Make your meetings more productive and rewarding.
A good friend faxed me the one page commentary on meetings last week. It provided a bright spot on a rainy fall day. But it started me thinking, In the September and October issues we discussed time management. Meetings, too, but peripherally. Let's zero in now on the "90s greatest potential time waster.
It's serious! A survey of 2,000 business people indicates that managers are spending more time in meetings than five years ago. Some estimated that 70 percent of their time was spent in meetings of one sort or another. And that doesn't include preparation time, post-meetings analysis and reports and scheduling new meetings.
These same harassed people were convinced that a third of these meetings were unproductive, an estimated $37 billion a year in lost time.
But we all agree that meetings are essential elements in effective communication. The trick is to organize in such a way that your meetings become an environment where useful ideas, solutions, revelations are exchanged. It's the mix, the people, the time, the place, the preparation, the leadership.
According to Clyde Burleson, like myself a former Inter Public Group executive, the simple but vital mandate is Know What You Want From Your Meeting.
Ask yourself if the meeting is truly necessary. Furniture retailers are faced with "inescapables". Regular sales training meetings, visits of manufacturers' representatives, consultations with bankers, media, partners and internal staff are the retailers' way of life.
For those meetings which can be precisely scheduled, make sure that all potential participants are well informed about the location, time and the topics to be covered. You don't want half your people straggling in saying, "I wasn't sure where we were to meet," or "I thought you said it was to be at 3:00 o'clock, not 2:00!" Circulate a reminder memo, leave messages on individual phonemail systems, post the reminder on the bulletin boards in the lunchroom and the general office. If there are notes or minutes from previous meetings, circulate them well in advance. And make sure there's an agenda attached so no one, like the plumber, leaves her/his tools behind!
Your agenda is a focusing device designed to direct the attention of the participants to the purpose of the meeting. It should limit discussion to specific items and not permit side issues to rear their ugly little heads. It's a kind of mutual commitment to stick to the point(s). And it's a leadership tool to keep the troops directed, targeted. Having said all that, keep it simple, easy to understand. Even the agenda for the most formal of Board meetings can be stated in words of one syllable, structured so there's no room for doubt.
Perhaps the first duty of the meeting leader is to ensure that all attendees participate in such a way that the objective can be achieved. If there are new people in the group, see to it they are introduced before the meeting is called to order. You, as leader, should in an ideal world, know all the names, titles, causes, and motivations in advance. Get all the chatting, coffee stirring, paper shuffling done with, then begin.
Read the agenda aloud. Set a time limit at the outset. Make sure the minutes have been previously read and that everyone present is equipped to commence discussion. Tell them again the purpose of the meeting. Be brief, succinct, but cover the ground. Be positive. You are preparing and motivating your group. Move to the first point on your agenda and call upon your first participant.
Late comers should be politely welcomed, should sit and become a part of the action without interrupting the flow. If the person is vital to the action and has missed an important element, call a brief recess, take the individual to one side and fill her/him in.
Do not permit digressions. Field the first one or two with tact and diplomacy but, if necessary, speak directly to habitual wanderers and urge them to stick to the point.
Every organization has a rambler, a genial person with a fund of anecdotal wisdom, an appropriate cliché for any situation. Do your best to stop the story before it becomes unstoppable. Suggest that the topic be addressed again during coffee after the meeting. Then, return to the agenda.
Discussion will naturally lead to recommendation, then decisions.
You might occasionally encounter personality conflicts. In most instances there is no logical reason for animosity within a group. Think carefully here. If the difficult person is acting or speaking in a hostile manner it bears analysis. Is it an emotional reaction of some sort? Is there any basis for hostility? If there appears to be no quick, quiet way to solve the immediate dilemma, call the meeting to a halt, reschedule and ask the recalcitrant individual(s) to stay for one-on-one talks to solve the controversy. Sometimes meetings are useful in revealing situations that otherwise are kept out of sight.
Presuming you've solved all the problems of your world, that the agenda was well and truly covered, the time has come to wind up the proceedings. As chair you must summarize completed business. Point out positive results, acknowledge the contribution of participants, keep it short, encouraging. Make sure everyone knows what action they are required to take before the next meeting. Don't you tell them, ask them to tell you! Set the time and place of the next gathering. Stand, stretch and go!
In some instances, if a presentation is particularly well done, or someone made an outstanding contribution, send them a brief, handwritten "thank you" note post-meeting. If you feel your people need the reminder, have short memos sent to each redefining their tasks.
In another few years, probably many of us will utilize both teleconferencing and video-conferencing on a far more frequent basis, certainly useful for those who have several store sites, or colleagues working from home offices or other locations. Hi-tech demands the same basics, however, tight but comfortable agendas, and controlled discussion with equal opportunity for presentation of facts and ideas and for appropriate response.
And these basics apply, too, to business retreats, meetings held off-site at hotels, mountain or seaside hideaways, sometimes on cruise ships. We should be so lucky. Wherever you are, remember the all important mandate, Know what you want from your meeting. Make your meetings "the practical adjunct to work"!