Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

Where Did the Day Go?

The great dividing line between success and failure can be expressed in five words: “I did not have time.” Franklin Field

Since the start of this year my plate seems to be extraordinarily full. Days go by so quickly that it is becoming difficult to keep track of what is being accomplished and what things are being left behind. My action days are getting mixed up with my preparation days and everything seems to be moving too rapidly. Whenever I experience times like these I need to actually take a step back,  stop auto piloting for a while and stop to reflect about what is really happening. If one does not do this, you get lost in the moment and one day blends into the next and pretty soon the day, week, month or year has passed you by. A story I re-read at such times is this one. It helps me put the bigger picture in perspective and clearly shows that the bigger things in life are what one needs to be focused on. If we continuously  work on developing the little things, we forget the big rocks and after a while there is no more space for them.

Last year I wrote about the time management philosophy I follow which includes a mixture of preparation days, action days and relaxing days. In the last quarter of  ’08  I started to integrate  GTD  a lot more into my life. Apart from the usual split of days for that system I also do three other exercises. The first one of these is to set some big goals for the month, chunk them down into smaller ones to be done weekly and lastly chunk them even further into mini steps to be done on a daily basis. The daily basis steps comprise of my “Most Important Tasks” for the day. These range anywhere from 2-4 tasks. It is important to take consistent action on the goals we are working on. Although I have some large yearly goals such as writing a book this year, I tend to keep most of my goals on shorter time frames. This adds the often much needed sense of urgency and stops me from procrastinating.

When I start to lose track of time it is either that I am focusing too sharply on micro goals and have forgotten the bigger picture, or the fact that mini steps are taking longer than usual thereby dragging my day.  General frustration builds up when you work hard but do not get the results that need to be there. Being a highly result oriented person, when I begin to miss daily or weekly targets, flashing red flags force me to take a step back and re-evaluate what am I doing wrong, and gauge whether the path  I have selected is truly the one I want to continue on. Having such built-in systems helps keep me on track, focused and provides the sense of motivation to get things done.

Start with simple steps and goals and steadily increase their number and complexity as you become more adept. Hopefully you will get more things done and see your productivity sky rocket.

Related Posts:

An Inspirational Story

5 Steps to Manage your Time Better

5 Steps to Get Things Done

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5 Steps to Get Things Done (GTD)

“Contemplation often makes life miserable.  We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live.” Nicolas de Chamfort

Every passing day signifies 24 hours of our life, which we will not be able to get back. Very often, days pass by so quickly that they turn into weeks, months and years before we know it. We often complain about the day not having enough hours, and yet, we tend to lose precious moments every day. It is only when we look back and think of what could have been, do we realize how vital it is to use the time we have to the best of our ability. I do not believe in regrets and beating myself up for what could have been. What upsets me however, is seeing myself waste time. It can be procrastination, day dreaming or the fact that I was overwhelmed with everything that needed to be done. Either way, I know I will not be able to get that time back. When searching for ways to organize my life and use time wisely, I found the GTD system, which has introduced accountability as part of my days. Listed below are 5 steps to use, and implement a system to get things done.

1. Collection: This begins with picking up pieces of our lives scattered all over the place. This includes cluttered desks, messy drawers, loose papers, over flowing inboxes and over loaded thoughts. We have to begin by collecting all these “open loops” and putting them into a system where we can process each and everyone of them. It requires much discipline and hard work to get all this stuff into one place initially. The key is to have a system in place which allows us to record these open loops as and when they are created. This takes a huge load of one’s mind, and allows it to focus, rather than be confused with all the happenings in your head. To learn more about how to get started on the collection step, please click here.

2. Processing: After step one, there will be much information to be processed. This means we need to go through each item and open loop, sort out which needs to be acted upon, those that need to be archived, and most importantly, those that need to be trashed. We have to make a conscious effort to minimize the number of items our system will hold as much as possible. Items which require 2 minutes or less of action, must be acted upon instantly, and those loops closed. For example, the expense sheet that needs your signature, sign it now, and send it to the required person. To learn more about how to process all your items please click here.

