By Mamie Kanfer Stewart
Have you ever felt invigorated by a meeting? You know, those meetings where people contribute to the discussion, new ideas emerge, and there’s a sense of excitement about moving forward with a project or initiative? (This is not a trick question.)
And yet, your good feelings fade later when you discover that team members did not complete the actions you thought they would take. In my work helping teams and organizations improve meeting effectiveness and team culture, I’ve identified five reasons people struggle with follow-through after meetings. The good news? The solutions to these challenges are quite simple and there are technologies that can help.
- The actions are unclear. You can generate many ideas for next steps in a meeting, but not all of them need to get done. Some suggestions can be held in a backburner to revisit later. Others require more specificity to turn into actionable items. For example, if someone says during the meeting, “We should get the numbers on that from Barbara,” has the group consciously decided to pursue this action? And what does someone need to do with the numbers once she has them? It’s easier to measure if you’ve completed specific rather than vague actions.
- The owner is unclear. The infamous “we” can get the bulk of the tasks during a meeting instead of the team assigning a task to an individual owner. Take the previous example, “We should get the numbers on that from Barbara.” Who is the owner of this task? Even if there is an obvious person for that task, it does not belong to him until he has agreed to it. It’s hard to hold people accountable unless they have agreed to a task. They can find an out by saying they didn’t know it had been assigned to them.
- The timeline is unclear. Tasks can fall through the cracks if they lack deadlines. Continuing with the earlier example, when do those numbers need to be gathered and shared? Deadlines, even arbitrary and self-imposed ones, help hold people accountable. Giving an estimate -- whether it’s two days, two weeks or two months -- clarifies urgency and helps team members reshuffle other work to integrate new priorities. Tasks without due dates are more likely to go unfinished than if they had been assigned deadlines.
- The next steps don’t end up on someone’s master task list. There can be a gap between a clear next step and completion when tasks aren’t transferred to the owner’s primary task management system. Many of my clients still write down their to-dos in notebooks or on Post-its during meetings. One challenge I’ve heard is they don’t always remember to transfer the to-dos from meetings to their master to-do list or personal task management app, so their meeting tasks are more likely to get lost and/or forgotten.
- There is no accountability. There needs to be accountability in meeting follow-through. Is there a shared record of next steps for all team members to access? Is anyone on the team actively checking in with other team members on task progress between meetings? Too often, tasks from meetings go unfinished but no one, including team leadership, seems to know or care. When no one acknowledges the negative impact of unfinished tasks, the lack of follow-through continues.
How to Combat Lack of Meeting Follow-Through
Once you understand these five main challenges with meeting follow-through, it’s easier to take actions to address them. In your next meeting, push yourself to verbalize questions that clarify tasks, owners and deadlines. Say things like:
- Of all these proposed actions, what needs to get done right away?
- Who’s going to be responsible for these actions?
- What are the deadlines for these tasks?
Then, capture the information in a shared system that everyone on your team can access. At a minimum, type the next steps into a digital document or email that is immediately shared with meeting participants and other key stakeholders. There are also software tools designed specifically for meeting notes that remind you to write tasks as "who does what by when" and automate the process of transferring meeting tasks to individual task lists.
If you don’t use software, that’s OK too. Just remember to stay aware (and ahead!) of the five reasons people struggle with meeting follow-through and have a process in place to address these issues. Try writing “WHO + WHAT + WHEN” at the top of your notebook page as a visual reminder. Be intentional about transferring your meeting tasks and checking in with others on theirs. You’ll move work forward and make meetings meaningful.
Mamie Kanfer Stewart is CEO and founder of Meeteor, a software and consulting firm that helps teams run effective meetings and build healthy company cultures.