Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Meetings: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (but Mostly the Good): Ten Ways to Make Your Meetings Succeed

Any of the following sound vaguely familiar?

  • The world has developed into a place populated by those who go to meetings and the others who serve coffee and donuts to those who go to meetings.

  • The world has evolved to the point that there are two kinds of working people, those who plan and go to meetings, and the rest of us who have been told by them that we must do our jobs and fit them around meetings they have planned so they can tell us how to do our jobs.

  • Meetings are for those who cannot make a decision about how to spend other people’s time and money badly without bringing them all together to talk for too long about how they are going to spend other people’s time and money badly.

  • Meetings are like paperwork, the more there is the less actual work gets done.

  • The world is divided into two kinds of meetings, ones that tell you what you already know and do it in the longest amount of time imaginable, and ones that teach you what you don’t know in a way that assures that you will have to relearn it after you’ve left the meeting.

  • Meetings are designed to give everyone a chance to participate in making decisions that have already been made.

  • The prime purpose of meetings is for people from far-flung departments to get together to see who’s hair and waistline is different and who will act as badly as they always do at meetings. That way everyone is sure to have something to contribute at the next meeting.

Meetings are alternately disparaged and tolerated, essential and a complete waste of time.

A good meeting may hard to find, but when you are a part of one you know it. You can take something back from a well-facilitated and efficiently thought-out meeting that is helpful and can be implemented with understanding and clarity.

A successful meeting reinforces the common goals and connections that bring people together for the meeting and to the workplace in general. People leave good meetings feeling they have been heard and their expertise has been honored and/or their concerns aptly addressed.

We leave good meetings with new information clearly expressed and clearly actionable.

We leave good meetings knowing who we would contact should we have questions about the information the meeting dealt with.

Bad meetings are the stuff of corporate, agency, or workgroup legend. We all have our war stories, funny, tragic and unbelievable. That is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about having good meetings.

If meetings are a necessary evil then let us make them tolerable and productive. Let us make them as short as possible without cutting necessary corners or being required to convene another meeting to cover the information or processes that were left out or unconsidered. Let us work to make them a place where people feel value and able; places where our connections to one another in the workplace, even if contentious, are valuable and affirmative.

Here is a list of a few things that make a meeting worth attending. It doesn’t pretend to be completely comprehensive and I invite additions. It is not meant to pertain to the kind of bad news meetings in which people, in large or small numbers, or their departments, are let go. It certainly does not concern meetings in which the purpose is to “hot seat” one or a few employees by ganging up on them to attempt to motivate change, whether the need for action along that vein is necessary or not. I would propose that while some of the items on this list might work for such a meeting, meetings for those purposes are counter-intuitive and fail in almost every aspect of the basis for having a successful meeting.

1) Do your homework. Not only in terms of the information and/or process that is the purpose of the meeting, but in terms of the process of the meeting itself.

2) Do your homework whether you will lead or attend. Is your role as attendee going to be interactive or passive? What information do you need to have with you? Who has the information about this if you do not know?

3) Ask these questions:
a. Is this largely a meeting to disseminate new information or to share information and problem solve a new or faltering process?
b. How much time needs to be dedicated to interaction between attendees?
c. How much teaching time is required?
d. What do you know about the learning and process styles of those in attendance?
e. As an attendee: what do you know about your own way of participating in group process and how can it be used constructively?

4) Do you need to lead or facilitate or both? Where are your strengths? If you are a good leader but fall short as a facilitator can you ask someone else with that strength to co-lead if the meeting requires an ample amount of facilitation?

5) Decide on the format and time line for the meeting and stick to it. Designate an official time-keeper if you will be too busy or are not good at tracking time. Inform and ask all participants to observe these time lines and thank them in advance for agreeing to do so. As a participant, be willing to actively participate in time management.

6) Are there high context people who will attend who require more interaction and background time to process and share? How can you help them participate without allowing the timelines and goals of the meeting to be subverted?

7) What about quick-thinking result-oriented people to whom meetings can be seen as a waste of time, but who have great information and innovative, effective styles? How can you engage them in the process without others feeling rushed, interrupted or minimized?

8) Practice or script how you plan to move the meeting along to its next item of business or away from one that has been finalized or thoroughly discussed. (Stick to the time frame!)

9) Design your time line to incorporate ample question and answer periods during the body of the meeting and one toward the end prior to the final recap (see following). Do not take more time than needed for questions and be ready to sort and defer questions to another time or to a one-to-one interaction at a later date (“Why don’t you and I talk about that another time” “We’d have more time to discuss that in full later, let’s move on.” “Why don’t you talk to me after the meeting and we can schedule a time to talk about that”)

10) Make sure to include ample time for as many recap and summary periods as are necessary during the course of the meeting and for a comprehensive one at the close of the meeting. Make sure people share and know what the meeting has accomplished and what the expectations are after the meeting. Do not shirk or short-change the recap. This is when the meeting’s goals and objectives will be re-stated and its specific actions and processes or changes reviewed. A good recap clarifies confusion, restates resolutions and implementations. Ask participants for feedback on the process of the meeting after the final recap. A brief, sincere and good-humored, “How do you think this meeting went?” can go a long way toward engaging your coworkers, associates and clients in follow up and the success of meetings to come.

And finally, be grateful to the participants. Especially be grateful to those whose work day is full of tasks that a meeting takes them away from. Acknowledge both the necessity and the imposition of the meeting. Participants of a successful meeting might also put some effort into gratitude. And be specific in your positive feedback. People are often problem-oriented. They remember what they did wrong. What they did right is forgotten in spite of it holding the potential solution for what they did wrong. They will remember if you acknowledge it.

So, good luck to you in your efforts to make your meetings a productive and engaging part of how you accomplish what your work requires of you.

Remember: a meeting’s effectiveness is not in the idea of the meeting itself, but how it is organized and run. Meetings are our chance, really, to bring people together to communicate about the goals toward which our work groups, companies or agencies are primarily engaged. Without them we are often ineffective, even if brilliant, Lone Rangers with an incomplete toolbox of ways to communicate with those who are engaged in parts of the same task that we are.

Meetings are a place to share expertise, vision and support. We can assume that, once the issues of money, basic needs and mutual respect are dealt with, everyone wants to do the best job they can. As human beings we look for opportunities to learn how to do that.

While meetings should not be the only way to facilitate this natural human urge to improve and excel, if done well they can be great avenues and opportunities toward that end. They can simultaneously assist us to engage in and get better at interacting with others and that can make our work group learn and excel too.

Good luck and go get ‘em!


Iris Arenson-Fuller said...

A clever topic I would not have thought of and I have nothing to add because I believe you have covered everything important. I am glad to be done with meetings for the most part but if I have one I will consult your article...Seriously!

Bob Vance said...


I alway appreciate your comments and your readership. I have been to so many meetings over the course of my professional life (and while involved in my extracurricular activities especially in the arts) that I feel pretty confident about this area. I am not by nature a very willing meeting person, but I have noted what works and what can make me appreciate the outcome of a meeting even if I was ambivalent about attending. Thanks again.