3. Organizing: Once we have the information after processing, it needs to be organized in a manner to enable us to refer to it, as and when needed. This means each item needs to be allocated specific buckets to slot into. These buckets can be projects or reference topics, in which to organize all the necessary items under one file. For example if you are launching a new corporate website, all the items and thoughts for that project need to be filed together. It is important to label all these action items with contexts that allow you to focus on them when required. Examples of contexts are “Phone Calls”, “Emails”, “Errands” etc. This way you can batch certain activities together. To learn more about how to organize your data please click here.

4. Reviewing: This is a critical step which refreshes your mind of commitments, and closes loops on projects taking up more time than they should. I use three reviewing cycles which are a daily, weekly and monthly review. In these review cycles, I ensure that my daily schedule is structured to maximize my time. Weekly reviews give me a higher level view of everything accomplished during the course of the week, and the progress made. Lastly, the monthly view provides me a snapshot of the larger picture. Without these constant reminders it is easy to get side tracked, and revert to old ways. To learn more about my review cycles please click here.

5. Doing: Very often it comes down to taking action. Lists are only useful, when the items on them are periodically checked off and progress made. Without action we could use the most sophisticated technology in the world to collect, process and organize our data; without seeing any improvements at all in our lives. I use the four criterion model where the task I choose depends on the context, time available, energy and priority. For example if my commute to work everyday is 30 minutes and I have access to my phone during that period of time, I use my “Phone Calls” list and make all the calls during this period of time. Likewise the task I choose depends on the time available, the amount of energy I have and most importantly how important the task is. To learn more about the four criterion model please click here.

There is not just one way the GTD system can be implemented into your daily lives. Everyone has different needs and requirements, each step can be customized. What is important is that we create a system which is reliable and all encompassing. We need to take the load of our minds and put it down on paper, where we can process it more efficiently. As David Allen says, the aim is to reach a “mind like water” state. Where we will be able to move seamlessly from one activity to another, while maintaining a high level of productivity and efficiency. I hope this simple guide serves as a helpful starter for those wanting to begin using this system. I would appreciate your comments, feedback and experience using the GTD system.

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GTD Step 5: Doing

“Success will never be a big step in the future, success is a small step taken just now.” Jonatan Mårtensson

Going through steps one to four, can be a liberating experience in itself. Through these steps, we have I believe, brought some structure to our often chaotic lives, and now have access to a system with a broad overview of happenings in our lives. These steps must however be executed on a daily basis, in order to bring about a reliable system. We are the main engine for making this system work. The minute we stop inputting our commitments, action items and thoughts into the system, the reference angle is meaningless. Hence, we have to set-up the system in a manner that is easy to use on a daily basis. There are several methodologies used to keep the wheels spinning in a GTD system. Outlined below, is the one I prefer to use.

Four Criteria Model

1. Context: All my action items are always grouped according to context. Therefore, depending on where I am, and the tools currently available, I select a context to work in. For instance, if the commute to my office takes 30 minutes, and all I have access to at that time is my phone, I bring up the list of calls I need to make. If I am able to work on multiple contexts at the office, I will use the remaining three criterion to help make a decision.

2. Time Available: I am at the office and have a meeting scheduled in the next hour, I can use this time to come up with an agenda for a proposed meeting, or review the presentation I have to give on my computer. If I only have five minutes before the meeting, I can scan my list of short phone calls or emails, and deal with them  using this period of time. This way, I am able to maximize the awkward 5-10 minutes in between meetings, calls and appointments.

3. Energy Available: Some tasks require more physical and mental effort than others. Let’s say it is 7:30pm after a long day at work. I have a list of low energy tasks which I could do at this moment. Depending on the time and tools available, this is a great time to fill in expense sheets, data entry or another task which requires minimal effort. For tasks requiring more energy, I work to place them in the earlier part of the day when I feel fresher and have a clearer mind.

4. Priority: We all have critical tasks which need to be given a higher level of priority. These tasks are usually flagged in my task lists, and are completed as soon as possible. If an entire day goes by, and these tasks are left undone, it often feels like the entire day has gone to waste. It is essential that your task list clearly marks priority, to ensure that you see these flagged tasks first and get them done as soon as possible.

