Writing minutes of any meeting can be a banal and frustrating task. The first time I took minutes I was busy trying to type everything everyone was saying including their names. This was not only difficult, but as I found out later it was silly.
Usually no one looks at the minutes. However, when there is a controversial decision made everyone looks at the minutes. When fingers are pointing it is amazing how memories become selective or even downright redactive. Verbatim minutes are a big liability when this happens
Why the usual advice is wrong for a collaboration
The usual advice for taking minutes is that you should just focus on decisions and actions. This is reasonable advice. It is most often the actions and the decisions that you need reminding on. However, when you are working in a collaboration there is often a need to have more information. Mostly because not everyone attends and because working on the collaboration is often a secondary job for many who are contributing.
Without some detail about the previous discussions you tend to go over the same topics repeatedly. This creates a conundrum.
Certainly taking extensive minutes is not an option or at least it is not very resource efficient. What can you do?
One of the benefits of collaboration is less work. Less work that is for an individual. Pooling resources in a collaboration means you all get the benefit with much less effort than if you were to do the project on your own.
Similarly looking to the collaboration can also make minute taking with some level of detail a tolerable task.
The 8 counterintuitive format hacks
1. Keep previous discussions in the new agenda minutes: One of the sayings in Flemish is that something “ergens mij blauw’ which means roughly ‘bothers me to the point that I turn blue’. It is probably meant to be similar to the saying ‘annoys me to death’.
I certainly turn blue when I attend a meeting and the previous agenda points are reviewed and everyone starts discussing the old agenda points again, rehashing the same discussion from the last meeting.
If an issue is resolved and does not need to be discussed anymore, there is no need to raise it anymore. If it continues to be an issue then a counterintuitive way of making sure that everyone is aware of what they need to know to address the current agenda points is to keep at least the last two relevant discussions on the agenda. How is this counterintuitive?
It is counterintuitive because your agenda will not be just a listing of topics.
2. Agenda items stay on the agenda until resolved: The immediate reaction when you suggest this is that then the agenda will be too long. However, counterintuitively this is more efficient as it reminds people of the open ‘burning issues and it motivates them to resolve them.
It also fosters decisiveness.
When you have 15 agenda items to get through in a hour you cannot dally in meaningless discussion.
3. Use a standard framework that aligns relevant items left to right: There is something about having a simple framework left to right to show the minutes and the associated actions and decisions.
Since you are taking down some details of the discussion putting all the decisions up top and all the actions at the bottom is less than optimal.
Having a space that you have to fill in with decisions and next action right next to the discussion points reminds you to make decisions and to assign actions.
4. Take the minutes live and project them: Live minuting. Sounds like a stupid human trick. In reality this can be very helpful particularly when combined with agenda items that are pre-filled with discussions from the last two meetings. Many people are more visual than auditory.
This means that if they have only the option to listen to you they are likely to drift off or do something like check email or search the web. Giving them something to look at even when you are just discussing a topic helps.
The biggest advantage is that your attendees can see what was discussed on old issues. This helps to avoid the dreaded treadmill of rehashed discussions.
It also helps those who were not present at the last meeting or conference call get up to speed. People do read the minutes live.
Also important is that it helps you in writing the minutes. People can see what you are writing and help you get it right.
At first this may seem like you are opening yourself up to criticism. However, the fact that you are taking minutes live is usually impressive enough that people are willing to help and do not think poorly of you if you fall behind or do not get it quite right.
We use GoTo Meeting and it seems to work pretty well.
Isn’t live minuting difficult?
Yes, but there is at least one simple hack that can help you enormously in your live minuting efforts.
5. Take time to listen without writing: Well of course you have to listen, but what this means really listen to conversation then summarise live.
It is truly amazing how much people can talk and make only a few salient points. Just listen to some of those British parliament debates.
By taking the time to listen you can help facilitate the conversation and synthesise the points into short summaries. This makes the minutes more readable and infinitely more doable than trying to take down everything verbatim.
It also makes them more useful in a collaboration. They will not be just a list of actions and decisions without context.
So the counterintuitive hack here is to take minutes by not writing. The last hack is, however, the most counterintuitive of them all.
6. Use an online platform: This one is not so counterintuitive. It is nonetheless somewhat against the grain. There is some unwritten rule that minutes need to be written and even printed and filed away a guarded by some monk with a ridiculous haircut who is ready to retrieve the minutes whenever someone needs them.
Do you remember on what day you discussed what items? Maybe 1 – 2 meetings back. Organising your minutes by date and filing them by date is hardly useful.
Only tools allow you to organise minutes around a topic or even subtopics and then search and filter them as you see fit. Furthermore, online tools can pull others into the task of revision.
No longer do you have to collect all the emails, make changes and notify everyone.
We use two different online platforms to organise minutes.
The first that we ever used is Smartsheet. Smart sheet’s biggest advantage is that it is flexible and can be used for many different purposes. Here is an example of who we take minutes in Smartsheet.
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More recently we have been using the more fully featured Teamwork. When you work in big collaborative projects as we do, its important that the platform allows sign up of unlimited users for free. There are not many platforms that allow that. When your project members begin to reach over 200 you can see how even 5 euros/month per user could be very expensive. Teamwork is one of those platforms that allows you to have external users.
We use the Notebook function to document the minutes. It looks nicer than a spreadsheet.
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Teamwork also allows you to assign tasks, although you have to use a different window than the notebook
7. Take minutes even if you are not the designated person: There is no better way to keep your attention on a meeting that to have to be taking minutes.
If you are not the designated person taking minutes can be a very relaxed exercise. It will help you remember what you have to do and enable you to contribute.
In a collaboration it is the person who stands up and contributes who gets to drive the work. Attending a meeting or a conference call is an opportunity, not an onerous task.
8. Minute the meeting before it starts: This is the most counterintuitive hack. Yet perhaps the most effective. If you are facilitating a meeting then often you know what needs to be said at least to introduce a topic. Write that down ahead of time. This is however not the best use of ‘pre-minuting’.
Ask those that are scheduled to attend to add to the minutes ahead of the meeting. This is particularly useful when some of the items are particularly technical and hard to follow.
A knock on effect is that you will find the discussion seems to flow a bit better. It is likely that having to write out what you are going to say before the meeting makes you better able to express yourself.
Pre-minuting does of course require a fair degree of cooperation of those attending the meeting. Yet the impact is well worth the effort. Most importantly it promotes the collaboration and makes it easier to think together as a group.
Working in big complex collaborative consortia is difficult. Yet it is in these types of projects that you will be able to truly move the field, or as Steve Jobs use to say “put a dent in the universe”.
If you have ever tried to dent something with your hand you’ll know it can be difficult and painful. Pick up a hammer and you can make a dent in almost anything.
Collaborative minuting is like a hammer, an effective tool for putting dents in the universe.