The Other BPM: Being Productive in Meetings

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Have you ever been involved in a process improvement or redesign effort that didn’t require a meeting?  Neither have I.  Meetings are a necessary mechanism for exchanging information, confirming progress, creatively developing deliverables or solutions, making decisions, and growing as a team. In fact, a recent survey of corporate, government, defense, education and non-profit sectors show that we spend anywhere from 25% to 50% of our time in meetings (depending on our role and responsibilities). So why not apply some of our BPM know-how to meetings – a continually repeating organization-wide process that takes up so much of our time, has so much potential, and yet produces so much waste?

But where does one start when attempting to improve the meeting process? We asked over 200 business professionals in various industries for their insight into the top causes of meeting ineffectiveness. Their responses echo my own experience (Figure 1). Let’s take a look at the top three constraints to successful meetings and what we can do to minimize them.

Causes of Meeting IneffectivenessCauses of Meeting Ineffectiveness

Constraint #1- How Can We Better Control Meetings?

The largest factor contributing to ineffective meetings was lack of good meeting controls.  People felt frustrated that non-productive behaviors such as going off on tangents, multi-tasking during the meeting, and side-bar conversations were allowed to occur. They indicated that late arrivals were allowed to negatively impact progress. And dominating participants were frequently not managed and thus wound up dictating the course of discussion. As leaders in the change effort, how can we better control meetings to ensure time is well spent and our goals get met?

Establish Your Role as Facilitator.  This role holds the key to making project meetings effective. The facilitator is the one who guides the meeting process – making sure everything and everyone is prepared to do their best work, managing the meeting itself, and documenting the meeting outcomes. Through intentional planning, facilitative techniques, and managing group dynamics, this person can transform useless meeting time into productive results. This facilitated collaboration helps people work better together to create the outcomes and project deliverables you need in a focused period of time.

Once your role is firmly established with the team, they will expect you to intervene in the meeting process to keep it on track and productive. Don’t disappoint them.  Have the courage to step in when things start to veer off-track. 

Manage Meeting Momentum and Focus.  There are numerous techniques you can use to aid in keeping people focused, on track and on topic.  Here are just 4 techniques you may want to try:

  • Parking Lot. The Parking Lot is a temporary storage place for ideas, concepts, desires, and thoughts that are tangential, but often related to the objectives of the meeting. They may not be appropriate for today’s meeting goal, but they are definitely relevant to the overall project and will need to be discussed at some point.  Just by making the team aware that such items will be “parked” or placed in a holding space for future conversation (in this meeting or a future one) you’ve established a mechanism for keeping the discussion on track.  As these items come up, make them visible (on a flipchart, whiteboard or projected screen) so the meeting participants know their thought has been heard and captured.  Attempting to ignore these related, yet slightly off-track ideas will ensure that they continue to come up randomly throughout the meeting disrupting and delaying overall progress. 

  • Time-Boxing.  Use this technique when the team can’t seem to reach closure on a topic or decision.
    • Confirm that this group has the authority to make the decision or the expertise needed to reach closure on the topic under discussion.
    • Announce that the group has X more minutes of discussion before you move on.
    • Allow the group to continue discussion until the mandated time has elapsed.
    • If the team is able to reach closure, document the result.
    • If the team is unable to reach closure, ask them what they would need in order to make the decision (i.e., more information, additional expert insight, more discussion time, etc.).  Document an action item accordingly, along with who will own it and when it will be done.
  • Space Management.  Use physical space to manage meeting dynamics. 
    • If two people keep having side-bar conversations, position yourself behind their seats and place a hand on their chair or shoulder while you continue to facilitate the meeting.  This subtle action makes people aware of their behavior without unnecessary verbal comment. 
    • Position dominant team members close to you in proximity so you can manage them more easily.
    • Stand up when you need to re-establish control of the meeting.  Sit down when you want to encourage discussion amongst the team.
  • The 5-Minute Rule.  Establish a “5-Minute Rules” as part of your meeting guidelines. If anyone comes in late or steps out of the meeting for a few minutes, they must wait five minutes before re-engaging in the conversation. This allows people to come up-to-speed on the discussion underway and minimizes the risk of rehashing topics.


