Meetings are both a necessity and a potential waste of time when it comes to leading a project team.

You need to gather as a team periodically to discuss issues, relay key information, solidify decisions and brainstorm ideas. These sessions could be productive. Instead, they often end up trailing off into unrelated topics without any decisions made or tasks assigned when the meeting is over.

That situation is avoidable with a bit of advanced planning. Here are seven tips for facilitating effective meetings on your project:

1. Create a meeting agenda

The process of creating an agenda forces you to consider exactly what topics you need to discuss, how much time you should allocate to each topic, who needs to be at the meeting and what decisions the attendees must agree upon. The agenda should include the overall purpose of the meeting, what topics you’ll cover, what decisions need to be made or recommendations developed, who needs to attend and how long you'll meet.

2. Only invite those who absolutely need to be in the meeting

You probably don't need the full project team to attend every meeting. Carefully consider who needs to participate based on the agenda. Who has the knowledge and expertise required to make progress on an item? Who has the decision-making authority? Get the right people involved, but try to keep the invite list to a minimum. It's challenging to facilitate a meeting with more than 10-15 people, so try to keep the attendee list as short as possible.

3. Assign someone to take notes

If possible, assign someone else to take notes during the meeting so you can focus on facilitation. Regardless of who takes notes, include any decisions the team made during the meeting, a list of action items and a summary of the discussion around each agenda item. This documentation reminds attendees of what they heard in the meeting. You can also use meeting notes to get a team member caught up if he/she was unable to attend.

4. Start and end on time

Respect the time of everyone involved by starting and ending meetings on time. Even if someone's running late, go ahead and get started. Be respectful of those who arrived on time and set a precedence of being prompt. Facilitate the meeting in such a way that you're able to end the meeting five minutes early. This gives attendees time to get to their next meeting and shows you value their time by not going over.

5. Keep the conversation on topic

It's easy to get off-topic. As the meeting facilitator, you're responsible for keeping or getting the group back on track. Write down new topics that come up so important items aren't overlooked, but get back to the agenda as quickly as possible.

6. Assign action items and document decisions

Every meeting should result in action, not just discussion. As to-do's are raised, document the task, who's responsible for completing it and the due date. If the team makes a decision, include that in the meeting notes to memorialize their choice.

7. Follow up within one business day of the meeting

In a fast-paced environment, team members are likely to forget they committed to do during a meeting. Send out the meeting notes and action items to attendees so they can start following up as needed.

Planning for and facilitating meetings deliberately helps the team stay on track and saves everyone time in the process.