The meeting room was buzzing. Stakeholders from across the globe were present, finally meeting at a single location to close multiple pending and unresolved issues. This was the sole agenda and each issue was settled after intense debate and animated discussion.
But surprisingly — or maybe not — there was no assigned minute taker. Everybody assumed somebody was capturing the minutes. Some participants jotted down points, but when notes were compared later, they were dramatically different, and many points of view were missing. In a nutshell, there were no accurate minutes.
Unfortunately, one comes across this scenario so often in everyday corporate life that I decided to dwell this time on the humble art of minuting. Of course, formal board and committee meetings have professionals dedicated to track discussions and decisions on every item on the agenda. But what about other meetings where person-hours can go to waste because important decisions taken by a group of professionals are committed to memory rather than judiciously documented?
If the proceedings are not documented, it would be no surprise to discover at the next review that there was no consensus on key decisions, no progress on required actions, and no one was clearly holding the bottom line.
A meeting without minutes is like writing on water, a wise manager once told me. Minutes document points of view and decisions. They effectively harness the output of many person-hours. So, every meeting, even informal ones, will be best served by having an assigned ‘minute taker’.
Experienced chairs, at the end of each major item on the agenda, summarise the key decisions. This is a godsend to the minute taker. Notably, it ensures all participants are on the same page on strategic decisions, preventing ambiguity and disagreements when minutes are circulated or reviewed at the next meeting.
That addresses decisions, but what about the equally important capture of discussions? In a casual conversation with my daughter, then an entry associate with a leading consulting company, I discovered the importance given to ‘discussion capture’ by these organisations.
Training is imparted on the methods to capture discussions accurately and succinctly so that first-timers, even if they are millennials proficiently wielding laptops or smartphones, are not overwhelmed with the task. A good rule of thumb – capture every important point in a separate line of a worksheet, and utilize the down-time in the meeting, to bucket it under assigned headings and, hey presto, before the wrap-up you have one round of preliminary collation done.
Occasionally, the minutes are cryptic for a purpose – perhaps they need to be in a particular style or because they are circulated among a wide audience. If the richness of the discussions becomes a casualty, there are instances of a separate summary document that is circulated.
The traditional minute-takers came armed with both shorthand and typing skills. These may seem archaic in this day and age, but there are many seasoned veterans out there, CEOs included, who quietly draw on their shorthand skills to document key meeting minutes, just in case, the greenhorn formally tasked with the job comes up short.
The overarching point here is that both templates and techniques are valuable in capturing and organizing information in an efficient and comprehensive way.
That brings me to the next issue of timeliness. It is futile to circulate minutes ‘just-in-time’ for the next review meeting or many moons after the meeting transpired. Minutes must be sent when discussions and decisions are fresh in the mind. I had a great team member who had the minutes in our inbox within one hour of the meeting, complete with next steps, responsibility holders and due dates. It gave structure, it gave ownership and it gave timelines. To end a meeting (or commence a new one) armed with the knowledge that the discussion has been captured effectively is a powerful feeling. Even today, he remains my gold standard.
However much one may rail and rant against them, the fact is that meetings are here to stay. They are an integral part of professional life. It is also true that human memory can sometimes conveniently fail, and selective memories, prevail. And so, to the rescue come the model minutes.
Minute taking is of course, not the most exciting of assignments and if there are no pre-designated minute takers, folks around the table will shy away from meeting the manager’s eye, lest they are tasked with it. But though the task may be humble and irksome, someone rightly said, “History is written by people who attend meetings, stay until the end, and keep the minutes."
Hema Ravichandar is a strategic human resources consultant. She serves as an independent director and an advisory board member for several organizations.