I’ve had a fair number of discussions of late, about meetings and how, for some, they are a major irritation or a time and energy waster. Would you know if you had a problem with meetings in your workplace? Try the following quiz. When you tell your colleagues or staff you want them to attend a meeting, do they (a) groan loudly (b) collectively eye-roll (c) smile cynically (d) frantically find excuses (e) express the view that meetings are a waste of time?

And as an experienced meeting goer, have you experienced meetings that (a) go on endlessly (b) cover same issues, every time (c) are dominated by a vocal minority (d) begin imperceptibly and fade to a limp finish (e) are free-flow, no agenda affairs (f) get diverted into unrelated topics (g) have the most time spent on minor issues and little time on the big ones (h) have no system to record proceedings (i) have unprepared participants (j) mix information sharing and decision making together so it’s difficult to identify which is which?

If you have identified your reality in the above, all is not lost. You are experiencing ‘meeting distress’ symptoms caused by a lack of structure and ground rules. The symptoms can be easily eliminated, if the core problems are fixed. Try the following ten tips and see if the situation improves.

Ensure the meeting is essential. It may sound a little obvious, but before you gather the cast of hundreds, check whether a meeting is the best way to get the outcome you require. Can it be done another way?

Set an agenda. It’s often said that if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know where you’ve been. The same can be said about meetings without agendas. Agendas should record the topics to be covered and be ordered to ensure that all the issues will be covered appropriately. It’s a way of ensuring that big issues aren’t thrown in at the meeting’s end, with an expectation that they will be covered in the last five minutes, nor that most of the meeting will be spent on minors.

Begin with the end in mind. This means beginning the meeting by stating what its purpose is and what is wanted at the end of it. This way, any confusion is eliminated immediately at the start and people’s minds can be immediately focussed on the task in hand.

Facilitate. Meetings need to be facilitated to ensure the issues are covered in the time available. Good facilitation ensures the agenda is followed; every participant contributes; the meetings start and finish on time; the issues are summarised throughout the discussions; decisions are made; concerns are aired and addressed; the meeting is documented appropriately; appropriate amounts of time are spent on the agenda items; and at the end of the meeting, the decisions made are recapped.

Develop meeting ground rules. These aren’t designed to be oppressive and controlling but rather a way of setting up meetings so that they can be productive, effective and enjoyable experiences. Common ground rules include basic courtesies such as one person speaking at a time; acknowledging people’s comments; use of ‘I’ statements; arriving on time; giving advance apologies for non-attendance and so on. Develop the ground rules to suit your business and to counter any problems or irritations previously experienced.

Set time frames. Chances are that if you expect a meeting to take forever it will, and if you only have an hour, you’ll be amazed at what is covered during that time. Set beginning and finish times and stick to them. To assist setting time limits, determine how much it costs your business to have numbers of people in meetings, for hours on end. You may be surprised. It is as much in your interest to ensure meetings are as focussed and effective as possible, as it is to ensure your staff are able to get on with their other daily activities and responsibilities.

Document meeting/outcomes. You may not need comprehensive minutes of the ‘you said this and I said that’ variety, so simple systems can be developed. For example, a sheet can record the topic, the decisions made, who is responsible for a particular task(s), the timeframe to complete something by. The sheet can also contain an area for information sharing only, so that information giving and decision making issues can be separated.

Ask people to come prepared. It’s time wasting in the extreme if participants wing it at meetings by not knowing what the meeting is about; by coming unprepared or spending the meeting time reading relevant material and thereby missing discussions. To help people prepare, give them adequate notice of the meeting. Send out the material to be discussed and tell people what you want them to come with. For example, you can ask people to ‘analyse the report, identify the two best options and be prepared to discuss your analysis with the group’.

Ask for full participation.
Having people physically around the table but mentally absent from the proceedings isn’t the best practice. Discuss with your staff or colleagues what you want and expect from them in meetings. If in the meetings you find people not participating, ask them specifically for their views. In private, later, you may want to talk to them to find if there are any barriers that stop their active participation.

Ask participants how meetings can be improved. You and your staff are experienced meeting goers and know what works well and less well in yours and others’ meetings. Ask participants how your meetings could be improved and enhanced.

Meeting attendance is a feature of organisational life and getting the best out of them is the constant challenge for us all. Recognise the meeting ingredients that work well and identify the factors that waste time, energy and goodwill. Then do something about them. How can you begin this today?

November 2000

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