Meetings have tangible costs as well as human tolls. They disrupt staff schedules and — if poorly managed — can be draining, tiring, frustrating and wasteful. It only makes sense to work hard to make meetings productive and have them deliver value.
This seems like common sense, yet it is amazing to watch how casually meetings are often planned and conducted. Far too many are called on a moment’s notice, with little or no effort to determine what needs to be accomplished and who will benefit.
It is no wonder many people treat meetings with cynicism and contempt, saying: “the best meeting is the one that is canceled,” or that “the words ‘productive’ and ‘meeting’ are mutually exclusive.”
How can meetings be more valuable? Here’s seven pointers.
1. Should a meeting even be held? Before deciding to schedule a meeting, ask a few simple questions: What exactly is the purpose of this meeting? What meaningful outcomes can be achieved? What decisions need to be made? Is a face-to-face meeting the best way to make these decisions? If your answers to these questions are less than compelling, see if you can cancel or postpone the meeting, or make the decisions by alternative means, such as consultations by telephone, e-mail or fax.
2. What value can be expected? The value in having a face-to-face meeting is the interaction between the individual participants. If this interaction is well managed, significant problems are solved and quality decisions made. A good meeting can generate ideas to boost efficiency and reduce costs. It can help reach consensus on controversial issues, and thereby prevent or resolve divisive disputes. It can boost teamwork, morale and commitment levels.
3. How much should be on the agenda? Based on the anticipated length of the meeting, determine how many issues can be dealt with effectively. A common mistake is to stack the agenda with too many issues, forcing the members to “rush things through.” This can lead to poor decisions being made and later regretted. It is therefore best to estimate how much time each major issue will require for quality discussions and decision-making. This will help determine how many issues can be realistically and reasonably addressed at the meeting.
4. Should an agenda be a “free-for-all?” To make a meeting valuable, learn to say “no” graciously but firmly. If a proposed agenda item is not “ripe” for productive discussions, have it postponed. If the item will provide little or no value, question the need for it or drop it from the agenda altogether. If it must be included, allocate as little time as possible to it. Make sure to explain to the proponent why you are not including the item on the agenda.
5. How should time be treated? Time is precious and busy participants who disrupt their schedules to attend a meeting deserve better than to have it squandered. With this in mind, the agenda should have a realistic timeline. An opening time (and do start on time), a projected closing time and a few interim milestones to help measure progress. At the meeting itself, monitor the clock and give members timely reminders of progress. For example: “It is 9:20 and we have 10 minutes left before moving to agenda item six.”
6. How can domination be avoided? It is common in meetings to have 10 per cent of the members take up 90 per cent of the time, not out of malice, but because of the lack of an effort to “even the playing field” and give members equal opportunities to speak. This means quieter members and their valuable insights are often not taken into account and the quality of the decisions suffers. To add value to discussions, prevent domination and engage the quiet members. For example: “Thank you Ron and Judy. Does anyone who has not spoken have something to add?” or “Bill, you have unique expertise in this area. Can you help us out?”
7. How can digressions be avoided? Frequently, members digress from the core issues and discuss side issues or unrelated matters. You need to interject, graciously but firmly: “Just as a reminder, the key question we’re addressing right now is…can we please stay focused?” or “How is this discussion related to the issue of X. Can we please get back to the agenda?” Staying on track will increase the likelihood that the meeting will deliver the value that members expect and the organization deserves.
Good planning and effective management of meetings will make them more valuable and deliver credible and durable collective decisions. Members will leave meetings with a sense of accomplishment, optimism, enthusiasm and renewed commitment to the organization. Instead of looking for excuses to avoid the next meeting, they will not want to miss it for the world.
Eli Mina is a Vancouver-based meeting facilitator. He can be reached at (604) 730-0377 or email@example.com. He is the author of The Complete Handbook of Business Meetings (published by the American Management Association), highlights of which can be viewed at www.elimina.com.