Ok, OK, you’ve heard all the jokes before. Meetings are places where you keep minutes and lose hours. Meetings are… (add your own tag lines). I’ve just spent 4 hours writing an agenda for a meeting. During the four hours, I made a cup of team, so it was probably only 3 hours and 55 minutes. The agenda was for a 2 day meeting, with 6 key discussions items, and ended up as a 2 page document. Was this an agenda or a ‘short story’ I hear you ask? Let’s take a quick journey backwards in time to explain.
Great Weddings: Over the past number of years, I’ve been to a couple of brilliant weddings . With a big family, there is always some nephew or niece getting hitched (someone said to be recently that they’d rather get a speeding ticket in the post than a wedding invitation – it costs less!). Now, here’s the sure-fire formula for success. Weddings that work really well have been planned in advance. The band was checked out a year earlier. The couple ate at the hotel, anonymously, to see if the food was good. And so on. You can’t fully plan for your Uncle Larry making a pass at the bridesmaid(s), but you can usually make sure that the church service goes well. And you can determine that two maiden Aunt’s who haven’t spoken since 1971 are not sitting at the same table (throw a half bottle of Vodka into that mix and the involvement of the Riot Police is practically guaranteed). In similar vein, great meetings are equally well planned.
Setting Agendas: I’ve been a participant in meetings which ranged from the boring (with people falling asleep) to the bizarre (“anyone for a game of Jenga to get the creativity flowing”?). This last example was at a meeting called to discuss headcount reductions. What occurs to me is that it’s important to get meetings off to a great start. Like 100 Metre Olympics sprinters, you need to understand your strategy before the race starts, not ‘recover’ during the meeting. The key to this is setting out the agenda very strongly. If you write an agenda cryptically with headings like ‘cost’ or ‘quality’ – no one has any idea what’s meant by this or what you are actually going to discuss. Elaborating on this –‘Cost: Can we reduce the current expenditure from 14% of costs of goods sold to under 10%? – helps the focus enormously.
Building Blocks: Meetings are a key building block in most organizations. Well run sessions overcome confusion (clear agendas & good chairmanship), set a positive tone (solid ground rules for behaviour) and are respectful of people’s time (staying on track; confusing or contentious items get bottomed out). To help him organize better meetings, one client asked me to develop a ‘best-practice checklist’. The outcome from this was the Magnificent 7 ideas reproduced below. Use this template when you’re planning your next session.
- Preparation for Meetings
- Why have a meeting anyway? What are we trying to achieve?
- Would an email/informal discussion suffice?
- Who should be invited? What’s the optimum number? Does everyone have to be present?
- Do you need to ‘sell’ any ideas in advance of the meeting, or explain your strategy to key individuals?
- What exactly do you want to achieve? Is it a problem-solving meeting, a bargaining meeting etc?
- What location would best suit the purpose? How should the room be set out to achieve this?
- Distribute agenda in advance of the meeting.
- Writing the Agenda
- Don’t skimp on the wording. Make each section crystal clear.
- Label each agenda item (for info, for discussion, for decision).
- Items which will ‘unify’ the group should be near the top of the agenda.
- Items which need high mental energy should be near the top of the agenda.
- Put finishing times on each agenda item and try to stick to this.
- Keep the agenda manageable in size. Sometimes ‘less is more.’
- Plan start times to keep the meeting short (1 hour before lunch/quit time).
- Role of the Chairperson
- Start the meeting on time. Don’t penalize those who come early by delaying.
- Agree the objectives of the meeting with the group.
- Groundrules: Decide the decision-making process, who will keep notes etc.
- Be aware of the 3 dimension of a meeting (achieving the Task, managing the Process, acknowledging people’s Feelings). A good Chairperson works on all 3 levels.
- Keep the meeting on track. Move the discussion forward when points have been agreed or where further information is necessary.
- Use ‘interim summaries’ to give the group a feeling of accomplishment.
- Control any long-winded people “Thanks Tom, I understand you’ve made your feelings known on that topic” or “Let’s get everyone in on this”
- Keep your antenna alert. “What’s happening in the group which is unspoken?
- ‘Hidden agendas’? Are some people taking a position as ‘delegates’/protecting their patch/group? If so, should I confront it, suppress it or encourage it to be brought into the open?
- In longer meetings consider a ‘half time’ question: “Are we getting what we want from this meeting”?
- Ensuring Good Discussion of ideas
- Introduce each item and clarify the discussion to prevent misunderstanding or confusion.
- Does the group have a solid diagnosis (of the exact problem, on the required solution)?
- Encourage clash of ideas/discourage clash of personalities.
- Don’t dominate the discussion. Use the full resources of the group.
- Draw out silent members. Don’t mistake silence for agreement. Everyone is part of the show.
- Don’t allow ‘new’ ideas or suggestions to get squashed at birth. Encourage/build on these.
- Continually test for understanding and commitment. Use active listening techniques.
- Bringing to Conclusion
- Summarize what has been agreed.
- Re-test for commitment on any contentious items; taking ‘straw polls’, ask the most senior people last.
- Avoid glossing over disagreements. Put unfinished business in context of what has been agreed.
- Close on a note of achievement.
7. Following a Meeting
• Issue minutes containing: Time/date Names of those present/absent. Acknowledge items discussed/decisions made. Reconfirm date/time/place for next meeting
You can see from this checklist why a lot of meetings don’t work well. Perhaps the ideal is to have less actual meetings but ensure the ones you attend are fully productive. Sometimes, the very best ideas are simple.Underline the name of each person responsibl
PS: Lighter Note: Eager To Impress The Boss?
A junior manager was leaving the office late one evening when he found the CEO standing in front of a shredder with a piece of paper in his hand.
“Listen” said the CEO, “this is a very sensitive and important document and my secretary has gone for the night. Can you make this thing work?”
“Certainly,” said the young manager. He turned the machine on, inserted the paper, and pressed the start button.
“Excellent, excellent!” said the CEO as his paper disappeared inside the machine. “I just need one copy.”
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