A reference card for meetings that matter.

We built Instant Agenda to do two things. First, to streamline and support the meeting process, particularly with remote participants. Second, to guide and teach meeting facilitators as they go, so that they learn valuable collaboration skills. We think sound practices and techniques are important. For that reason, we put together this checklist guide to running meetings that matter. We built Instant Agenda to support these practices!

We think the checklist is general enough that it applies to most meetings. You probably don’t need all of it for a casual 1-on-1, but it makes sense to make it a part of your routine for any meeting that involves more than a few people. The larger and more complex the meeting, the more rigorously you’ll want to apply it.

You can download the reference sheet from this page. Below is a more detailed description of the steps referenced in the sheet. Also, please note we are under no impression that this is final/complete/perfect. Use what works for you, and send us your own suggestions for “meetings that matter”.

Meeting Reference Card

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Download our free reference card to help you run meetings that matter.

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Prepare

1. Do you really need a meeting?

This one seems obvious, but often as organizations grow and meeting culture sets in, we forget to ask this question. Keep asking it of yourself and others every time you propose a meeting.

A meeting should (almost?) never be held to read out on status or communicate. The exception to this might be broad, urgent, highly impactful situations (e.g., “our project funding has just been cancelled”). For status, only meet to talk about the exceptions or decisions that need to be made; the readout/reporting can usually happen off-line.

There are many cases where a high-bandwidth, face-to-face conversation is the most valuable thing you can do. One good meeting can sometimes save hundreds of person-hours of misaligned work. Be judicious. Make your meetings count.

2. Define success criteria.

This is often missed, or confused with “purpose”. Purpose is a broader statement that usually includes your success criteria. Success criteria as the results you hope to obtain. Let’s use an example. Suppose we were going to have a quick meeting to determine where our team was going for lunch today. Our success criteria might be:

  • Everyone has a chance to express dietary / allergy needs
  • We consider price
  • All team members know where the place is and how to get there
  • Everyone agrees on a place

The success criteria let us know when the meeting is successful and complete.

3. Write a purpose.

The purpose of your meeting is usually a higher-level statement of “why” you are meeting. To continue the example above, our purpose might be, “To agree on a place for team lunch so that we can bond and talk about non-work stuff.”

If you are running a highly complex, more formal meeting or workshop, it is often useful to write a complex purpose statement that includes your success criteria and even how you are going to proceed.

4. Write an Agenda.

Writing a good agenda is a significant subject in its own right. Here I suggest only the basic approach that I would apply to all meetings, regardless of size, complexity or purpose. The agenda structures the meeting, and helps keep everyone on focused on the steps that will lead to the success criteria.

Write your agenda items in the form of a question to be answered. For example, “What team lunch options are available within a 10 minute drive?” rather than, “Team Lunch Options.” Why? Because writing the item in the form of a question helps make it much more clear when you have resolved the topic–as soon as you’ve answered the question, move on.

Second, make the first item on your agenda a review of the purpose and agenda. It shouldn’t take more than a minute or two, and makes sure everyone understands and agrees on your goals.

Third, note how much time you think you will need to answer the question. Make sure you leave time for wrapping up and transitioning the topic (which can take a few minutes or more depending on the size of the topic). Also leave a buffer in the overall meeting (~20%) so that if one or two of your topics runs long, you have a little extra space.

Finally, break topics into smaller, more concrete pieces when you are working on complex problems. The bigger the topic, the more likely you are to wander off track or go down a rathole. To continue our lunch example above, you might break your topics into:

  • What dietary issues do we need to be aware of?
  • What are the possible places within a 10 minutes drive?
  • Which place does each of us prefer (one vote per person)?

5. Note required pre-work.

Lack of participant preparation is one of the many causes of slow, inefficient meetings. This usually isn’t the participants’ fault. As the organizer of a meeting, be clear about what you expect participants to have read or done before entering the meeting (reviewing material, create and send out a status report, etc). For larger meetings, you may need to do this on a topic-by-topic basis. Make sure that participants will have enough time to review the material before the meeting.

Pro tip: if you need participants to review extensive materials, it helps to reserve a spot on their calendars for this.

