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WHIN Monthly Bulletin

Effective Meetings

Dr. Angus I. McLeod

People mostly hate meetings; especially when the time-frame is not set with start and finish times. When meetings start late, over-run or cycle back to re-discuss, where a decision was apparently already decided, there is further frustration and poor efficacy. Why are the majority of meetings allocated one hour as if this was an automatic perfect slot for all meetings?

There is another way, Agenda Frame Meetings: these are based on the overarching PURPOSE of the meeting, before considering actual topics for an agenda. Several such ‘frames’ make meetings more effective; the expectations of delegates are then all clear, beforehand.


When we initiate meetings, we need to think about the overarching purpose before thinking about the actual agenda. We cannot properly time-bound a meeting without knowing what the outcomes defined and a process understood to achieve those outcomes. Is the meeting simply to give information and check for understanding and that everyone is on the same page? Is the meeting principally to check progress and exert peer-pressure to perform. Perhaps the overarching purpose is to involve and create new learning and develop new ideas? Whatever the overarching purpose, there is little point in having the same tired structure.

Each purpose needs the attendees to understand the desired behaviors and outcomes (Agenda Frame) for that purpose. A list of subjects (agenda) may just not cut it – a meeting agenda quite reasonably looks like a sequential process, but does not usually describe the expected activities, behaviors and outcomes wanted. And an agenda in the form of a list is hardly a good start for stimulating creativity! Instead, we classify the overarching purpose first, and then set out meeting structures which enhance that overarching purpose. These are ‘Agenda Frame Meetings[1]’. There are at least four in most organizations and these include those below; they can be worked to become company-specific:

  1. Show & Tell
  2. Performance & Prioritize
  3. Participate & Develop
  4. Blue Sky Creativity & Disruptive.

Agenda Frame Meetings for Structure & Behaviors

Firstly, let’s re-frame our meetings to include not just topics (for telling, sharing, developing, creating) but to be specific about the type of activities (group and individual behaviors) and outcomes that we want as well. Unless we prepare people to behave and produce, as well as to define and understand the topics, we will not get the most out of any meeting.

In order to achieve that, it helps to set out a number of ways in which people will come together and behave – so called ‘Agenda Frames’.

I suggest that you develop your own categories but here are examples used in companies, together with example subjects for focus and estimates of time required.

Agenda Frame Meeting Type & Purpose


Show & Tell

Tom on merger situation (15m)

Performance & Priorities (Individual & Project)

Sales Development (45m)

Participate & Develop

New Product Variant (50m)

Blue Sky Creativity & Disruptive

Product Innovation and New Markets (50m+50m)


AFM: Show & Tell

These Frames are short and principally for information to keep one another on the same page. Questions are invited for clarity only.

AFM: Performance & Priorities

These Frames are to maintain individual and team performance, identify weaknesses, to be open to the expression of issues and problems, to create support-strategies to keep us on-track, to define and to re-define priorities in terms of both effort and time-line. The facilitator will ideally revolve at each meeting.

AFM: Participate and Develop

P&D Frames are tabled to create practical solutions and strategies harnessing all the skills and experience in the room. Innovative thought is welcome; we will be quick to develop ideas and slow to judge. The meetings will be facilitated by a Project Head from another Division in return for our facilitation of their P&D meetings. This will enable all of our team to concentrate and participate exclusively on the development of ideas and solutions, rather than the process.

AFM: Blue Sky

These Frames are arranged to explore the answers to ‘what if’ questions and explore innovative solutions, without judgment. The Blue Sky meetings are also (ideally) externally facilitated and after a refreshment break are followed by P&D Frame to hone in on potential new projects. The space between the two parts is deliberate, as people have different time-needs for reflection; in order to tease out some of the best ideas, we also need the reflectors to share their thinking and the gap allows them to form their ideas. Another type of thinker will be someone who needs talk with others or, share ideas with others and get their buy-in before sharing in group. These types can also engage in the gap between meetings[2].

Once you set out your own Agenda Frames, your people know more than the subject heading – they understand and can prepare to behave in a way that will help achieve the desired outcome. Longer meetings may include several such AF Meetings.

AF Meetings: Factoring for Success

Having created new Agenda Frame Meetings and explained the behaviors expected, you are already ahead of the game. But there are other factors that will improve the benefits obtained from AF Meetings. Let’s consider some of these now.

