More productive meetings mean someone has to take notes

We’re still grappling with two major productivity drains: the deluge of emails and the swamp of meetings. For the former, see my ‘8 alternatives to email’ post‘, and ’10 tips for writing emails that get read’ When it comes to meetings, one of the bugbears I consistently hear from senior managers is that their teams don’t take good notes – if they take any at all. Is this is a lost skill? Or are we simply out of touch with how people work nowadays?

What are the consequences of no or poor meeting notes?

  • 10 people at the same meeting can leave with 10 different impressions of what has been discussed and agreed
  • Key stakeholders get frustrated as the notes – if they appear – don’t match their recollection of the meeting
  • Assumptions can be made about what was actually agreed – risky
  • Teams can appear unprofessional
  • Stuff doesn’t get done – or at least not to the right standard and the right time – the way people thought it would be, if at all

From my own early experience of taking meeting notes, I wonder if this is indeed becoming a lost art. When I started work things were much more hierarchical, and as the underling it was crystal clear that taking the meeting notes was my job. When something was agreed in a meeting, I needed to get it down on paper. If I was slow off the mark, I’d be given a very clear direction to ‘get that down’.

Fast-forward to today and a team leader may hesitate to be so directive with a member of their team. Indeed they may even duck the conversation on which team member is to take the notes – only to be frustrated afterwards, when nothing happens. My suggestion is to clearly brief a team member before the meeting on what’s required – and why it’s so important. Then check in with them afterwards and have them read back and summarise their notes.

You can also simplify the process the by trying some of the following techniques:

  • Create visual output in the meeting itself – that way everyone can see what’s going on, the better to have a constructive discussion. You can try:
  • A Post-It flurry – does what it says on the tin. Get everyone’s contributions on different Post-It notes, ideally to a tight time frame, and then put them all on the wall. The resultant flurry can then be sorted, ranked, discussed, voted upon.
  • 2 x 2 box matrix – useful when you want to assess options against criteria, such as cost v speed to market.
  • Process mapping – essential for sound project management, and clarifies for all present what exactly is involved.
  • Mind Maps – the brainchild of Tony Buzan, author of several books on the topic, Mind Maps allow the capture of a range of ideas around one central theme, building out as more detail is added. See Buzan’s Mind Map Book for great examples.
  • Diagrams – pyramids, pie charts, graphs, flow charts – these can all be done by hand on a humble flip chart or more high tech magic whiteboard. For more on diagrams, check out Kevin Duncan’s ‘The Diagrams Book: Fifty Ways to Solve Any Problem Visually’ 
  • Appoint a team member to capture all the visual output on their smartphone and attach these visuals to the notes they will have been taking, to distribute to all present within 24 hours of the meeting.

Try out different techniques and see what works best for you and your team.

But that’s not all…so time’s up, the meeting must end, everybody’s gathering their things – wait! What has been agreed? The meeting isn’t over until everyone’s clear who is doing what by when. Options include:

  • Each person at the meeting taking their turn to state their next action and deadline (and if they don’t have one, what are they doing in the meeting?).
  • The note-taker writing up actions with names and dates as the meeting progresses and recapping this at the end.

One last point. Don’t take notes on a laptop; whilst this may seem efficient, the tapping keyboard can distract. What’s more, a room full of raised laptop screens tends not to be the most open and collaborative environment. Finally, taking notes on a laptop may cause us to miss things, as Maggy McGloin writes in HBR, because we absorb less, and yet we tend to produce a higher word count. More words, but less useful.

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