No More Useless Meetings
By Liz Sumner
I love meetings. As a designer and facilitator of meetings I love enabling people to achieve their goals. As a writer in a creative team I love the melding of minds that creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Meetings can be productive group efforts that leave you with a sense of satisfaction and team spirit. Why then does everybody dread them? Because they are so often pointless ramblings that take too long to accomplish too little.
I'm defining meetings as any gathering of two or more people with a work-related purpose. Client meetings, staff meetings, company retreats, board meetings, committee meetings-whether you're planning your company's five-year strategy or your 20-year high school reunion, the same rules apply to all. They do not have to be dull time-wasters unless they are poorly thought out and executed. Then it's almost a sure thing.
The following steps will help you think through and design your meeting. The first two are like commandments. If you do nothing else, think about these before you go into a meeting and you'll see an improvement.
1. State the purpose of the meeting
Why are we doing this?
I know of a company that set up a task force for an urgent problem. The president of the company gathered all his top managers and many next level people who had a stake in the issue. Ten people met daily for two hours or more. They dealt swiftly with the urgent problem, but the president liked the forum so much that he kept it going for months. Thousands of dollars in people hours were spent because the executive found it convenient to get his information this way.
Do we have the right people there?
Often the people who are available to meet may not have the information they need to make a decision, or the authority to do so. Other times people who have a stake in the issue are left out. If there's a higher level manager that you know will have an opinion make sure he or she is included.
Is a meeting the most effective way to accomplish this purpose?
Say you have a weekly staff meeting. You meet every week because why? Because it's 7:30 Monday morning? If the purpose isn't clear then think about it. Do you really need to meet or could you handle it in an email or some other method?
When the purpose gets lost or misunderstood by the participants then the meeting is doomed. Clearly stating the reason we're here gets things in focus and off to the right start.
2. Determine the desired outcome
If this meeting goes really well what would be the result? What would be different? What would we have?
Figuring out precisely what you want at the end of the meeting fuels the engine and guides the steering wheel. Do you want a decision? A list of options? A plan of next steps? A good feeling about one another? If you don't determine the outcome how will you know if you successfully reached it?
More than any other factor, a vaguely described outcome is responsible for meetings that last too long. You don't know when to stop because you don't know where you're going. If you planned an hour but achieved the desired outcome in 20 minutes you can adjourn. If you realize you can't get there without additional resources you can close and meet again when you have them.
3. Design the meeting
What needs to happen? In what order? What processes shall we use?
Once you know the purpose and the outcome you want (the "what") you can choose which route to take (the "how"). If the purpose is to solve a problem and at the end of the meeting you want an action plan then a number of steps must take place. In order to determine actions you need a solution that everyone understands and agrees to. In order to reach agreement you might want some discussion about obstacles to the chosen solution. Before that, you choose this solution from among many suggestions based on selection criteria that everyone thinks are important. And first and foremost you need a clear statement of the problem so that everyone is starting at the same place.
When you're planning the meeting look at the outcome you want and work backwards from there. What will you need to have in order to produce that deliverable? Each step should build on the one before.
Without any kind of design a free-form meeting will end up with everyone talking at cross-purposes, following his or her own line of interest. This can be chaotic and time-consuming, and you may or may not end up with your desired outcome.
4. Use a facilitator
One way to make sense of the chaos is by using a facilitator. That person's job is to keep the meeting on track. Part of that responsibility is to follow the agenda, watch the clock, draw attention to the proposals on the floor, listen for areas of agreement, speak for the group when it seems to be stuck, make sure quiet people get heard and talkers don't take too much air time.
All these functions and numerous others are part of the role, making it very difficult to do an effective job as facilitator if you're also supposed to be a member of the group. For one thing if you are in a supervisory position and take control of the meeting you swing the balance of power and end up with less whole-group participation. If you're busy writing other people's brainstorms on the flipchart you won't get a chance to contribute your own. Or you might keep the focus on what you think is important and not get the opportunity to hear a wider point of view. A neutral facilitator can equalize the power and make sure everyone gets to contribute. If you don't have someone from outside try rotating the role. That way everyone gets a turn at the "power of the pen" and a sense of the whole.
These guidelines will help focus your meetings. Yes, it does take time to design an effective work session, but you'll make up that time with increased understanding and achieved results.