AF Meetings: Interim Activity

Where meetings are regular but have long spaces between them for, say, financial or logistical reasons, it is useful to keep the work of the Agenda Frame Meetings moving ahead by creating interim activity. Traditionally this has been done by having work-groups report back by certain dates. I prefer Focus Groups that only survive for one objective and then disappear. You are then creating team-development skills among the participants every time a new group is formed. Having several such Focus Groups keep the Agenda Frame in the minds of all participants.

Other interim activity may be the act of asking new questions relating to each Agenda Frame and diarizing these questions to space out over the period. These questions will probe for depth of thinking, innovation and consequences and will invite discussion, perhaps via email.

AF Meetings: Timings

Years ago, I worked in a large, leading-edge, technology consultancy business. There was a cultural lack of discipline in meeting-management. Meetings always had a start time on the hour and often no finishing time. Meetings never started on time and so people tended to drift in late. Agendas were lists of subjects – none of them giving any indication of the desired depth of discussion, expected input from any individual or the length of time to be allocated. Typical management meetings would last between an hour and a half and two hours. Whenever the ‘any other business’ was exhausted and the end of a meeting appeared to have arrived, someone would re-open a previous topic, even though that had been discussed in depth and the actions agreed. In some meetings, a main-Board Director would be invited to open the meeting and then leave. This was uniformly unappreciated and de-motivating. Their interest in our Division was simply cost-saving and bottom-line, nothing else.

As the most senior of about eight direct reports to my Divisional Director, I decided to run my meetings differently. I started out by time-tabling meetings at a quarter-past or quarter-to the hour and giving a budget and target for the duration of the meeting. These were rarely more than thirty-five or forty minutes. This was warmly welcomed. People arrived on time (or soon afterwards, because I would start on the exact time and so late-comers were always having to catch-up) and meetings never over-ran the budget. I then started to run meetings at ten past, twenty past and so on to get more concentration on start-times – this worked. I do not recall anyone being late again. No-one tried to track back to earlier subjects. If they had, I would have directed them to take it up with one or more of the individuals concerned and left the meeting. When I left the business three years later it gave me pleasure to note that some other senior managers had also started to emulate my meeting-policies – the culture had changed.

AF Meetings: Involve People

If someone is not contributing, then ask yourself why they are there? If they could contribute, then you need to have a 1-2-1 to find a way to get the benefits you are seeking. For example, you might seek a tabled ‘pre-meeting report’ from them or offer training or coaching. Try not to corner shy people in meetings. Invite further inputs and leave a space for the quietest to speak. Rushing from one thing to the next will not help the shyest or most reflective individual to participate.

AF Meetings: Notice People Engagement – Vary the Inputs

Good trainers always keep monitoring the ‘energy’ in the room. If the energy is low, they may pause and offer a break in proceedings. They may move discussion forward by asking for a summary from the floor and then having a break - when people feel that the meeting will end on time, they can usually regain some energy to reach a defined finish-time. What I have noticed over many years, is that the time-bounded meeting is self-organizing to meet all objectives on time; everyone has to be aware of course and it is this shared responsibility to achieve on time that drives success within the allocated time without needing to extend, or convene another meeting.

Observations will tell you what is happening even if you have not got the acute sensing-ability of an experienced trainer. Look for side-discussions, doodling, fidgeting, dropping heads, slouching, yawning. Looking at cell-phones.

Day meetings with three breaks will not be productive. Better to quicken the pace from time-to-time and have a minimum of five breaks in the day. Be sure that the lighting is high whenever possible and that the air is fresh and moving. Encourage snacking and reduce the volume of protein and fat (meat and cheese) in meals. Provide quantities of cold drinks and still water - prohibit alcohol.

Vary the means of delivery (video, slides, white-board and speech) and activity. Do pause for break-out discussions in smaller groups. If several people contribute with one medium, invite someone to do it differently and break the monotony.

AF Meetings: Spot the Thought-Leaders

There are always those who you can involve for a range of reasons - experts, supporters, the Devil’s Advocate, detailed thinkers etc. In terms of impact though, there are those who will carry more weight than others, not through assertion or dominance but via gravitas or earned-respect. Brief these people separately and ask them to be involved with inputs of messages, or facilitation of discussion. This will vary the input, change the pace and involve other motivators. Ignore status in selecting thought-leaders unless detrimental to the quality of the messages and facilitation.