Using this model I am able to collect, process and organize my action items throughout the day. It is undoubtedly not the most structured approach out there as compared to other methodologies. I like to be able to switch between projects depending on external factors. Other people that I know have more structured approaches, where they complete certain types of work at predefined times in the day. It is important to select a methodology that you are comfortable with. The primary objective must be to make it easy for you to use the system regularly and refer back to it whenever required.

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GTD Step 4: Reviewing

“People love chopping wood.  In this activity one immediately sees results.” Albert Einstein

Steps one through three, involved the gathering of data, putting it into appropriate buckets, and ensuring it was placed in a system to enable us to know what to do next. The fourth step in the process is a critical one, it puts a review system into place. The purpose of a review system is to analyze whether we are on track, as also gauge the progress we are making. A common case  in need of such a review system is, making lists of things to do, and then never getting around to doing them, because of inadequate and irregular review system . A review system helps to refresh your mind of commitments and closes loops on projects taking up more time than they should. I use three main review cycles, they are outlined below:

Daily Review: The first thing I do when I get into office is to open my calender, and review the tasks allocated for that particular day. This helps me plan accordingly for the rest of the day. The next task is to review my project lists, and determine the next action and it’s context. Depending on this list, I plan my day to maximize completion of tasks.

Weekly Review: This is by far the most important review cycle of them all. My weekly review is scheduled for Sunday morning, for those who work a 5 day week I suggest keeping it on Friday when things are still fresh in your mind. During this review I have a couple of key tasks which I now do habitually.

Emails: During the course of the week, I make sure my inbox remains as empty as possible. However if there are unprocessed emails which require thinking about, this is the time I usually clear them. I also identify emails that I am expecting, but which have not been received yet. I then create reminders, to ask the concerned individuals during the course of the week.

Calender: I review last week’s calender and see which tasks need to be moved forward to this week if required. I schedule appointments and action items for the coming week in advance if required. This way I ensure nothing is left unprocessed from last week, and move into a new week being aware of the workload to expect.

Project Review: Next, I review all the projects labeled for weekly reviews. In this manner I can monitor fairly adequately how much I got done during the week. If I have fallen behind schedule on certain tasks, I identify the reasons, and make sure that greater time is allocated to get them sorted out in the coming week. This project review helps close many loops on concurrent projects and helps me stay afloat with the activity, without getting overwhelmed.

Monthly Review: This review is carried out on the last Saturday of every month. I use this review to monitor progress of the macro goals I have set for myself. They  include growth of a businesses, personal finance, personal development and health. These are some larger goals which a weekly review does not cover. Through this review I get a perspective on the larger picture, without feeling bogged down with smaller projects running simultaneously. This is a very important review cycle, I recommend it’s use to everyone.

Incorporating a review system into my schedule has greatly increased my productivity and focus in life. The feeling of being bogged down with simultaneous project rarely occurs now. This provides a degree of control which is calming and reassuring at the same time. Without this vital step the GTD methodology will impact in a less meaningful manner. A disciplined review system, is a foundational building block, and helps this system unlock its true potential.

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GTD Step 3: Organizing

“The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination.” Elbert Hubbard

After the first couple of steps of the GTD process, there will still be much that will need to handled. Step three is best run parallel with step two. In so much as, that when we process we should organize the data into buckets which we will review and take action on, at a more appropriate and later time. Let’s say for example you are processing your “in” basket, and there is a memo about a call you need to make on Tuesday to a client. If you label it as such, and defer it to next week, you need a system in place to remind you on Tuesday morning to make that call. Every individual’s system will develop naturally, depending on the nature of their work and personality. Listed below are some key components of my organization process.

Setting up Buckets: Buckets are placeholders for any project which requires more than one action item to complete. They can also be created to manage reference material.

Projects: For example, at the moment I am working on launching a new website. I have created a bucket for this project which has a list of all action that needs to be taken before the website is actually launched. Similarly, we may have other projects such as “hire a new marketing manager”, “clean work desk”, “sign up for a medical insurance”, “plan a party for a friend” or even “plan winter vacation”. I do not make distinctions between personal and professional projects, you may want to however. What is important is that each project have a specific outcome and be reviewed on a regular basis to monitor progress.

