Been in any meetings recently? Who hasn’t? Most of us feel we spend far too much time in meetings; much of it wasted.
Meetings have the potential to be the most inefficient and costly means ever designed for communication. Sadly, they often live down to their potential. They take forever, lack structure or process, the wrong people attend, some always arrive late, some people dominate the discussion to get their own viewpoint across and those who may have valuable contributions don’t get a word in.
There are lots of pointed fingers, raised voices and interrupting. At any time, one-third of the meeting doesn’t know what is being discussed; one-third does know but has lost interest in the outcome; and argument rages amongst the rest, whose only decision may be to set a date to start talking all over again – because some of them have to leave for another meeting.
Afterwards, no-one remembers what was agreed, let alone discussed, and those who don’t have another meeting to attend, escape to their desks and some real work with a sigh of relief. Sound familiar?
It doesn’t have to be like this! Use the ten tips below to run meetings where you:
- save time and money
- make better decisions
- ensure commitment to action.
- Meet with the right people
How many times have you attended meetings where the wrong people were present and the right people were missing? Scrutinise the people who attend your meetings. Be clear on what you expect from each one; then make it clear to them. You might have smaller meetings but you will get much more done!
- Start on time
People learn very quickly whether your meetings start on time, or if they don’t. Announce that in future your meetings will start exactly on time, and make sure they do. If there are latecomers do not backtrack. Instead, ask them to respect the starting time. If that doesn’t work, tell everyone that you will start the next meeting on time and when you do, you will lock the door. Most people only have to be locked out once to learn the lesson!
- Set ground rules
Different types of meeting need to function differently to meet their objectives. You do not run a brainstorming session in the same way you gather data on the causes of a problem. Make the purpose of the discussion clear, then set ground rules that will help achieve that purpose. For example, if you are gathering data, a useful ground rule is that everyone with input will be heard before possible actions are put forward. If you make ground rules explicit, people know how they should behave.
- Appoint a gatekeeper
A gatekeeper makes sure that time is allocated to the important issues, not merely the most topical or personally relevant to someone with a loud voice. The gatekeeper has three responsibilities.
- Agree the agenda with the chairperson of the meeting
- Agree priorities and time allocation for each topic
- During the meeting, signal the chairperson on how time is progressing
The gatekeeper can be anyone with some personal discipline and a timepiece! Meetings with effective gatekeeping allocate appropriate time to important topics and free up the chairperson to manage the content of the discussion.
- Write it down, take minutes in the meeting!
During a meeting, make notes or appoint a note taker beforehand. Get the note taker to bring their laptop into the meeting and take the minutes as you, the meeting chairman, direct – usually all you need are brief notes on the key points of discussion, actions agreed and the people responsible (i.e. what, by who, by when). When the meeting is finished, get the note taker to email these minutes to everyone attending, copy everybody who needs to know, immediately!! Technology exists to do these tasks easily – why not use it?! At a follow-on meeting, start with the last meeting’s minutes’ action list to ensure continuity and accountability.
- Stick to the point
Meetings that lose focus are time-consuming, frustrating and seldom achieve their purpose. Use paraphrasing behaviour to keep people on track. There are four steps. First, listen carefully so you understand what is being said. Secondly, interject: for example “Let me check we’ve all understood”. Thirdly, paraphrase the essence of what was said. Once you have regained control of the conversation, you can redirect it as necessary. If you use this one behaviour to maintain focus in a meeting, you can achieve twice as much in half the time.
- Hear from everyone
If you have the right people at the meeting, make sure you hear what they all have to say. Avoid having a few people dominate the discussion by using names and gestures to invite specific people to speak. Be equally specific in asking others to stay quiet and listen to the contributions.
- Keep it clear
Summarise as you go along. It keeps the conversation on track and ensures that everyone is clear about what has been said. As the meeting progresses, summarising helps you build up “small yes’s” of understanding and commitment that you can consolidate at the end of the discussion.
- Look backwards and forwards
There is a great difference between collecting information about an issue and deciding what to do about the same issue going forward. For data collection use questions that seek information. To find solutions, use questions that ask for ideas for action. Meetings often get stuck in the asking for and giving of information, without getting to action. It’s more comfortable, everyone has their say, but it doesn’t achieve much.
- Build quality solutions
Don’t let meetings degenerate into a win-lose fight. It happens when several ideas are put on the table and participants defend their own until one wins. The winner, who probably has the loudest voice, takes all, even though the idea may not be the best. The losers are unlikely to have any commitment to the idea and so implementation will be unsuccessful, at which point the whole process starts over. Encourage people to listen to and build onto the ideas of each other so you get commitment to better quality solutions.
Acknowledgement for this article to Maureen Collins, who first published it on www.straight-talk.co.za.