In our popular culture, meetings, along with TV, root canals and commuters talking loudly on cell phones in the bus station, are easy objects of our derision and ridicule. We've all heard it; some of us may have said it:
"Meetings! Hummph. I don't have time for meetings. Maybe you guys can sit around and navel gaze, but I have some REAL WORK TO DO!"
As easy as it may be to climb aboard this righteous bandwagon and sing along, let us suggest another viewpoint:
Meetings are essential to every organization. Knowing how to set them up and manage them efficiently are the keys to using meetings to your advantage.
We realize that much of corporate America regards meetings as drudgery, inefficient, bureaucratic and a waste of time. In many cases, those objections may be correct. We've certainly sat through our share of ill-conceived and sloppily run meetings -- a few even we were guilty of coordinating.
At the same time, we've conducted and attended hundreds of meetings that had a clear purpose, well-communicated expectations, sound leadership and proper follow-through.
Well-run meetings can be immensely satisfying and can provide a team a bond and a clarity of goals not achievable otherwise.
Email, video and telephonic conferencing, smart phones and other technologies have provided us many new ways to stay informed, to collaborate with our teams, to make decisions quickly and keep our fingers on the pulse of our businesses.
But certain processes require face-to-face interaction. Our challenge is to know the difference.
Meetings have various purposes, and matching the process with the purpose is a first key to efficiency.
Meetings can be held in order to:
1. Kick off a project.
2. Set goals.
3. Communicate critical information not easily handled otherwise.
4. Identify and solve problems.
5. Report on project progress and redirect if necessary.
6. Analyze results after a project's completion.
7. Provide a regular venue for key stakeholders in an organization.
8. Build trust and teamwork.
9. Move fast as a team and avoid missteps.
Meetings can have a number of approaches to decision-making or communicating information. As the leader, you will need to decide which approach you want and then, most importantly, communicate it to the meeting participants.
Omitting this step will confirm your team's frustration and confusion. Have you heard these kinds of comments before?
"We sat in there for an hour discussing this and never made a decision!"
(Maybe it wasn't intended the group would decide, but the leader forgot to tell you.)
"Karen always just tells us what's going to happen and never asks us about it."
(Why did you expect otherwise? Did Karen omit specifying what the process was?)
"I'm the marketing guy. What do I need to listen to what sales is doing?"
(We shouldn't need to comment on this one, but the meeting leader needs to make sure every attendee understands why they are present.)
"Why can't James just make a decision and tell us what to do? He owns the place after all?"
(Maybe James wants you to develop some perspective and responsibility, but you shouldn't need to guess.)
Some meetings are merely ways to communicate essential information to a team. No decision-making is required:
"We would like everyone to meet in the conference room at 2 p.m. Friday so we can explain the new health plan and answer your questions."
This is common. In this case, there is a very sound reason for communicating the new health plan information in person versus a memo or e-mail: Answers to one person's questions will benefit the whole group.
But when decision-making is involved, you are faced with choices about process and participation. Will your meeting be on the autocratic end of the decision-making spectrum or the democratic end? Or will it be in the middle somewhere as a collaborative or participatory process?
Democratic Participatory/Collaborative Autocratic
1. Autocratic: Leader runs the meeting, disseminates information and takes little to no feedback. This can be essential at times, especially during radical change or emergencies:
a. "OK, folks, here's the deal. We have very little time and this is exactly what we need to do. Roger, you…."
2. Collaborative: Leader facilitates discussion or brainstorming to make a plan or solve a problem. Decision-making options:
a. "We'll take your ideas and then the three of us on the management team will make a decision and let you know by tomorrow.
b. "I want to hear everyone's perspective on the problem, but to be clear, I'll make the final decision about a solution."
c. "Let's analyze this until noon and then decide as a group which way to go."
d. "John, Anne and Linda have been working on the upcoming promotion as a project team and they'll report to us on their recommendations, then we will discuss how to proceed."
