In a July 2012 Forbes article, Erika Andersen explores why people continue to tolerate “bad” meetings. She goes on to say that if employees only understood the expense involved, they would see the bottom-line importance of improving each and every meeting they attend. She uses this comparison: “I’ll bet you anything if the leader of the rambling, unfocused meeting my friend described was paying a lawyer $500 or $800 an hour, he or she would go into each conversation with that lawyer pretty clear: here’s what we’re talking about, here’s what I hope to accomplish, and here’s what I expect from you. And a team meeting is hugely more costly per hour than that – it makes sense to be at least as clear.”
If you want to get a return on your meeting investment, consider putting a few of these baker’s dozen ideas to practice before the close of 2012:
1. Decide on the purpose of the meeting before you meet. Lencioni’s Death by Meetings suggests you begin by asking what type of meeting you want to have. He suggests you keep it simple and use these four types: daily check-in, weekly tactical, monthly strategic and quarterly off-site review.
The purpose of the daily check-in is to share daily tasks and activities and should be 5-10 minutes long, informal and for whoever can be there. The purpose of the weekly tactical is to review weekly activities and metrics, and resolve tactical obstacles and issues; meet for 45-90 minutes, and revise agenda as issues are surfaced. The purpose of the monthly strategic meeting is to discuss, analyze, brainstorm and decide upon critical issues affecting the long-term success and should be two to four hours in length. Finally, the 2-day off-site quarterly review meeting should review strategy, competitive landscape, industry trends, key personnel and team development.
2. Avoid “information sharing” as a meeting purpose. Make people accountable for reading information that is shared or is readily available, and also being aware of what’s happening in other departments in the organization. Look instead to focus meetings on planning, problem solving, advancing the thinking on a topic, and decision making.
3. Share information, data and background materials via e-mail well ahead of the meeting. Also include questions to think about to help Introverts prepare and feel comfortable participating in the meeting.
4. Have shorter, more frequent meetings. Research suggests that the most productive meetings take less than an hour. That’s easy if you limit meetings to one purpose with a few agenda items.
5. Make it everyone’s job to help the facilitator stick to the purpose. Strive to engage all attendees in the meeting’s success. Discourage complaining and back-biting and encourage problem solving and assertiveness.
6. Craft and use an agenda that gets to the purpose. If there is one tip that you see in every article about meetings, it is the use of an agenda. But still, many meetings don’t have them; research indicates that only 25% of meetings use agendas and distribute them in advance. Agendas come in many different forms; experiment and find one that best fits your organizational culture.
7. Limit the agenda to a few items that you know can be accomplished within the time period. Participants feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when a meeting successfully does what it set out to do. Attendees will also be more willing to come to the next meeting if they “feel good” about the last one.
8. Include a goal or outcome for each agenda item so meeting participants are clear what is to be accomplished at the end of the time period. Help your attendees to stay focused by putting clear boundaries around the discussion in order to meet the objectives of each item within the meeting. If the facilitator is confused about where the group is going with an agenda item, how can you expect the attendees to stay on topic?
9. Use a timekeeper to help you stay on time. Only 5-10% of meetings budget time for each agenda item. Again, more boundary setting. Certain personalities that like to brainstorm and explore ideas and options may resist limits on discussion time. However, without limits, I can almost guarantee that conversation around a topic will not stay on track and the group won’t meet the goal.
10. Invite only the critical people needed to get things done. Apple was probably best known for the “small meeting” rule. In a Fast Company article on what they learned from Steve Jobs, Ken Segall comments, “Everyone in the room should be there for a reason. There’s no such thing as a “mercy invitation.” Either you’re critical to the meeting or you’re not. It’s nothing personal, just business.”
11. Encourage participants to comment on ideas from a place of “data” rather than likeability. Individuals have their own preferences for what they “like” or “dislike” but they may not represent what is proven by research to work. Get people to do their homework and focus more on what is tried-and-true and has some research behind it. As Deming says, “In God we trust, all others bring data.”
12. Consider using Google’s “micro-meetings” idea for smaller meetings. Limit the meeting to 10 minutes to discuss one topic with a few key individuals and see how quickly things move to action.
13. Have clear action items coming out of the meeting and next steps. Research shows that less than 30% of decisions are recorded correctly and distributed after the meeting. After all, meetings are all about getting something done. Make sure everyone gets notes from the meeting and is clear about who is doing what by when.
With all this in mind, I’ve been training on Meeting Effectiveness long enough to know that meeting structure and purpose are components of an organization’s culture. I’ve seen plenty of companies that know that their meetings are broken, but just can’t seem to break the cultural norms needed to make them better. So if you find yourself in this environment, I encourage you to start a “groundswell” movement in your own meetings with one caution: make very small changes at first that will yield a substantial reward. Then, watch and wait, and see if others don’t follow your suit.