Constraint #2- How Can We Improve Meeting Attendance?

The second factor contributing to meeting ineffectiveness was incorrect or inadequate attendance.  The people needed for the meeting are invited, but don’t show up or never get invited in the first place.  Regardless, the goal of the meeting is unreachable and time spent trying to get there with the wrong attendees is wasted. So what can we do to make sure we have the right people at the table?

Call Off the Meeting.  If the right people can’t be in the room, don’t waste the time of everyone else.  Instead document the cancellation as a variance to plan, record the reason for the variance, and reschedule. If this delay puts the project off schedule, so be it.  Better to have a delay than a disaster.

Consider a Focused Approach to Meeting Attendance.  Identify the 4-6 people who are mandatory to achieving your goal. Take into account the topics you’ll be discussing, the level of detail you need to delve into, and the length of the meeting (two hrs. vs. two days) to make sure the people you have in mind are suitable. Then invite them by framing the meeting purpose in terms that are relevant and important to them. Ask them to confirm that they are the “right” people or recommend someone who is. 

Time Slot Expert Attendance. Allow key participants to attend only the portion of the meeting where their area of expertise is most needed. This requires some extra meeting planning when crafting the agenda.  It also requires additional meeting management to ensure that comments and issues arising at other times during the meeting are captured for discussion at the appropriate time.

Have “On-Call” Participants.  “On-call” meaning that you have their cell phone number, pager number, or access to them via Instant Messaging during your meeting and that they will respond to your inquiry promptly.  This is especially helpful when you have participants that would be needed only if issues arise within their area of expertise (i.e., compliance, security, finance, etc.).


Constraint #3: How Can We Better Prepare for Meetings?

And last, but not least, poor preparation was a key contributor to ineffective meetings.  No agenda, unclear objectives, attendees not doing their homework, and the meeting leader not having their act together all fell into this bucket. How can we help our team be ready to tackle work in the meeting?  How can we better prepare ourselves to lead?

Clearly Define the Purpose of the Meeting. The purpose communicates why the meeting is being held.  It allows team members to assess their value-add in light of competing priorities and come better prepared to achieve the intended outcome.  If you can’t articulate a meeting purpose that enables the participants to understand how they add value, then you may need to rethink the need for a meeting.

Prepare an Agenda.  A well-thought out agenda is like a roadmap. It helps you gauge progress against your goals and sets the direction of the meeting. And yet a survey of 150 corporate meetings across 50 industries found that half had no written meeting agenda.2  What’s wrong with this picture? To make your meetings most effective, document your agenda along with the desired outcome of each topic or activity.  Publish this to the team in advance and get their feedback.

Ask for Tangible Action.  To help attendees better prepare for significant meetings, ask them to do some tangible piece of work in advance.  It may be as simple as ranking some items or as complex as listing the steps in their business process.  Request this work be submitted in advance of the meeting so it can be compiled and printed for use in the meeting.

Start Meetings 10 Minutes Late.  As meeting facilitators, we often get caught in the meeting machine – running from room to room with no time in between. That’s not the way to run a meeting. You need to be fully present and focused, not harried, scattered and preoccupied with the previous meeting.  So give yourself the opportunity to be prepared.  Start meetings at 10-15 minutes after the hour.


Meetings provide a means for collaborative thinking, discussion, and deliberation that is invaluable in getting project work done. Sadly, most of the meetings we’ve attended fall short of their potential.  We’ve seen meetings held without a purpose or agenda. Key agreements that went undocumented.  Critical follow-up tasks that disappeared only to be reincarnated at later meetings, reassigned and lost again. Uncertainty over decision-making processes and authority and a host of other ineffective practices. And the scariest part is that all of these occurred while a team was trying to improve other business processes. As BPM experts, let’s take the opportunity to practice what we preach and apply BPM to Be Productive in Meetings.

1 Resource Alliance. Survey of Project Managers. June 2006.

2 Ross, M.  ”Secrets to Successful Meetings: How to Tame Time Gobblers and Meeting Monsters.”  [].  2006.

* “The Project Meeting Facilitator” is a Jossey-Bass publication due for release in October, 2007.


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