David Batstone

Most Meetings Stink...5 Tips For Making Yours Useful

I don't feel the need to persuade you that most meetings stink. I am confident that you have passed enough wasted hours in a meeting room to know that painful truth. Sadly, just last week I spent two hours in a confabulation that should have taken 20 minutes.

I am in the business of making simple what are complex issues. In that tradition, I have pinpointed two reasons why meetings stink: A) the convener does not know how to run a useful meeting; B) the convener likes being the convener so he milks the attention for all its worth.

Assuming that you do not fit in Category B - in which case you do not need to read further...instead go call a therapist - I offer some tried and useful tips for running a useful meeting.

1) Know the purpose of the meeting. As you prepare an agenda, jot down what you actually need to accomplish, especially the decisions that need to be made. If you don't have time to prepare for the meeting, you don't have time to convene it at all. Postpone the meeting until you are ready to make it useful. The regularly scheduled weekly meeting is particularly vulnerable to this booby trap. We often hold meetings simply because they are on the calendar, whether they are needed or not.

2) Don't use the occasion to grind an axe. If you are having a problem with someone in your organization, don't use the meeting as the venue for your frustration. It's the coward's way out, most tempting because we feel safer in a group. Confront the target of your disappointment directly; don't punish the gathered assembly.

3) Settle for nothing less than concise and focused participation. Announce politely at the beginning of the meeting that you value the time of all the members of the group. For that reason, you will intervene when comments are off point, long-winded, or unintelligible. For every one person you offend by the interruption, you will win a room full of grateful admirers.

4) Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely. Don't get me wrong, a PowerPoint can be an effective way to deliver content. All too often, however, people cannot resist the compulsion to add in unnecessary charts and data into their technical presentations. In my experience, it takes presenters twice as long on average to reach their final points using a PowerPoint as it would if they expressed them verbally. For that reason, if someone plans to present a PowerPoint in a meeting that I am chairing, I ask them to submit a copy to me in advance of the meeting so that I can review it. I am not afraid to give them editorial feedback how to slice and dice in order to save on meeting time.

5) Set a time limit and stick to it. Better yet, finish early. A friend offered me an insight years ago when my fiancée and I were planning our wedding, and it's stuck with me. She said, "No matter how much time you set aside for preparing your wedding, it will eat up every moment." Meetings have that same elastic quality; they will fill up whatever space that you make for them, and then some. Give each item of business it's appropriate time in a meeting, and no more. Finishing a meeting early is not a crime!

Wisdom dictates that you project the pace of each agenda item before the meeting begins. If an item of business unexpectedly mushrooms into a major dilemma, wall it off for later problem-solving outside the meeting. If the dilemma is mission-critical, on the other hand, jettison other agenda items that are inconsequential. Only in exceptional circumstances should you willy-nilly decide to go overtime. Treat everyone's time as valuable, and they will respect you for that attitude.

As strange as it may sound, I cannot ever recall a senior manager suggesting to me that his or her people waste too much time in inefficient meetings. But truth be known, few work practices eat away at the productivity of an organization.


David: great tips for meetings. In the essay I contributed to the More Space bok project, “Work is Broken”, I discuss some of the same ideas as well a number of other ideas for conducting more interactive, productive, and engaging meetings using techniques including affinity brainstorming, mind mapping, and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats approach. The essay (and the entire book) is available online and in printed form at http://astroprojects.com/morespace/ and includes contributions from some great business bloggers including:
* Jory Des Jardins
* Lisa Haneberg
* Rob May
* Johnnie Moore
* Robert Paterson
* Evelyn Rodriguez
* Curt Rosengren
* Jeremy Wright

At my company, meetings are scheduled at odd times, such as 10:25. This helps gets the meetings started promtply. Starting on time is one big way to avoid wasting time at meetings.

An awful corporate culture I’ve seen a number of times, is general acceptance for some firms to conduct meetings to run right up to the end of the hour, and thusly make half the participants in your next meeting - who didn’t have a meeting prior - waiting around for you, and beginning that next 10 meeting minutes late, as you shuffle across the floor, building, city, and/or conference call.

Join Toastmasters… you are the only who likes to hear yourself blather… have some courtesy folks, and end the drivel at :50 or :55 past.

On a lighter note, when you find yourself in a meeting that is about meetings (which I have been struck by this bolt of redundant lightening more than once), then ….Mr Alighieri…realize that you are moving backward thru the Purgatory, somewhere near the Second Ledge.

Two additional points to make agendas more effective:

a) publish/distribute the agenda before the meeting, so people can review and discuss beforehand. If you can reduce the meeting to a discussion of known issues in order to reach a decision, you’re way ahead of the game.
b) Time-box each agenda item - and keep to it. You’ll quickly find the need to have fewer agenda items, longer or more frequent meetings - or, at least, better estimates for agenda items.

5- Don Crawford

we stumbled across, modified, experimented with, and implemented with some of the concepts in Patrick Lencioni’s book: Death by Meeting …

I reckon that ALL of my bosses must read this post, then they can understand the whole purpose of a meeting!

Nowsdays everyone just want to be heard and voice out their own agenda instead of coming to a compromise solution for everyone. =(

one of the other thing that we’ve done, eric (comment #4), is to assign a timekeeper who is not the meeting owner. it is this person’s job to point out that we’re running over time on an agenda item and to push it along. if something slips, it’s usually because a conversation needs to be taken out of the meeting to reach an agreement and get some action. a good meeting facilitator will do their best to keep from being told “time’s up, move on”.

the other thing i do is not take my laptop to meetings, write some crib notes for myself prior to the meeting (comments on my items, for example), and try to keep it short and pithy.

and finally, if you’re feeling drowned in meetings, speak up. if they interfere with your ability to actually get stuff done, that’s catastrophic. speak up, get the situation remedied.

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