Reference Material: The GTD system introduced me to something called a tickler file. This is quite simply a file which reminds me of tasks that need to be carried out on particular days. For instance, while processing  I find I need to make a call on Tuesday morning to a client, I place the item in the tickler folder, which I will open in the normal process of things on Tuesday morning. One can also set this up on an actual paper based system, be it a calender, a diary or a software program to manage your tickler file.

Working in Contexts: Contexts simply place all action items on your list, according to certain functions. For example, some of the contexts I use are “Phone Calls”, “Emails”, “Errands”, “Research”. Lets say I have a project which was “launch new website”, the first action on the list was to call a web developer and set up a meeting. I would assign this action item with the “Phone Calls” context. This way I can batch all my phone calls together and process them quickly. I strongly recommend batching your actions using contexts to increase your overall productivity.

Checklists: When we have several things happening concurrently, our brain often goes into overdrive. To help me through busy times like this, I like to organize my thoughts in a routine processes. For example, I have a checklist for “Conference Calls”, it outlines everything I need to do before, during and after the call. For the days I have to take and handle many such calls, it helps to make sure that I have not missed anything. Likewise, I have other lists for “Staff meetings”, “Backing up of data”, “Things to do before I travel”. One can set up lists for just about anything.

The organizational step takes time to get used to and to implement completely. It is important that we use this step to put all of our open loops into writing. This gives us the ability to free ourself from stress regarding smaller things such as “buy milk”, which if not processed on time and in the routine, takes up much more space than it should. Once we have processed and organized all this data, we are ready to move to the next important step of the system, reviewing.

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GTD Step 2: Processing

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann

If you have followed step 1 outlined in my last post, chances are you have a lot of stuff to deal with. When I go off the GTD system, my desk drawers become bottomless pits where I deposit just about anything, and then completely forget about it. I am sure all of us have cleared desks and drawers this way many a time. We are suddenly faced with all this surplus information which needs to be processed. Looking at a huge pile in front of you is stressful, so take a deep breath to start with! Next, pick up one item at a time from your in-basket, and start to process. It is important to deal with each item in the tray one at a time, and not put the item back until it has been processed. Outlined below are steps I follow to process my in-tray.

Step 1: I ask myself…. “What action does this particular item require?”. It could require a form of action or, none at all.

Step 2a: If the item requires action, I determine what level of action is required. There are three possible options at this point:

i) Do it: If the item can be completed in 2 minutes or less then I get to it immediately. For example, if the first item on the tray is an approval letter which requires my signature, I sign it, and have it sent to the appropriate person.This item could also be responding to an email, or confirming attendance at a party. Anything which takes a short period of time to complete.

ii) Delegate it: If the item requires another person to take action on it, I mark it, and have it sent to the concerned individual. For example, if the item is a contract my partner needs to comment on, I have it sent over to him.

iii) Defer it: If the item cannot be processed immediately but requires action in the near future, I mark it, and place it on my calender. For example, if the item is a post-it note reminding me to call a particular customer, and today being Saturday, I will put an action item on my calender to call the individual on Monday morning.

Step 2b: if the item does not require any action, there are then a couple of easy ways to deal with it.

i) Trash it: If the item in your tray is junk mail, it should go straight into the trash bin. Anything which does not have some value must be trashed.

ii) Incubate: If the item is an invitation to a wedding, which is to take place in a months time, and you are uncertain of your travel schedule, put it away in a file to review after a designated period of time. Many items will require you to think about stuff, and such a file is a great place to organize them.

iii) Reference: If the item is a competitor’s brochure, I would keep it as reference material. It is important that your reference material is well marked and easily retrievable. Much of the time we archive stuff and never see it again. Mark your files carefully, and keep them within reach at all times.

This may all seem excessive when you first look at it, however, with a little bit of practice all these decisions take place almost instantly. We know instinctively what we need to do with each item, since much of it may have been bothering you for some time. Getting into the habit of keeping your in-basket at a manageable level at all times can greatly improve the quality of life. It is important that you process this tray regularly. Once we have processed all the information, we can move to the next stage, which is, organizing all this information.

