Monday, September 14, 2009

4 Ways to Make Meetings Better

If you look up the term "necessary evil," you'll probably find a photograph of a bunch of people in a meeting.

I don't know of anyone who loves meetings, but most everyone will say they're vital to getting work done. And yet, they seem to have gotten even more off-track these days, perhaps because many of us have taken over more job duties -- even though there are the same number of hours in a day.

Recently I looked into the issue of meetings, some pet peeves of those attending and how the whole "necessary evil" could be made well, less evil. Here's the column I wrote for Gannett on the subject:

In the last seven years, Phil Gerbyshak figures he has spent three to five hours a day every work day in a meeting. Of that time, he figures 25 percent of that time was well spent.

“Doing business face-to-face is so important, but we’re always waiting for people, or we start meetings late or there’s all this personal chat and sidebar conversations,” says Gerbyshak, vice president for a financial services company in Milwaukee. “I’m always sitting there thinking about all the things my team could be doing instead of wasting so much time.”

Meetings have always been the bane of any workplace, but with a leaner workforce now being asked to take on more tasks, the time spent in meetings is even more precious to time-strapped workers. At the same time, workers don’t want to miss the important “face time” with bosses that meetings can give them, especially when they need a strong connection to the boss to hang onto their jobs.

Bill Lampton, a motivational speaker and communications coach in Atlanta, says he gets “enraged” when a committee chair says the meeting attendees need to wait “for a couple of important members who are not here yet.”

“Strange, but I thought I was an important member myself,” Lampton says. “Imagine that twelve people wait ten minutes for the late arrivals. That's 120 minutes, or two hours totally wasted.”

Mike Song, a productivity speaker, says many meeting problems could be solved with a few tweaks.

“When you schedule meetings back to back, you’re going to have meeting dominoes. One runs late, and then that throws all of them off. Instead of scheduling them to last 60 minutes, you schedule them to last 50 minutes, and that gives you time to get to the next one,” he says.

Gerbyshak says meetings often bog down when agendas are misplaced, which Song says can be solved by sending agendas electronically so that it can be easily accessed via a laptop or Blackberry or iPhone when needed. “Now the agenda is strapped to your hip,” Song says. “No more waiting around.”

Lampton says he wishes more meeting chairs would stop meetings from stretching out to “ghastly limits” by allowing “motormouths” to ramble on and on. Song says he calls these people “Ted Tangents” who need to be put on the spot by the chair noting that the speaker has moved off topic.

“Then, he asks Ted Tangent, ‘Is this topic more urgent or important?’ than what is on the agenda?” Song says. “Nine out of 10 times it’s not more important, and Ted starts to realize he’s going off into la-la land.”

In a new book with Vicki Halsey and Tim Burress called “The Hamster Revolution for Meetings: How to Meet Less and Get More Done,” (Berrett-Koehler, $19.95), Song gives some other tips for meetings:

• Have a meeting objective. “This is what we call an ‘objenda’. You might say you want to increase sales 22 percent,” he says. “But you want it to be specific, and action-oriented.”
• Be early. “Five minutes early should be the new on time,” Song says. “If you try and be on time, something is always going to delay you like traffic or a phone call. Most people are late because they plan to be on time. Make being early part of your team brand.” He suggests making it clear that key information will be covered first, and tardiness is unacceptable.
• Use more mini-meetings. Sometimes a five- or 10-minute meeting is all that is needed. Hold it standing up to enforce the time limit.
• Nail it down. If a follow-up meeting is needed, don’t adjourn until a specific date and time is selected for it. This helps avoid endless telephone calls or e-mails at a later date trying to get participants to agree on a time.

While Gerbyshak is an avid social media user, he says he believes that the medium isn’t the “be all and end all” of communication. “You’ve still got to have face-to-face meetings to get business done,” he says. “Those discussions are critical.”



Anita Santiago said...

As a former Toastmaster, I really appreciate this article. Many people don't realize the important of effective and efficient meetings. There's nothing worse than feeling like your time wasn't well spent. Thanks for addressing this critical workplace issue.

Anita said...

At a time when employers are so worried about engaging workers and keeping morale up, perhaps they should start with revamping the way they run meetings. As you said, there's no worse feeling than knowing your time is being frittered away by others.

Ian said...

Good post,
Mini meetings are great for those items that concern a few people in the meeting.

One of the worst meeting I had a long time ago was a IT proj status meeting where we 30 people in meeting running an extra hour. The lead & 2 other people talked about the 3 color to use on a bar graph for 20 mins.

My #1 question I ask myself when I book/host a meeting is: Am I wasting their time?


Anita said...

I love that question: "Am I wasting their time?" The only way to know that for sure is to understand what other people need from you, and how you can contribute to helping them do their jobs better. By asking that question, you're making yourself a key team player, and that's critical in this tough job market. Thanks so much for sharing.

Al said...

I found the best way to hold short and effective meetings is to change from the "standard" morning meetings to late day meetings.

Our daily scheduled 9 AM 1 hr Global Project roll out Status Meeting frequently could and would lengthen out to a couple of hours or more. With 15-20 people attending from multiple departments, a lot of productive hours were being lost.

I changed to daily Status Meeting to 4 PM and the same information was then covered in 30-45 minutes! When it is close to going home time, people get real efficient and effective. Our 2 year roll out project was completed without incident and several months ahead of schedule.

Another benefit was no problem in reserving a conference room at that time of day!