Most of us spend many hours attending meetings, not all of them useful. In fact, many meetings are a waste of time, while giving the impression that a lot of hard work is going on. Very few people have learnt how to run a meeting effectively. If that were the case, we would be much more productive. In fact, the rules of effective meeting management represent little more than common sense, which is ignored most of the time whenever a meeting is called. So let us investigate this phenomenon a bit closer and see what a typical internal corporate meeting is all about. The following does not apply though for larger workshops or seminars, which bring about their own constraints and special requirements.
A test of a good meeting is to ask the following questions:
- What will be different because of this meeting? Any difference following a meeting is normally the result of decisions that are made during the meeting. Referring an issue to a committee or asking for some more information is not a decision and does not make the business any different.
- What did I learn from this meeting? The learning should be significant, relevant, and useful.
- What do I do next? There must be clear next steps coming out of the meeting.
If there are no good answers to these questions, then either it was a bad meeting, or you should not have been there. In planning a meeting, it is worth thinking about how each of the participants will be able to answer these questions at the end of the meeting. If they will not have good answers, they probably should not be there. Ultimately be clear about what you will get out of the meeting, whether you are chairing it or attending it.
You see, most of us like going to meetings. Junior staff wants to get exposure to senior staff and senior staff want junior staff there because they have probably done all the preparation work. And every department wants to send someone to be represented.
In general, once attendance rises above six to eight people, it becomes difficult to sustain a significant discussion among the whole group. Either a core group will dominate the meeting or the meeting degenerates into a sequence of bilateral discussions between the chair and individual attendees. Either way, most have now become spectators and are not contributing, and meetings are not meant to be a spectator sport. Here follow a few simple rules on attendance at meetings:
- Avoid meetings with more than six – eight people unless the purpose is to broadcast a message.
- Only people with a role to play by bringing expertise, resources or authority should be there.
- There should be no duplication of roles. Two people are not required to represent one point of view unless they are representing quite different perspectives on it.
Very few meetings are prepared well, which has unfortunate consequences. The key preparation is about expectations setting with other attendees, which includes:
- The role each person is expected to play.
- Homework required.
- Preview of critical issues. It is better to talk to a potential adversary before the meeting, understand and manage the concerns in private, than to invite a punch up in public. Build the consensus before hand.
Clearly, logistical preparation is required. Beyond the obvious points of location, facilities and catering there are the less obvious decisions about room layout. Our traditional long table with the chair at its head is about the least effective format for a discussion and makes looking at a presentation at one end of the table nearly impossible. Room layout is constrained only by your needs and imagination though. Hollow squares are common. One attractive option is to get rid of chairs and tables completely. A standing meeting is guaranteed to be faster and more focused than a meeting with deep comfortable chairs and lots of coffee, sodas, and cookies.
Agenda items that get the most attention are those that come close to the start of the meeting, when everyone is still fresh and energetic; and where everyone is an expert; and where no one will be offended by the outcome or by the discussion. In other words, the debate is risk-free for the participants. This creates great opportunities for manipulation. Putting such risk-free items at the beginning of the agenda will encourage everybody to actively participate while leaving the most important items to the end will have most already too exhausted to seriously engage in the discussion. In other words, set the agenda to get the level of discussion and the result you need.
Have a good meeting.
Source: “Management stripped bare” by Jo Owen.