AF Meetings: Time Out

There are good reasons to program time-out into meeting structures. We have seen that the outline description for the Blue Sky Action Frame includes a break, mid-way. The reason for that is to enable reflective processes and creativity. Sometimes, we also need time-out so that networking can occur; bonds can be strengthened during time-out and alliances made. This is especially useful in certain cultures and where delegates are coming from many different locations.

When people are supposed to be listening, there will be times when their concentration lapses. They may begin to analyze what was said and then miss what is being said at that moment. Those times of ‘absence’ from the meeting can also be due to a number of other internal, mental processes including rehearsing, interpretation, anticipating etc. (see the figure). But when people are doing their internal reflection, they are no longer listening! By and large we need people to be engaged in the meeting. But how can we get the benefits of (internal) self-reflection AND have full engagement of everybody.  In truth we cannot, but we can engineer things to help!

In meetings where creativity and innovation are required, it is worth building-in reflective-periods. These quiet periods may only have durations of two or three minutes. A model for this comes from decades of learning from the training-room where self-reflective pauses are common practice. It would be foolish to ignore their positive impact in the context of meetings. In practice this only requires the making of a silent space:

“Okay, we have covered a lot of ground in considering the options for moving manufacturing off-shore. Can I have some help putting the flip-charts on the wall and then let’s have a five minute period to quietly and individually reflect on what we have so far. There will be time afterwards to discuss any new thoughts”.

More good work (and bad) can be done over the coffee-machine. You can use that time to try and bring people on-side, to explain aspects of your own agenda (that might not be overt) and to hear any reservations and advice that they may offer. If networking at coffee-break ever does work against you, so what? It is better to agree something and all push ahead together than have your policy undermined by stealth later.

AF Meetings: Challenging the Status Quo

I once attended a meeting at the UK Government’s Department of Trade and Industry in London. There were at least thirty-five people there for several hours. The meeting was so dull that the sensors in the room failed to notice any movement over a duration of ten minutes - all the lights went off. Someone had to stumble to the door and open it to get the lights back on! 

What if we inherit the management of time-tabled meetings which are ineffective? The Chair may have been occupied by the same person for years; too many people may be involved and the output may be dull as well as not cost-effective. In such cases it is worth considering terminating the meetings and re-creating a new forum for the achievement of set objectives. Perhaps create a new focus or objective that generates a new Agenda Frame Meeting format.

Rotating facilitators and external facilitation are both worth considering, particularly if there is a lack of involvement, or if people tend to wait for one person to take a lead. One advantage of using externals (even if from another area of the organization) is that the other people in the room will all have the same focused function and, in that context, similar status. If you have been dominant in meetings and have a protégé that could facilitate, withdraw from one meeting and seek feedback on the result; was that leadership appreciated? Did the meeting get the desired outcomes? When you return to another meeting in the same theme, think to do so as a delegate.

Ask the chair to table discussion on improving the frequency, duration, location and cost-effectiveness of their meetings.

AF Meetings: Honoring

Remember to give credit to those people whose ideas and commitment have moved things forward. If you can do this both privately AND openly you get two separate motivations for the price of one.

Meetings Requiring ‘Minutes’

Think carefully about minutes and whether they fit the overarching needs of the Agenda Frame Meeting. If your ‘Frame’ objective is to be pushing the business forward (future focus), you may not wish to spend thirty minutes debating historical detail (past focus) about who said what. In that event, unless required by statute, bring forward the actions only, or insist on the minutes being fully dealt with in advance of the meeting, so that any amendments are pre-circulated.


Most meetings are either given too much time or left open-ended. The latter is unacceptable as stakeholders need to know when you are available to be reached again. If delegates are clear about the time-frame and reminded of it during the meeting, they can work co-operatively towards that target, more effectively.

The overarching purpose of an Agenda Frame Meeting is to set out both the design objectives/purpose and the activities/behaviors that are expected. This makes them much more efficient and typically much more acceptable to delegates. We could also estimate the financial reduction in overhead terms.


[1] ‘AF Meetings’ or AFM for short.

[2] This types of activity can also be designed into sub-group activity with the main meeting.