It sounds simple enough, and yet the majority of managers and leaders completely fail to do this. We’ve all left meetings feeling good about what we discussed only to later wonder why so little happened as a result. Where did the momentum go?
There are a number of reasons why the productive conversations in a meeting seemingly go nowhere. Attendees are often immediately running to another meeting where their attention shifts to a new set of issues. Or people leave the meeting without clarity about what was agreed upon.
To make sure productivity doesn’t slow after you walk out of the room, do two things after and in between meetings: Quickly send out clear and concise meeting notes and follow up on the commitments made.
As the Chinese proverb goes, “The palest ink is better than the best memory.” If you don’t capture the conversation and put into a form that can be easily retrieved later, the thinking and the agreements can be lost.
Meeting notes aren’t a necessary burden. They’re a powerful way to influence others. They help inform people who weren’t there about what happened and remind those who were there about what agreements they made. You can use them to keep everyone on the same page and focused on what you all need to get done before you meet next.
If you are working to reduce the number of people who attend your meetings, the notes take on more importance because people love to be included and informed. Sharing a summary of the meeting is an important part of working on engagement.
Here’s what works: Distribute concise, clear notes about the meeting. Historically, minutes were like court transcriptions, capturing everything that was said during the meeting. This is not what you want. A single page will suffice for most meetings. The intent is not to re-create the discussion but to capture the key points and the specific commitments for each topic, so that non-attendees have a sense of what happened and all have a record of who will take further action.
These notes should state each topic you discussed, the key takeaways, and a list of specific actions that will be taken, by which people, and by when.
Write and distribute the meeting summary within 24 hours, if not sooner. Your ability to remember and capture the essence of each conversation lessens with each passing hour. Sending the summary out within an hour or by the end of the day also demonstrates a sense of urgency.
Follow up on commitments
Persistence is a key influence skill. If you want anything to happen, you must follow up, follow up, and follow up.
A university president once asked me to come do a training for a group of faculty and alumni because he thought they lacked leadership skills. He had pulled the group together two years prior to discuss starting a new school of journalism. They had a productive meeting and everyone was excited about the project. He had told them he was willing and able to provide whatever support they needed as they got the initiative off the ground. But two years later, nothing had happened and the president was convinced it was because the people in that meeting didn’t have the right skills.
But, in reality, he didn’t have a new journalism school because he hadn’t followed up. If he’d checked in with the group two weeks after the meeting, then followed up every few weeks until the project was up and running, it likely would’ve been a different story. Perhaps he would’ve learned that people in the room did have some skill deficits but he could’ve helped take care of those while they pushed the project forward.
Often managers, like this president, think that people are self-starters—natural leaders who only need an idea and the autonomy to pursue it. Talented, committed people do not always do what they say they will do, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t. People are pulled in all different directions and overwhelmed with too much work. If you want a project to be completed, you have to follow up closely and consistently. Otherwise, rich ideas easily fall by the wayside.
Some managers are concerned that close follow-up might be interpreted as micromanaging. They don’t want to be accused of not trusting people to perform. In reality, consistent follow-up is a necessary part of project leadership.
Here’s what works:
- At the end of each topic in a meeting, pause to agree on next steps and establish specific commitments with clear deadlines.
- Let people know they can negotiate at the time they make the commitments, especially with regard to due dates. Don’t use the automatic “by the next meeting” as the due date. Be thoughtful about what timing make the most sense.
- Make clear that you expect each commitment will be fulfilled as agreed upon, and if something comes up, you expect they’ll reach out to discuss the change.
- Assign someone to check in at appropriate intervals to ensure the commitments will be kept as promised or re-evaluated if something unexpected comes up.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from leaders is that they spend too much time in meetings. Designing and leading better meetings will help make better use of everyone’s time. But documenting commitments and managing the progress after the meeting is over will also help make future meetings are more productive or even unnecessary.