3. Democratic: The group makes all decisions by either a majority vote or consensus. A business co-operative might employ these methods as the result of their charter. In your business, there may be times you feel comfortable letting your staff make a decision:
a. "Good news. We have a thousand dollars left from the recycling fund and we want to have you decide if you want to put in a treadmill or upgrade the shower or donate the funds to Habitat for Humanity."
Once again, communicating what the meeting goal is and what the decision-making process will be can help ensure the strength and buy-in from your team.
Let's look at a few examples, pairing the various elements together:
Goal: Plan for the May Sale Event: Assign teams, finalize budget, build GANTT chart/project calendar.
Participants: Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, President
Process: Brainstorm session, participatory discussion
Decision-making: President has final decision, but will follow the team's suggestions as much as possible.
Goal: De-Brief the May Sale Event.
Participants: Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, President
Process: Brainstorm session, participatory discussion.
Decision-making: None. Input session only to capture notes for next year.
Goal: Communicate re-organization of company, new assignments.
Participants: All team leaders
Process: President will explain new roles and responsibilities.
Decision-making process: None
Following are two sets of meeting guidelines, one for leaders and one for participants:
Meeting Leaders Guidelines
1. Decide the goal of your meeting.
2. Decide the decision-making process you want.
3. Select the proper participants. Attendees should "need to know" or have valuable input for a meeting.
4. Notify attendees well in advance to assure their availability. Sometimes a "last-minute meeting" is unavoidable. But letting yourself "manage by crisis" regularly will communicate to your staff that they and their regular duties are not important.
5. Create an agenda with time allocated for each topic.
6. Stick to it. People will respect your meetings if you respect their time.
7. Keep the discussion on task. Allow time for discussion and new ideas, but hold onto the reins.
8. Take minutes and provide them to participants. Our memories are frail and good minutes easily resolve disputes over what was said.
9. If there are takeaways or tasks assigned to individuals or groups, be very clear about those details, what is expected and when;
a. Minutes: Marketing group will report back next week by Wednesday at noon on costs for the three newspaper ad options.
10. Periodically reconsider the effectiveness of any recurring meeting. Many lose their raison d'etre over time.
Meeting Attendees Guidelines
1. If you are included in a meeting, assume your presence and participation are important to the process. If this is not clear, ask for an explanation.
2. Arrive on time. Calculate the hourly rate of the meeting attendees sitting around waiting for you to see if being 15 minutes late is "really a big deal" or not. Being on time shows respect.
3. Turn off your phone or PDA. Arrange to not be interrupted during the meeting. And yes, we shouldn't have to say this, but glancing at your Blackberry or Treo during a meeting is, frankly, rude!
4. Listen while others speak. See No. 3 above. If you are listening to your phone or looking at it, you are not listening to others speak.
5. One speaker at a time. If you are trying to always jump in or are thinking about your response while the other person is talking, you are not listening or letting others speak.
6. Stick to the issue when you speak. Get to the point.
7. If conflicts arise, keep it professional versus personal. Courtesy and respect for each other will prevail
8. Take your own notes, especially when decisions or assignments pertain to you.
Running a good meeting takes practice, for the leader as well as the participants. Watching a well-honed team work in a meeting, where team members are familiar with one another and understand the ground rules can be a thing of beauty. Structure and discipline can become second nature and it may look as if folks are chatting and having fun. But what can be accomplished in 30 minutes or an hour in a well-run meeting is part of the organizational strength of your company.
This article launches a new Business 101 Training series produced by SNEWS® and authored by Geoff O'Keeffe and Michael Hodgson. Geoff O'Keeffe has held retail senior management positions at Granite Stairway Mountaineering, Adventure 16, Patagonia and PlanetOutdoors.com, as well as having served as president of Lowe Alpine Systems USA and Mountainsmith. He is currently the president of Slumberjack, and lives in the mountains above Boulder, Colo., where he is a fourth-generation resident. SNEWS® co-owner and president Michael Hodgson, in a former life, was a manager for five years with Adventure 16 and the general manager overseeing a team of buyers and store managers for three years at Western Mountaineering. In those roles, he learned the immense value of skilled, well-trained and very nimble teams to achieve business success.