In a recent post I talked about the difference an agenda can make in a meeting. Agendas are created before the meeting starts, but what about during and after the meeting? In this post I want to talk about the importance of committing to a standardized system during and after every meeting. By definition a system is something that happens the same way every time. For that reason it is important that your system be as simple as possible. Elaborate systems will be abandoned during simple meetings, but simple systems can also be used for elaborate conferences. So make your systems simple and then use the heck out of them. Here are the basic elements your system must have.
Capture information during the meeting
You already have an agenda so the simplest thing to do is use it as the outline for notes you take during the meeting. And please, please take notes. I am sure there are power tripping, Gordon Gecko types that relish the grand entry of plopping down at the conference table with a self confident greeting like "so, what can I do for you today?" If you can, get up and leave these meetings before they have a chance to get started. The best meeting is one where everyone starts with pen over paper and an agenda in front of them. If you don't take notes it comes off as disrespectful. You can take notes on a legal pad, in a notebook, on your iPad or laptop. It does not matter. Ideally your system should be technology agnostic.
If there is a whiteboard or flip chart in use during the meeting take pictures before it gets erased or flipped to the next page. I do this all the time with my iPhone and it works brilliantly. If the meeting is happening in my conference room I will send these pictures straight to the color laser printer so we can refer back to them and pass them around the table easily.
The challenge when it comes to capturing information is striking the balance. You are not trying to take dictation. But at the same time you do not want your notes to be so cryptic and concise that they are of no use days or weeks down the road. Don't be so concerned about months and years down the road. We are going to cover that later. Taking good notes is as much art as science. You may vary the level of detail you try to capture based on the type of meeting. In some meetings I scribble furiously. In others my notes are spartan. It just depends. Find the style that allows you to be most engaged, and that also allows you to record details that must be recalled later.
Keep track of action items
I believe the secret to effective note taking is being able to pull action items out of the text at a glance. You need to develop some method so that action items jump off the page, and it is readily apparent who needs to do what next. There are lots of ways to do this. My own system is very simple. If there is something that I am going to need to do as a result of the meeting I put an empty check box in the left margin of my notes. If I am taking notes in a text file I begin the line with two square brackets like this . If someone else in the meeting is responsible for some followup action item I put an empty circle in the left margin. In a text file I use opening and closing parentheses like this ().
I have seen people draw a vertical line dividing the page into two columns with the left column taking up two thirds of the page and the right column one third. The smaller column on the right is used for action items. This method is similar to a format I like a lot from Behance called the Action Method. But as cool as their fancy paper is I can't use it because it doesn't meet the most important criteria. It is not simple enough to be ubiquitous.
This is the main point. It does not matter which method you use, but keep it simple. You need some type of format for marking action items in your notes, and it must work no matter where you are or what medium you are using. I like my system because it works in my Moleskine notebook, a text file in Byword, a picture of a whiteboard, an agenda prepared by someone else or the back of someone's business card. Remember, keep it simple.
Communicate the action items after the meeting
As soon as possible after the meeting confirm with each attendee the specific action items agreed to during your time together. A quick email is the best way to do this. It only takes a few minutes if you do it right after the meeting is over. But if you wait, even fifteen minutes, the time it takes to complete this step can grow by a factor of 10. There is a good chance that you wrapped up the meeting with a quick recap of action items. If you did the recap it takes only a couple of minutes to review your notes and get those items into an email.
If you wait there are a couple of problems. First, you must locate your notes. Second, if your notes were less than complete there is a good chance you will not notice a missing action item that was agreed to early or late in the meeting. Third, and most important, one of the attendees may have forgotten that they consented to carry out an action item. Now, you have to spend even more time negotiating with someone's bad memory. And rather than argue with a client you will probably end up adding this item to your own list. So procrastination not only results in inefficiency on your end, it also tangibly addsd to your work load.
When scheduling your meetings go ahead and block out 15 minutes afterward to recap your open items and followup with attendees. Then, once everyone has left the conference room resist the urge to go refill your coffee cup or wind down with a stroll around the office. Take your butt back to the conference room, spread out your notes, open up your laptop and bang out the email so everyone gets it before they have a chance to get into their next appointment. It will only take you three minutes, and it will save you loads of time down the road. I know, I know. I said fifteen minutes. I'll tell you what to do with the other twelve later.
Your action items need a system of their own
Any action items from the meeting also need to get entered into whatever system you use to keep track of todo items and tasks. My favorite system for this type of stuff is David Allen's "Getting Things Done.", but you can use whatever system works for you. Law firms have traditionally used tickler systems. Some businesses use project management software or unified task management applications. It really doesn't matter. You can use index cards, a notebook, your smartphone, whatever. Just be sure you use a system that you follow religiously. That is how you keep things from falling through the cracks. I am a Mac nerd so I like OmniFocus. There are dozens of task management applications out there. Find one, buy into it and use it every day.
Your system also needs to account for items that others are responsible for completing. This is critical. It is very likely that several weeks later someone from the meeting may ask you for something that was actually on their list. When they see your blank look don't be surprised if the response is "you do remember promising to get that, don't you?" The GTD system avoids this kind of miscommunication by keeping such items on a "waiting" list. Every so often you review your "waiting" list and send reminders to the people who have outstanding tasks to complete. Over time, your colleagues begin to understand that you track this stuff every day, you can tell them the date they agreed to do something, and you stay on top of them until they get it done. Pretty soon they don't question you anymore, they just do it.
Recording your action items and the items you are waiting on others to finish will use up another three minutes of your post meeting time. You have nine minutes left.
Archive your notes for future reference
There is a very good chance that you will never need your notes again. After all, the purpose of the meeting was to decide on next actions and the focus after the meeting was on getting them done. If you need to go back to your notes it is most often because something that someone said they were going to do did not get done. For instance, an insurance agent is asked for a quote and during the fact finding meeting the client says they are not really concerned with flood insurance. The agent agrees to work up a quote excluding flood coverage and does so. After the quote is received the client complains that the quote does not include flood coverage.
If all the steps above were followed the client received an email shortly after the meeting stating that a quote would be forthcoming that excludes flood coverage. If the client missed that email the agent could go back and review his notes with the client covering the part of the conversation that dealt with flood insurance. But this is rare. Here is what I suggest.
Archive your meeting notes in their original form. If they were taken on the back of a cocktail napkin scan the napkin into a filing system that makes sense for you. If you took notes on your computer save the file using the same filing system. This is where the other nine minutes come into play. It will take you less than one minute to scan in or save your notes. Take the rest of the time to write up a short paragraph recapping the meeting. This is the meeting in your own words and it is invaluable in those cases where you have to go back six months or more and review notes. The absolute best tool for this is dictation software. I use Dragon Dictate when I am in the office. In less than ten minutes I can dictate 500-1000 words that succinctly capture my impressions of the meeting. When I am out of the office I use a dictation service that is saved to speed dial on my phone. I dial the number, enter my PIN and dictate up to four minutes of notes. When I get back to the office these notes are in my email and I save them to the appropriate file.
A lot of work
This sounds like a lot of work, but it really is not work. It is a system. Systems are challenging to setup. You need to carefully select your tools and develop the habit to use the system. But once the system is running it does not create work, it saves time, and it adds to your effectiveness. If you are struggling with meetings or if you cannot seem to get your arms around one meeting before the next one starts I encourage you to setup a system and use it.