6. Schedule it–short and small.

When you schedule meetings, it is best to keep them as short (duration) and as small (number of participants) as you can manage. Also, when possible, break a larger meeting up into smaller chunks with fewer individuals in each (if not everyone needs to be involved in all the pieces). While it may seem convenient to schedule one big meeting covering 5 related topics, this often leads to great waste. With many people and more time, the likelihood to wander off topic is great. Even if you stay on topic, only a few of the people in the room are engaged at any one time.

Pro tip: most calendar systems allow you to break your day into 15 minute increments. Meetings don’t need to last 30 minutes!

7. Solicit Feedback.

Particularly for longer, more complex meetings, solicit feedback and input from the participants. Send them the agenda well ahead of the meeting. This also helps make sure you have the right people in the room or on the phone. Many times, upon seeing an agenda, some attendees may realize they really don’t need to be there, or can answer their part by email.

 

Facilitate

1. Start on time.

If you are running the meeting, show up a few minutes early. Start on time, not when people arrive. Don’t stop to re-cap for those who show up late. Starting late and re-capping only wastes time and rewards poor behavior.

2. Review purpose and agenda.

As noted above, this should be the first item on your agenda. Take a minute or two review and make sure everyone understands. Also check to see if anyone in the meeting has suggestions for changes or additions.

3. Always use a timer.

This pairs well with the notion of small, atomic topics. The timer keeps everyone focused and goal-oriented. It also helps cut down on pontificating. If you need to, you can always add a bit more time to the topic (see above: leave buffer time in your agenda).

4. Use a “parking lot” for diversions.

The parking lot is a space where you record ideas or topics that might be valuable, but are not directed at the purpose of the meeting or topic. Anyone in the meeting should be able to suggest that a speaker is “off topic” and the idea be put in the parking lot.
Using the parking lot means that you MUST process the parking lot at the end of the meeting. If you have buffer time left, you can actually discuss the ideas. But more often they get noted for follow up off line or in a later meeting. If you DON’T process the parking lot, people will be reluctant to allow their ideas to be put in the lot for fear they will never get addressed.

5. Someone takes notes.

Someone in the meeting should always take notes. Usually this should be someone who is not directly facilitating the meeting (it is hard to do both). In most cases, it is not necessary to capture every discussion point. Actions, decisions, communications and major facts is usually enough.

6. Assign actions to people, with due dates.

If your discussion requires an action or follow-up, determine a single individual who will be responsible, and ask the person to assign themselves a due date. This greatly increases accountability. Tasks should never be assigned to “everyone” or groups. Even though many people may participant, one person should be responsible for making it happen.

7. Make note of decisions.

Be extra careful to note any decisions explicitly. This can be highlighted in your notes so that others find them easily. Decisions are often hard-won, so be sure you communicate what was decided and the intent.

8. End on time.

End on time does not mean, “at the last possible minute when someone is kicking you out of your conference room.” Plan to end several minutes before the drop-dead time. This gives you time to wrap up in good order. It also prevents people being late to their next call or meeting.

 

Follow Up

1. Send out notes ASAP.

Don’t wait. If possible, send the notes immediately when the meeting ends. Consider including a wider audience (than the people who were in the room). Often times people attend meetings purely because they fear missing out on a critical bit of information. If you consistently send notes broadly, this fear will lessen, and you can have fewer people in the meeting.

2. Highlight actions and decisions.

These are usually the most important bits of information to come out of a meeting–make them prominent. People may only scan your notes so make sure they see the stuff that matters.

3. Track tasks.

It doesn’t matter how you do it, but make sure that the actions to come out of a meeting are tracked somewhere. Stickies on a wall, a spreadsheet, or a task manager tool. That way you can review the status at a subsequent meeting. Accountability is higher.

4. Schedule follow-up if needed.

When possible, don’t wait to schedule follow-up meetings. You often know right away that follow-up is needed so get it on the calendar. Besides being easier to schedule, it also helps people feel the urgency to get their tasks done.

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Michael Ball

Co-founder, Product Lead at Instant Agenda
Michael was born a squalling, helpless MVP and has struggled ever since to obtain product-market fit. Experiments have included Peace Corps volunteer, ops engineer, scrum master, product owner, agile coach, husband, father, armchair philosopher, and, most recently, lean startup founder. Michael is still working on his exit-strategy, but his earliest angel investors seem generally proud of his accomplishments.
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