“Ambiguity is that which allows us to agree” — unknown contract manager
Oft neglected, yet valuable. Like that thing you don’t think you need until you really need it. You know, that little thing-a-ma-bob that you put down in a safe place but can’t find anymore.
Meeting minutes are important not because of an obsessive need to organize, or keeping records for records sake. Meeting minutes written up in a timely manner and distributed to all the stakeholders set are a communication tool. They set out decisions, commitments, actions, and are a tangible indicator of progress (or lack thereof).
It’s often amazing how often minutes generate further discussion, uncover hidden issues, or reveal misunderstandings. People can walk away from the same meeting with completely different understandings about what they talked about and agreed to. It’s the nature of being human. Put in down on paper, however, and these difference can suddenly become clear. This is a good thing. Clear communication is one of the foundation stones of good management, and meeting minutes are a valuable communication tool.
Try this experiment: ask “So what needs to happen next?” five minutes before the end of a meeting. This will often generate more than five minutes of discussion and clarification of expectations, commitments, and goals. This next action is what gets written own in such a way that it is perfectly clear to everybody who is responsible, when it is due, what the work product or deliverable will look like, and who gets delivered to.
Sound like a bit much? Perhaps, but this also goes by another name: collaboration. Clear expectations about who, what, where, and when are team work. This doesn’t mean that commitments aren’t negotiable as circumstances and priorities change. Expect change to happen. Being a leader means managing change. It just makes it easier to renegotiate if everybody has already agreed what the commitment was in the first place.
Write minutes as soon as possible after the meeting to the appropriate level of detail, while the discussion is still clear in your mind and your handwriting is still legible. The key phrase here is “appropriate level of detail”. If an e-mail summarizing the meeting and next actions is appropriate for that meeting, then go back to your desk and write that e-mail. Something as simple as “Dear Karl — great meeting, thanks. Here’s what I understood from our discussion . . . ”
If your hand-writing is legible, you can even scan your notes and e-mail those. If the meeting is larger, more complicated, longer, or involves multiple stakeholders working together for the first time, the minutes are more formal. Your goal here is “As simple as possible but not simpler”. This is where a good scribe is invaluable, freeing you up to pay attention to and be involved in the meeting instead of furiously scribbling notes and missing the discussion.
Avoid using a scribe that doesn’t understand the subject being discussed. Bless ’em, good administrative assistants have worth beyond measure, but using somebody non-technical in a technical meeting is just asking for trouble. You’re going to get minutes where they obvious tried to write everything they could without any understanding of the context, meaning, or value. It’ll be a frustrating exercise for both you and the administrator.
Distribute minutes as soon as possible after the meeting, for the same reasons you want to write them up quickly. You want them distributed and reviewed while the meeting is still fresh in the participant’s memories. Issuing minutes just before (or even at!) the next meeting is of no use to anybody. Unless your purpose is to deliberately rub people’s noses in the things they haven’t done yet. Updates and corrections if applicable should also be distributed as quickly as possible for the same reasons.
Good minutes have value beyond just having a record. An obvious use is as an input to creating an agenda for the next meeting. They can also be used as sources for discovering risks and issues, reporting to management, managing action items, and as a source of accomplishments (or not) for year-end reviews.