Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Avoiding Death by Meetings: Don't Waste People's Time

Nothing about librarianship surprised me as much as the meetings. It wasn’t so bad at first, when I was the new kid, but now meetings and committees take a huge chunk of my time. You see, I’m on five committees, plus a number of ad hoc groups and task forces. Then there are the campus wide meetings, faculty meetings, one-on-one planning meetings, etc. It’s gotten to the point where at least once per month, during the academic year, I have a day that is completely taken up by meetings. A lot of them are the kind where I have little or no control. I’m not about to admit to my survival techniques – not in a public forum like this. However, I do have advice about how to run a good meeting.

In short, it all boils down to four words: don’t waste people’s time. It’s a simple marker by which to judge all meetings. I love when people end a meeting with me by saying, “That was productive. Thanks.” 

Here are some of the tricks I use:
  • Do you really need to meet? If you already know what the answer is going to be, or if it’s just sharing information that needs no response, use email. Email is also good for very simple requests, even if you don’t know what the response is ahead of time.
  • Set an agenda and stick to it. Also, send the agenda out ahead of time. This is especially true if you are going to be soliciting ideas and brainstorming, but it’s important for all meetings. Surprises don’t make for productive meetings.
  • Show up prepared and show up early. Being late to your own meeting is just bad form. If something does happen that makes you late, and it inevitably will, let someone know.
  • Keep things moving. Tangents will arise, so you need to know how to deal with them. Depending on the specifics of the meeting, I’ve done everything from simply asking if whatever it is can wait for later all the way to having a formal way of gathering the tangents. (At one extremely long but productive meeting that I attended, there was a section of white board just for this purpose. It was labeled “Parking Lot,” and wow did it help.)
  • Better to end a meeting early than late. I try to over-estimate how much time I’ll need, and I let people know that’s what I’m doing. There’s a line I’ve used so many times I should probably get it trademarked: “I don’t think we’ll need more than [x amount of time], but just to be safe I’m setting the meeting for [x + 15 minutes].”
  • If a meeting does go late, face up to it. An administrator for whom I used to work was great at this. His meetings didn’t usually go over, but when they did, he’d say something like, “We’ve still got some work to do and I’d like to keep going, but if you need to leave I understand,” or, “We’re not done and we need to end, when can people come back?”
  • End with clear next actions. As your meeting is ending, make sure you know what your next steps are, who is responsible for them, and when they need to be done. There’s nothing worse than having a month pass with no progress. You’ll only have yourself to blame when you hear, “I thought you were going to do that.”

I know I’m not the first person to write a list like this, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. If I didn’t lose so much of my time to meetings, maybe I wouldn’t care so much. By the way, my meetings aren’t always perfect, but the point is I try (unlike some people I know).

What about you? What makes a meeting bad in your mind? What are your secrets to a good meeting? 


  1. Meetings are one of the things I probably dislike the most about my job, mainly simply due to the high volume. Currently, I have 3 standing meeting each week. Two of them are Monday and Friday mornings, which is not a great time for a meeting to begin with. It's always good to think about peak busy times when scheduling meetings, especially recurring ones. Additionally, I usually have one or two other meetings crop up each week. Being unavailable for all this time makes it very easy for work to get back logged and I find myself constantly playing catch up when I get back into my office.

  2. Your tips are really great. I like to set a timer for subjects that I think are going to be controversial. That way people have to say things succinctly, the first time.