"Many thanks for your outstanding contribution at our Annual Meeting. You faced a demanding audience and you performed with distinction." —Walter G. Shnee III, President, Million Dollar Round Table


Meeting Mania

"We have the most ineffective meetings of any company I've ever seen." "We have so many meetings, but no decisions ever get made." "We just seem to meet and meet and meet, and we never seem to do anything." If these echo your feelings, your organization is caught in the meeting mania trap. This is a common lament. Fortunately, there are some relatively easy steps that you can take to transform meetings from time gobblers to work enhancers.

Performance Boosters

Use an agenda. Agendas allow the leader to determine whether there is a sufficient cause for calling the group together. Agendas force some degree of planning, and inhibit the "meeting because it is Tuesday and we have always met on Tuesdays" syndrome. When distributed in advance, they give participants enough time to prepare and bring quality thoughts, and suggestions to the table. This is particularly important for people who like to cogitate before speaking, and whose personal communication style is different from the shoot-from-the-hip, rough-and-tumble, let's-all-talk-at-once style.

Start and end on time. Develop a reputation for promptness. The problem with starting late is that it punishes those who did arrive on time. Do not recap for latecomers. By taking extra time to rehash what has gone before, in effect you remove the incentive for people to be on time. Stop when you say you will, and if business is unfinished, calendar it for the next meeting or ask permission to extend for a specific amount of time. Remember, participants often have other commitments scheduled for after the meeting.

Digression vs. Discussion

There are many kinds of meetings, from extremely formal using parliamentary procedure, to completely informal, with four people getting together to "chat about things." No matter what kind of meeting you call or attend, the objective must be accomplished. A common complaint is that too much time is lost when conversations go off onto tangential issues. Often the tangent is simply a digression, but what to do when the tangent is an important item that needs to be discussed? In those cases, remember that it is still a tangential item to the regular agenda, and you are now at a decision point. Do you want to change the focus and modify the agenda to include the new item, or should it be held and brought up at the next meeting? It is the leader's responsibility to call attention to these situations promptly and ensure that a decision gets made.

In most groups of people, particularly in these ever more diverse workplaces, there will be different personal interactive styles. Some are quieter than others. It is easy for outgoing, talkative people to dominate meetings, and often unintentionally exclude the quieter members. If the meeting is called to gather ideas from everyone, it becomes very important that all participate in one way or another.

Be alert to the interaction in the room. (Periodically invite comments from those you have not heard from.) Similar to an officer directing traffic, the leader needs to stop one stream of cars to let the other cross. Ask talkers to hold that thought for just a moment, and call on someone else to speak. When transitioning to new items, allow silence in the room for a few moments before moving on to the next.

For those who are uncomfortable with participating in larger groups, distributing an agenda in advance gives them an opportunity to provide comments and feedback privately, via email or memo, or in some other manner. Quietness can sometimes be reflective of personal style, a discomfort of speaking in groups, a sore throat, or simply of not having anything cogent to say. Be sure that you encourage a response in every way, but do not force a response.

Happy Endings

There is nothing so frustrating as sitting in a meeting where you discuss a decision that had been made in an earlier meeting, but that nobody remembers. Going repeatedly over old ground is common in cases where meetings do not really end. People may leave, but there is no process for capturing decisions. A good way to conclude a meeting is for the leader to summarize agreements, repeat assignments and responsibilities, and state what the next agenda items are going to be. If this can be followed up with a brief written memo and distributed to those in the meeting as well as to others who may be interested, decisions and deadlines are less likely to be missed. If keeping the decisions and action steps mentally is difficult, try jotting notes throughout the meeting. This makes summarizing quick and painless.

So much business is taken care of via meetings that knowing how to run one and participate well in one will go a long way to helping you and your team succeed.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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