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GTD Step 1: Collect

“For disappearing acts, it’s hard to beat what happens to the eight hours supposedly left after eight of sleep and eight of work.” Doug Larson

Here is a common scenario in which I have fallen off my GTD schedule. My inbox has hundreds of emails which need to be sorted and processed, I am moving from one project to the next without getting anything accomplished, books are left unread half way through, my desk is cluttered with to-do lists and post-it notes, and overall, things are just not getting done. As an entrepreneur every day spent in such chaos is a day wasted. Time flies by, and I am left wondering when the day started and when it ended. According to David Allen, this scenario is a result of having too many ‘Open Loops’ in our brain. An open loop signifies thoughts in our brain which need closure. When these loops are left open for extended periods of time, we tend to procrastinate and get stressed out over all the things that need to get done. If you are carrying too many open loops presently, read the steps below to start clearing them out.

Step 1: Clear your Workspace: Our desks are where we spend the better part of our working day, they reflect our state of our mind. A messy desk serves as a reminder to our brain, of all the open loops we are carrying. At one moment we may be working on an important report, suddenly our eye catches an unpaid utility bill. Our focus suddenly switches to the bill, and we begin worrying about getting the payment in before the due date. Beneath the bill, we notice a letter for a seminar we needed to register for yesterday, we have missed the deadline to sign up. This process goes on and on until we sit down and clear our desk of all, but the necessary items which need to be on it.

Step 2: Clear your Computer: Somehow, desktop screens seem to collect a lot of stuff very quickly. Downloaded files, new documents, attachments and a host of other new creations. These serve as constant reminders of open loops and can be very distracting. Create folders, set dates and time to clear them as soon as possible. Next, move to your email box and begin dealing with all unanswered emails, delete those which do not need a response and archive important emails to designated folders for easy retrieval.

Step 3: Clear your Mind: This is one my favorite exercises. When I cannot bear the open loops any more, I take a piece of paper and start putting down my thoughts onto the sheet of paper. This can literally cover anything which is bothering me. For example, it could be, buy a box of chocolates, call the cable repair man, chart out a timeline for the new project, make a Doctor’s appointment, make reservations for saturday night dinner, or, start doing some charity work. This is one of the most therapeutic things you can do for yourself and putting it all down feels really good.

During these steps many documents and files need to be handled. Set up a basic ‘in’ and ‘out’ tray to manage all the data, and set dates and time to process all the information which has been gathered. I also use basic file folders for specific information, and I review those folders on a periodic basis. There is no point in collecting all this data, thoughts and action points, without setting up a system to manage your collection properly. Before you begin the collection process have a couple of fresh envelopes, file folders, labelers and, the trash bin nearby.

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Are you getting things done?

“Good thoughts are no better than good dreams, unless they be executed.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ever had a day start off with a million things to do, and at the end of it, not manage to strike even one of them off the list? Often the tasks at hand are huge ones, like writing a business plan, creating a brochure or even developing a website. Chances are, if you have, write a business plan on a to-do list, it is not going to get completed when you need it. Lets face it, most of us have procrastinated at some point in time. Some do it more regularly than others. As an entrepreneur, your plate is usually full, and procrastination comes at a heavy opportunity cost. We have to do whatever it takes, to make sure that we use our time optimally. Time management is a topic I wrote about earlier this year. Since then, I have changed my time management methodologies and now use the GTD (Getting things done) methodology, it has helped me greatly in getting more accomplished.

The GTD methodology was developed by Mr. David Allen. It is a simple system which helps streamline many of the tasks we do on a daily basis. Before I started using this system, my mind used to race from one project to the next. If I receive an important email while busy writing a report, I often just switch tasks, and that is ususally the end of the report. Things such phone calls and uncalled for meetings were draining a lot of my day. This system got me started on a concept called, working in a particular context. Which means, I partition my day contexts such as responding to emails, phone calls, thinking, reading and a host of other activities where I can see all the tasks related to that context. It made a world of difference.

