Most folks I know hate meetings. They especially hate meetings about meetings. Recently I was working with a developer who loves to meet. He's a knowledgeable guy and he likes to talk and share technology. These meetings have often gone down various rabbit trails and they take up a lot of time. Unfortunately, he's not the only developer I support, nor is his team the only team I collaborate with. Then we got to the point in a project where I needed to call a meeting to clear up some confusion. In order to make the meeting effective, I went back to my project manager days in the USAF. Here's how I true and make meetings more efficient:
Publish an agenda ahead of time:
One of the best ways to make meetings more efficient is to get out an agenda ahead of time. I don't mean 15 minutes before the meeting. If possible, you want to get the agenda out at least a day in advance. Why? That allows those attending the meetings to offer comments about the agenda. Maybe there is something you need to talk about as a group but you personally aren't aware of it. Rather than sidetrack your meeting with an unexpected topic, give the others a chance to set the agenda. Also, there may be something that doesn't need talking about. For instance, if there's something that can be taken care of before the meeting, or outside of the meeting, then that allows whoever needs to do it to take care of it and get it off the agenda. That means one less thing on the meeting.
Stick to the agenda:
Another reason to publish an agenda is to keep folks on track. If you're going to publish an agenda, stick to it. There's no point having an agenda if you're not going to honor it. If folks try to deviate from the agenda, you have to be firm. If there is deviation from the agenda and it's not absolutely crucial, there are two options here. The first is to do nothing and let it derail your meeting. The second is to gauge the importance of the topic. If it's truly important, then acknowledge that, point out that it doesn't fit with the current meeting, and then assign someone (whoever needs to, and that could be you) to have a follow-up meeting around that topic. This keeps meetings on track and allows proper discussion of serious items.
Invite the right people:
When I go to set up a meeting, I always think about who really needs to be in there. I only want the folks that should be there. If I invite anyone else, I waste their time. Also, the folks that don't need to be there might need to talk about other issues which are important to them... but aren't on the agenda for the meeting. So now you're having to deal with the sidetrack issue. Keep the invite list down to who actually needs to be there. If they want to invite others, ask them why. Perhaps those people really need to be there, too. But if your meetings are efficient and productive, folks will learn to trust your judgment when you say someone doesn't need to be there. And there's nothing wrong with letting some folks know that you might need them, and being ready to call them in if they are available.
Look to let folks go:
If you know that some folks are only needed for a topic or two and there's more on the agenda, put their items at the top of the agenda, if possible. That way, when their part is done, you can let them leave the meeting. This is similar to inviting the right people. If someone doesn't need to be around for the remaining topics, then it helps you have a more productive meeting to get them out of there. Not only does it free them up for other things, but it also means you don't have folks adding to the meeting and potentially sidetracking it unnecessarily.
Take accurate and effective notes:
Ever leave a meeting and no one remembers who needs to do what? If that's the case, it wasn't a productive meeting. Therefore, make sure the important things are captured. Make sure you know who is supposed to do what. Then follow back up with everyone who was at that meeting with an email telling all of the action items and the important points summarized. If you do this, folks will start to see that your meetings are about getting things done. You aren't just calling meetings to have them. There's a point and purpose behind your meetings and that's to advance whatever work is being done. You can't do this well unless you take good notes.
Start on time and end on time:
Folks are notorious for showing up to meetings a few minutes late. I am guilty of this far too often. Why? Because I know the meeting isn't going to start on time and I also know it's likely to run over. Is this a good reason? No, but it's how I subconciously justify waiting to the last moment to go to the meeting room. Make it a practice of starting your meetings on time, getting through the agenda as quickly as possible while still covering what needs to be covered, and trying to end as quickly as possible. If your meetings are like this, then folks will learn to show up on time, they'll appreciate that you aren't wasting their time, and they'll be more responsive to your meetings. If, for some reason, you don't get through everything, cut the meeting off when you've scheduled it to end. Keep that social contract intact. Schedule another time to continue the discussion. Show the folks you've asked to meet with you that you respect their time and their other commitments.