It’s 10 a.m., time for your dairy’s weekly staff meeting. Does your team step lively toward the regular meeting room, or do you and your employees mumble and groan with barely suppressed desire to eliminate these sessions altogether?

When not used effectively, team meetings are boring, non-productive ways to spend time. If you make meetings more dynamic, you’ll see fruitful results.

Here are six ways to keep your meetings lively and essential.

1. Create an agenda.

Begin with a plan. Determine the meeting’s purpose before bringing your team together. Then, write out an agenda that covers those topics in sequence. This will give you a clear plan of where the meeting is headed. You may or may not choose to share this agenda beforehand with your team. But make sure the facilitator (you or someone of your choosing) has a clear plan of where the meeting is headed. This helps you to be more organized and decisive. And it avoids the scenario of the meeting convening, but nobody knowing what to talk about.

It may not be necessary to create an agenda from scratch for every meeting; chances are, you’ll need to discuss similar items for routine sessions. Just make sure you allow time for team member input and use this opportunity to regularly share any changes at the dairy that affect employees. Use tools like goal sheets and monthly farm reports to guide the discussion. Make sure you and attendees follow the ground rules (see the profit tip on page 16).

It’s also important to have the right people at the meeting table, says Scott Wiley, veterinarian at Dairyland Veterinary Service in Casco, Wis., who participates in management meetings for dairies ranging from 450 to 1,900 cows. “By bringing together the right people, we are able to put together successful plans to address current areas of concern,” he says.

When paid professionals such as veterinarians, nutritionists or lenders will be present, it is especially important to have a well-prepared agenda, suggests Richard Stup, branch manager for AgChoice Farm Credit in Lewisburg, Pa. 

2. Pay attention to the little things.

It’s the seemingly little things than can trip up a meeting’s success. For example, make sure there’s enough room for everyone. Are there enough chairs? Do team members need something to write on? Is the lighting and room temperature adequate? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then fix the problem before your team meets again.

It’s also a good idea to designate someone beforehand to take notes at the meeting. By doing it then, the person won’t be put on the spot and made to feel uncomfortable. Again, these notes may or may not be shared with the group, but it’s important to have a record of your discussions.

Meetings need to be well planned, which means paying attention to detail, says Gregorio Billikopf, University of California farm labor specialist.

3. Watch the clock.

It is the facilitator’s responsibility to keep the meeting on time and on target, but allow sufficient time for each discussion. Obviously, this will depend on the nature of the topics.

Most experts suggest that a regular meeting with your farm team should last from 10 to 30 minutes, and generally not more than an hour. Be sure to leave time to answer questions from the team.

For other types of meetings, plan according to topic length. Some issues, like expansion plans, take longer to hash over than others. “I think it helps to alternate long and short topics,” says Stup. If one topic drags on, but is followed by a quick topic, it can tend to pick up the pace of the meeting.

Trying to cover more than 10 topics in an hour is generally too ambitious. For meetings that last longer than an hour (try to keep these to a minimum), remember that people tend to lose focus after a while. If you must meet longer than an hour, allow breaks and include activities to re-energize people.

4. Turn ideas into action.

Discussions should always end with decisions, assignments or “next steps.”

For example, a long discussion about changing milking procedures could end up with some assignments, says Stup. “If the discussion was not conclusive, then one or more team members might be assigned to do some research or make some contacts before the next meeting to help the team reach a decision.”

If a conclusive decision was made, then follow-up steps should be planned. These include, When will the change happen? Who will revise the SOP? Who will re-train the milkers and when?

The key, he says, is to identify what steps need to be taken, who will take them, and by when. The point is to establish accountability with an individual.

But be sure that one or two individuals are not walking away from the meeting with all of the work to do, says Wiley. And make sure that the follow-up task, problem or issue is well understood and clearly defined so that it does not come up repeatedly.

“Any business that is not fully dealt with will tend to appear again and again until a concrete decision is made,” says Billikopf. Manage meetings so that specific issues are discussed and solved.

Wiley has found that following up on areas of concern from a previous meeting at the next meeting helps make sure they are addressed. If the solution is not satisfactory, meeting participants help the individual responsible address it before the next meeting to prevent it from recurring.

5. Have fun. 

Don’t make meetings sheer drudgery. Add some levity when possible, but be sure to match activities to personalities, so all are comfortable.

Having some fun at the meetings makes people want to come and encourages creativity, Stup says. “I sometimes will bring some toys, like a foam ball, to toss around and lighten things up.”

Also, make it comfortable for quieter individuals to speak up and participate. Keep things light and make sure nobody dominates the discussion. This goes a long way toward this goal. Do not allow unhelpful criticism or personal attacks to derail your meetings or your team.

6. Get feedback.

Before you wrap things up, ask your team members what they liked or didn’t like about the meeting, says Billikopf. Did the meeting time and location work for everyone? Was the length too long or too short? What can be done to improve for the next session?

Also, note the effectiveness of the team at this time. “If team members do not work well together, or if an individual refuses to follow-up on tasks, the meetings should be discontinued until the right people can be assembled,” concludes Wiley.