan to accomplish and how much time is allocated to each subject, you’ll inevitably spend way too much time on the items at the beginning of the meeting and nowhere near enough time on items further down the list. Agendas give everyone the playbook ahead of time and make it a lot easier to get everyone on the same page.

Set ground rules

At the beginning of the meeting, it’s worth a minute or so to re-state the agenda and the purpose of all the items you plan to go through and the expected outcomes of each. Encourage the team to be thoughtful about making sure their comments don’t deviate from the goals of each subject and encourage participants to speak up if they feel like you are straying off-topic. 

Create a parking lot

Inevitably someone will bring up some good points in a meeting that need to be addressed or looked into further. A lot of times they may not impact the core decision, but they are still important nonetheless. In your notes, you’ll want to create a section for “Parking lot” ideas or questions where you can quickly document these comments or outstanding questions that need to be answered. This ensures that they won’t be forgotten about, but you won’t spend too much time in the meeting discussing items that are slightly off-topic or that you aren’t able to get immediate answers on.

Build-in buffer time

If you schedule a meeting for an hour and have 3 items to cover, it might seem like a good idea to allocate 20 minutes to each item. This is a common trap that a lot of people fall into. You might be better off allocating 15 minutes to each item to ensure that 1) you force your attendees to be more clear and concise on making their points 2) inevitably, the discussion will run long on at least one of the points being covered 3) No meeting ever seems to start exactly on time. The first few minutes are people filing into the room, making small talk, or pulling together notes they have on the subject. If you bake in a few minutes of buffer time, you’ll likely be able to effectively discuss and address all the topics on your agenda more effectively.

Control the size of the meeting

The idea of having “too many cooks in the kitchen” can be a real problem. Sometimes it seems easier to just invite anyone and everyone who may be related to a project in any way. While that may seem like a good idea, it can increase the chances of meetings going off the rails. Sometimes it’s good to have non-decision makers sit in on a meeting so they can help disseminate the information to other team members after all the decisions have been made, but if you can, you’ll likely want to limit that number. 

Regardless of the tactics you employ to keep your meeting on track, it’s important for you to always make sure you keep the goal of the meeting top of mind to ensure you use that as your north star for what needs to be accomplished. As long as you keep striving towards that, you’ll have more effective meetings than most.

Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping your meetings on track? If so, leave them in the comments below.

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