Running an efficient, effective meeting

Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 12:56 a.m.
Meetings: They are slept through, lunched through, worked through and suffered through, sucking up huge chunks of time and cutting into productivity.
Yet they seem to be the sun around which American capitalism revolves, where committees rule and teams are as likely to be found in the conference room as on the field.
But meetings don't have to be black holes of wasted time. A well-run meeting not only gets things done, it can help build morale, save money and lead a company in new directions. Making the most out of as few meetings as possible is simple, if you follow a few basic rules.
"Efficient and effective time use is the key," said Susan Battley, a leadership psychologist and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting in Stony Brook, N.Y. "Managers spend an enormous amount of unproductive time in meetings. It's not uncommon for one day total per week to be spent in unproductive meetings."
Having a realistic agenda and the right people in attendance is the foundation of a successful meeting.
"A lot of people don't take agendas seriously," said Dale Cyphert, coordinator of business communication programs at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. "But an agenda allows people to plan the meeting, be prepared for meeting and understand what it's about before the meeting starts."
Begin with time: How much is enough? Experts agree most meetings shouldn't last more than an hour, or 90 minutes at most. And that block of time should be broken down further, allotting specific amounts of time for each item on the agenda.
The agenda should be written with a clear objective in mind. Does a decision need to be made? A document drafted? A policy revised? Whatever the answer, break it down into smaller steps and assign each a time slot.
Prioritizing the agenda - most important issues first - helps ensure that the main goal is achievable, said Charlie Hawkins, a facilitator and author of "First Aid for Meetings," www.charlie
Also, be sure to define what will make the meeting a success. A decision? A draft document? A new policy? Let whoever will attend know what the outcome should be.
Who attends meetings is too often based on politics and titles rather than who really needs to know. If new technology is being discussed, it's best to have the IT people who will implement it on hand to help determine compatibility and cost. Leaving key people out of the decision-making process can cost the company more than time and money.
"There's also the cost of diminishing morale," Battley said. "People buy into what they help create. You need upward feedback. Lack of this can cost the company in terms of productivity and retention."
Determining the number of people who should attend is like Goldilocks searching for the right bed: too few and you probably can't make a sound decision. Too many voices will drown out meaningful discussion. Between seven and 10 people is just right. And make sure everyone can attend.
Just as the meeting's objective will determine who attends, it will also determine the format. A discussion leaves more room for brainstorming and open exchange of ideas, whereas a presentation is more formal and usually restricts give and take to question-and-answer sessions at the end. Each has a home, but the wrong format can torpedo a meeting before it gets started.
Ideally, whoever is attending the meeting should be briefed ahead of time, whether it's with the formal agenda or just a run down of what's expected. This gives them a chance to prepare any notes or documents they'll need to make their case or support a decision, Battley said.
Unlike government meetings, most business discussions don't have formal minutes taken. But taking notes is important for several reasons. For the record, it helps people remember what was covered, what was decided and how the decision was made. Too often actions taken during a meeting aren't recorded and somewhere down the line the same meeting is held again, Cyphert said.
Jotting down notes also helps keep people on task. Meetings get bogged down for two main reasons: People don't keep an eye on the agenda and the clock, and issues unrelated to the task at hand get too much air time.
"People raise their hand to ask a question, but they don't really want to ask a question, they want to show how smart they are," Hawkins said.
Steering the meeting back to its purpose without stifling feedback can be a fine art to master, said Battley, who suggests some key phrases for moving the meeting back on target:
"Let's move on."
"We need to stay focused on today's objective."
"That's a valid point, but it doesn't apply directly to this issue."
Having a venue for these issues to be addressed at another time is important. It's also important to acknowledge clear differences of opinion and to seek compromises and solutions.
Organizing the meeting, keeping it flowing and smoothing any bumps usually falls to a facilitator. The success of the meeting often depends on how well suited that person is to the task. And too often, the person who calls the meeting ends up facilitating by default.
Hawkins suggests companies send several employees for formal training.
"An in-house facilitator is a rich resource," Hawkins said. "You can bring them in from another department, so they're not invested in this particular project, but they have the best interests of the company at heart."
Short of that, bringing in a pro once in awhile can give everyone a few pointers.
"Most meetings are held without a professional facilitator," Hawkins said. "But if once in awhile you can bring one in to model a successful meeting, it can be very helpful."
Without some kind of training, most people just wing it.
"Most managers get no formal training, so they run meetings based on their own experience or what's most comfortable to their personality," Battley said.
And, finally, don't forget the setting. Cramped, dingy quarters are not conducive to clear thinking. Nor is a freezing hall with only seven people huddled in it.
"The space should be appropriate to what you want to accomplish," Cyphert said. "The more respect you show to the meeting, and the individuals, the more they will come to the meeting with a sense of respect for its purpose."

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