A New Way to Look at Meeting Note-Taking

By Mamie Kanfer Stewart

Taking clear and actionable meeting notes can be challenging, especially when you’re immersed in the conversation. I’ve heard this from hundreds of individuals when discussing meeting experiences. Many meeting leaders tell me they find it doubly hard when they’re also leading the meeting. They are responsible for facilitating an engaging and productive conversation as well as capturing notes.

Then there’s the question of accuracy: Relying on only one person to take notes creates the possibility of an incomplete or incorrect record. Additionally, some organizations require multiple participants to review and finalize the notes before they can be shared with the whole group and other stakeholders. It can be a few days or weeks (or maybe never!) before the notes arrive. At that point, team members may not even bother to review them. Meeting note-taking done this way can seem more of a hassle than a help.

Make Note-Taking a Group Effort

I’ve spoken with hundreds of individuals about their note-taking practices, and one of the most overlooked yet effective practices is the group wrap-up. Instead of having a team member take notes along the way, you and your team can compile notes together at the end of the meeting. Reserve the last five minutes in the meeting agenda for a wrap-up in which you ask the whole group to name the critical outcomes that emerged. Assign one person to type up the list as the team creates it and share it with the group immediately. Everyone participates in the note-taking process ensuring accuracy, agreement and clarity on the work that needs to happen after the meeting.

Capture Three Outcomes: Decisions, Next Steps and Learnings

Recording the entire conversation is not helpful. Who wants to read a transcript of the meeting when a bulleted summary will be faster and more precise? Capture decisions, next steps and learnings, all of which are critical in driving action, aligning your team and informing absent stakeholders about what went on.

Identify the decisions of the meeting by asking, “What have we agreed to in this meeting?” Verbalizing decisions prevents misunderstandings and solidifies agreement. Whenever we write down a decision in my company, we always include a sentence that explains the rationale behind this decision. This provides context around the decision for those who were not present. And when we find ourself about to revisit the topic, we always reference the record of past decisions. This keeps us from rehashing prior conversations.

"Next steps" are the actions people are going to take. It’s tempting to summarize next steps as “We’ll do this” or “Let’s do that,” but this kind of phrasing is ambiguous. Be clear about which individual will own the action to ensure accountability. Ask, “Who is going to complete this task?” and “When can you complete it by?” The owner can always adjust the date in light of her existing workload, and then inform anyone else whose work might be affected. For example, if we're going to assign a task to someone who's not in the meeting, we also assign an informer. The informer is responsible for ensuring the task owner understands what's expected of him and providing additional meeting conversation context if needed.

Finally, there are learnings or insights worth recording for future reference. They may not occur in every meeting, but when they do arise, you should write them down to build your team’s knowledge base. For example, did you discover that clients of a certain size run into the same challenge with your product? Or that when members of sales and engineering meet weekly to review the product roadmap, there are fewer misunderstandings and delays? I’m dedicated to creating a learning culture at our company, so we revisit the learnings every few months or when new projects are starting in order to capitalize on the great thinking we’ve already done -- and to keep ourselves from making the same mistake twice.

We mark any idea that does not fall into one these three categories as a general “note.” It turns out that taking meeting notes, once regarded as the burden of one team member, can be a group activity that aligns and unifies a group. Work together to capture meeting notes and see how your meeting notes become more accurate, actionable and accessible. Let me know what you discover.

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Mamie Kanfer Stewart is founder & CEO of Meeteor. She is driven to help others optimize their time & talents to achieve their mission, and loves best practices & technology.

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