Ask anyone who knows me to list the top three things for which I have zero tolerance and this is what they’ll tell you:
#1: Stupid people
#2: Stupid rules
#3: Anyone or anything that wastes my time

I am willing to bet your list looks similar. Let’s focus on #3 now. When it comes to wasted time at work, I am guessing most of you instantly think about business meetings as one of the biggest violators. There are a lot of types of meetings that pop up to waste your time on a day-to-day basis, but my discussion here is around off-site team meetings—those meetings that take a full day away for planning, strategy, or problem solving. If done poorly, they can be a huge time-waster. But done right, they’re a super important tool to grow your team.

Not Enough Hours in the Day

A day or two out of the office is a big deal these days. Who has time for that? Sure, spending time with your team or department is important and planning ahead for the next month, quarter, or year is critical, but a whole day? Can’t be done. That’s the typical response when your meeting does not promise productivity, focus, or results.

How many meetings like this have you been to?

  • Most of the team’s ready to go on time but the stragglers throw off the agenda, not to mention the fact that they’ve disrespected their teammates and the facilitator by wasting their time—ticking everyone off and getting your meeting off on the wrong foot.
  • Your meeting gets dominated by the most outgoing (or aggressive) members of the team, so a minority gets to speak from their soapboxes and other opinions don’t get heard—and, again, everyone’s time is wasted.
  • As you’re talking through important decisions, you look around the table to see people checking texts, emails, and Facebook. Again, where is the respect?
  • Your important decision-making topics become endless debates from all sides and as you struggle for consensus, the time ticks away. The end of the meeting comes and you are still arguing about the same things with no solutions in sight.
  • Someone raises a topic to discuss and you spend half the meeting discussing it before discovering it’s not the real issue. By the time you uncover the root cause, your time is up and you don’t have a solution.
  • You do actually make some important decisions, but no one takes charge of next steps so nothing actually gets done. Even worse, the next time you get together you rehash the same exact issue because no one can remember where you landed last time.

If you’ve gone to the trouble to set aside a whole day to work on the work with your team, and you see these things happen, I can’t blame you for getting angry.

So Can Meetings Run Better?

Scheduled time away from the office as a team or a department will keep your team agile and productive. If properly planned and executed, you will walk away from these meetings energized, connected, and clear about your goals and milestones for the immediate future. This is also a forum to talk through challenges and roadblocks. The longer you go between these gatherings, the longer your list of issues becomes, and at some point they begin to feel insurmountable—so you avoid them altogether. This is where resentment grows, productivity suffers, and engagement erodes.

There are a million reasons why most meetings suck. It is a systemic problem that I have been on a crusade to remedy since I was in college. The good news is that after 25 years of watching meetings go off the track, I was able to narrow down a short list of effective techniques to fix the problem. With the help of some really smart people who happened to write books about how to have better meetings, here are six steps from the system we use here at Element Three.

1. Ban All Distractions and Interruptions

Take your team meetings off site and off line. Get away from the distractions, disruptions, interruptions, or black holes of work that folks somehow get sucked into on the bathroom breaks. The technology rules for our off-site planning meetings don’t totally eliminate technology. Everyone brings their computer, because we work off of centralized Google docs throughout the meeting. However, everyone takes a pledge to shut down their email, Gchat, social media sites, texts, etc. Phones are stored away and out of sight. We all hold each other accountable. No interruptions. Period.

2. Begin with the End in Mind

Thank you, Ken Blanchard. Have a very clear agenda and a meeting cadence that provides a structure you can use anytime. If people know that your meeting will have a structured agenda that guarantees results, they are less likely to feel like their time will be wasted. We use a structure that comes from EOS, combined with resources from Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and some awesome tools from Gazelles.

3. Have a Skilled and Credible Facilitator

Without a leader, your meeting could very easily go completely off the rails. Find someone who can keep things running smoothly and make sure everyone involved gets what they need out of it. Someone from your executive or leadership team is a great choice. Give them permission to keep the meeting on track, and make sure they know how to manage effectively to the agenda.

4. Keep an Idea Parking Lot

Collect discussion topics throughout the day and keep them on a list so your meeting doesn’t disappear down a rabbit hole. We call this list a “parking lot.” Leave several hours open in your agenda to then focus on that list. Be sure to define the issue you are trying to solve before you start and then have everyone in the room vote for their top 3-5 topics so you can prioritize the list. This way, you are addressing issues important to the whole group, not just the issues that come up first or from the loudest voices.

5. Don’t Walk Out Without Defining What Comes Next

Take notes, and clearly define to do’s and next steps. Make sure each one has one owner and a clear timeline for completion. If it’s too complex for one person to easily handle alone, make sure someone at least takes ownership of creating the milestones toward completion and possibly even delegating those milestones to the right owners.

6. Create Space for Team Building

Schedule time on your agenda for two types of team engagement: one to get to know each other better as people, and one to provide professional feedback to others on your team. Make sure you allow time for fun, as well. If you can stay focused when you need to in order to keep the meeting moving, you can allow the occasional break for jokes, laughter, and sharing stories. This is important as it breaks the tension and builds relationships. And a full day dominated by one meeting might make some members of your team lose their minds otherwise.

Meetings Are Annoying—So Make Them Work for You

Understand that effective meetings take time to plan if you intend to execute them efficiently and effectively. The immediate reaction may be that the cost of taking your staff away from the work for a full day is high, but I argue that the cost of not having these meetings from time to time (for us, doing it on a quarterly basis seems to work well) is much higher in the long run. Efficiencies that come from spending time together to talk through the important issues and plan for the future are more than worth the investment.

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Karen Seketa

Karen Seketa has been matching people to positions for years, and she’s the one who finds all the superstars that populate the Element Three family. She’s been here almost since the beginning, and if you ask her, she’ll tell you it was the best decision she ever made.