Over the course of this week, I plan to outline some key components of the system. This will help individuals who do not know this methodology to learn a little more about it. Pointers from this series can be applied to your daily schedule, and you can test out which components of the system to incorporate into your schedule without disrupting it too much. In the end the focus has to be on execution and delivering results. We could talk incessantly about the business we want to start, or the new product that needs to be launched. Unless we take decisive action, we will not get anything accomplished. I hope this system will be of as much benefit to you, as it has for me.

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5 steps to ensure effective meetings

Boss Ramblings

Meetings are and have always been a critical tool to get the job done. All successful meetings have several common key factors. When we incorporate them into our daily meetings we will see a surge in productivity and efficiency. This will have a direct impact on the results and bottom line. Listed below are five key factors which should be incorporated into every business meeting:

  1. The Agenda: An agenda brings focus to the reason a meeting is being held. It outlines all the key factors which are going to be discussed and what is needed to be achieved during the course of the meeting. It helps the facilitator to decide who should be invited and why. This will help create a blueprint for the meeting and will also help keep it on track and to reach the required goal. To read more about how to create an ideal agenda please click here.
  2. Time & Focus: These two building blocks must be tracked meticulously during the course of the meeting to ensure that adequate time is allocated to each agenda item and that the course of the discussion remain in line with the agenda. Deviation from these two factors result in meetings where all the participants get frustrated and no consensus is reached. To read more about how to keep your time and focus in line please click here.
  3. Group Participation: Meetings are most productive when you have everyone contributing to the discussion. This results in a group generated consensus to be reached which is free from any sort of bias. A conducive environment needs to be maintained to get everyone to contribute. To read more about how to get participants to contribute more please click here.
  4. Decision Making: Meetings provide a forum to reach decisions on issues through a collaborative process. It is essential that key steps are taken to ensure that everyones opinion on the topic are heard and a collaborative decision is reached. When there is resistance to a proposed decision it needs to be handled with care to ensure that there is no passive resistance which could jeopardize the project. To read more about how to reach decisions effectively click here.
  5. Minutes & Action Items: During the course of a meeting several topics are discussed and decisions reached. Each one of these needs to be recorded for reference purposes. Meeting minutes provide participants with an easily accessible document and reminds them of what tasks were delegated and to whom. Action items need to be delegated with clear instructions and should be time bound for optimal execution. To read more on how you can incorporate minutes and successful action item delegation please click here.

Meetings are a critical business component. To run them successfully will result in better communication. Once a team or a business is at a level where communication flow becomes more efficient and effective it will have a direct impact on its productivity and results. Incorporate these factors into your daily meetings and let me know if you have noticed better results or performance. Also if anyone else wants to share other factors which have helped them run more effective meetings please let us all know. Thank you.

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Minutes and Action Items

Action Items

Minutes are a critical aspect of any successfully run meeting. Before the start of the meeting a participant should be delegated the role of taking them down and emailing them out to the rest of the group after the meeting. This will provide all the participants with an easily accessible reference point. The rationale that everyone will remember all that is discussed during the course of the meeting is not valid and could lead to confusion in the future. Provided below are some of the key aspects which should be included in the minutes;

  • Details regarding the date, time, participants and primary objective must always be included.
  • Notes regarding every pointer on the agenda sheet provides a good framework for easy reference.
  • Clearly outline the decision or consensus which was reached during the course of the meeting.
  • List down delegated action items with proposed deadlines.

Another key aspect of successful meetings is the delegation of action items. When a consensus has been reached and an implementation strategy outlined action items need to be clearly and concisely delegated to members of the team. Some key points for successful delegation of action items are;

  • Clearly and concisely state the action item to the delegated individual. A rationale behind the item and methodology to be used is essential.
  • Action items need to have time constraints. It provides an outline in which the task needs to be completed in.
  • Follow up action needs to be allocated if the action item is complicated. This helps to keep the team in the loop regarding the implementation. It also provides checkpoints which provide valuable feedback during the implementation process.

It is the meeting facilitators responsibility to ensure that the minutes and action items are successfully delegated. Incorporating them into your next business meeting will ensure that the responsibility for these tasks is efficiently delegated and discussion points are created for future references.

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