Meetings-Are Yours Magic or Mucky?


Meeting Magic or Misery

By Dr. Tony Alessandra

Do you approach a business meeting expecting just another annoying waste of time?  Do you walk away from it wondering why you wasted your time?  If so, you know first hand how frustrating inefficient meetings are.  Most managers spend 25-30% of their time in meetings and studies show that the average cost of a meeting runs over $1,000.  Since it’s rare for most organizations to have a meeting-free day, the total cost of meetings quickly adds up to a major expense.

Meetings are currently the most expensive communication activity in the business world — more costly than word processing, computers, paperwork, or multitudes of phone calls.  Consider the salaries of those in attendance, preparation costs, travel expenses, and the price of materials, facilities, and equipment used during the meeting.  Even if an organization conducted only two meetings a week, the total annual cost for those gatherings would run well over $104,000.

Perhaps even more costly than the loss of time and money is the reduced morale that happens when people are forced to sit through boring, poorly planned and conducted meetings.  When unproductive meetings occur regularly, people with demanding schedules begin to avoid attending.  Yet, these are the very individuals whose participation may be most important.

The primary reason meetings don’t accomplish their objectives is lack of advance planning and preparation.  Even though executives spend a significant portion of their time in meetings, studies show that 78% have never received training on how to plan, organize and conduct a meeting.

When meetings are well-managed, they are an effective and essential tool for communication within the organization.  Important decisions are made, ideas are generated, and information is shared.   Meetings are a critical part of team building and, as team spirit grows, the company benefits as the group’s ability to work together and make decisions grows.

There are six basic functions that meetings perform better than any other communication technique:

Share knowledge — meetings provide a forum where individual information and experience can be pooled. The group revises, updates and adds to what it knows collectively.

Establish common goals — meetings help every member of the team understand the goals and objectives of the group and how his individual efforts will affect those objectives.

Gain commitment — meetings gain consensus on decisions and foster commitment.  An agreement and sense of responsibility to implement and support the decisions is created.

Provide group identity — meetings define the team.  Those present belong to the team, those absent do not. Attendees develop a sense of collective identity.

Team interaction — meetings are often the only occasion where the group works as a team.

Status arena — meetings give group members a chance to determine their relative status.

You may not achieve any of these functions at any one specific meeting but if none of these functions are important to you, you may want to choose a different, less expensive, communication method.

Guidelines for Effective Meetings

The fundamentals of successful meetings are not complicated or difficult to follow.  Even so, meetings that are tedious and unproductive are evidence that these guidelines are being overlooked.

Here are the basics for a productive meeting:

1.  Need.  Hold only those meetings for which there is a demonstrated       need.  Weekly status updates require a meeting only when five or more people need the information.  You can speak to three or four people individually and save a lot of time.  Regularly scheduled staff meetings may not be necessary if you have a small staff and have opportunity for frequent interaction.  Meetings are ideal when you need to solve problems that are complex or affect many people, exchange technical information, or explain a complex policy, procedure or situation.

2.  Purpose.  Every meeting must have specific, stated objectives and a broad purpose.  Attendees need to know the meeting topics beforehand, in writing, so that they can come prepared.

3.  Attendees. Invite only attendees who can contribute or who have a serious need to know.  The more people who attend a meeting, the longer it will take to accomplish your objectives.  The ideal size for a working meeting is 5-7 people.

4.  Agenda.  Agendas are an absolute must for every meeting.  While having an agenda is the most critical element of effective meeting management, 75% of all meetings have no pre-planned agenda. If possible, distribute the agenda 48 to 72 hours prior to the session.  Use an agenda even for last-minute meetings.  The meeting leader can write an agenda on a flipchart or whiteboard or the agenda can be developed with the attendees as the first action of the group.

Agendas not only help the attendees come prepared, they force the meeting        leader to organize his thoughts and priorities.  A good agenda addresses       issues in order of importance and allocates time to each issue.

5.  Choose a good meeting place. The room should offer proper ventilation, comfort, accessibility, and the necessary equipment.  It should also be free from distractions and interruptions.

6.  Start and end on time.  Meetings should begin and end punctually.  This sends a message to participants that their time is respected and that they are expected to respect the meeting time.  You might consider beginning the meeting with an uncomplicated activity, so that those who still arrive late can catch up.  Avoid “recapping” for late comers.

7.  Stick to the agenda.  Although you want to encourage participation,    new issues should be noted and held over for a later meeting.  If you let        the meeting get sidetracked, you will have difficulty meeting the goals and    objectives established.  If critical issues arise which prevent resolution on an agenda item, they can be noted and that item can be rescheduled for a later meeting.  If a new item is so critical that it needs immediate attention, poll the attendees for an agreement to address it at the current meeting.  The agenda is a contract with the attendees; it should not be changed without their concurrence.

8.  Encourage participation.  Attendees should feel comfortable enough to         offer opinions or suggestions openly.

9.  Maintain a balanced, controlled discussion.  Support members in expressing their opinions, even on volatile, highly charged issues, but discourage arguments.  Do not let any one person dominate the meeting.

10.  Summarize and distribute minutes.  Recap the decisions and any actions planned as a result of the meeting to make sure that everyone is in accord on the proposed action details:  who is to do what and when.  Make sure that each attendee receives written minutes no later than two days following the meeting.

You can help ensure consistently productive meetings by following a meeting policy based on the above.  A succinct one-page set of guidelines should be printed, distributed, and most importantly, followed.  The easiest way to encourage the adoption of these guidelines is to demonstrate them.  As people see the effectiveness of meetings increase as a result of following the guidelines, they will begin to implement them also.

Have you been to a meeting like this?