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Getting The Most From Meetings
By Jane Watson   Printer Friendly Version

Bob stormed into Sandra's office and threw his arms up in disgust. "I'm fed up," he said. "I'm back from another weekly meeting of the job ranking committee and, as usual, it was a complete waste of time. Three people got into an argument, the rest slept or read and the chair let things drift. The only thing we accomplished was to waste two hours."

Sandra looked up from her computer. "And what did you do, Bob, to help make the meeting more successful."

"Me. I'm not the chair; I can't do anything. I want to resign. This group is going nowhere and I don't want any part of it."

"Bob, when you first joined that committee you were excited. You thought belonging to this particular group would help advance you in the organization and that you could make some valuable contributions. You also thought it was important to keep up to date on some of the new policies we're implementing. So the meetings aren't being run to your satisfaction. Why don't you make an effort to get things back on track?"

"Like I said, I'm not the chair."

"I am involved in numerous committees, both as a chair and as a participant," Sandra pointed out. "There are several things a participant can do to make meetings more effective. And, as a chair I appreciate it."

"First of all, come to the meetings prepared. Read the agenda beforehand. Know what the chair wants to cover and be prepared to discuss the issue. If you have any relevant handouts bring them with you and bring enough copies to distribute to the group."

"Today, there was an item I wanted to discuss but it wasn't on the agenda and we ran out of time," objected Bob.

"Each group operates differently," replied Sandra. "However, I recommend you talk to the chair before the meeting and let him or her decide whether to put it on the agenda. Don't 'sandbag' the chair or the members by trying to open a new topic without giving them some up front thinking or research time. In addition, a good chair has the topics timed. It's not fair to throw the meeting off schedule with an unplanned discussion."

"In the meeting this morning," said Bob, "we got off track and spent a lot of time going in circles. I kept waiting for the chair to call us back to order, but it didn't happen. It was really irritating."

"Bob, a good chair must allow everyone equal time to talk about an issue. However, sometimes we allow this to go on for too long. Don't put up with poor meetings. It's your time that is being wasted. If you believe the discussion is accomplishing nothing and if your group's business is conducted through parliamentary procedures, you could make motions 'to table' an issue, 'limit' or 'close debate' or even 'to recess.'"

"I think, though, that your group is more informal and doesn't use motions. In this case, the next time you feel people have been rehashing a topic for an extended length of time, ask the chair to redefine the issue. This should bring the subject back on track and hand the control of the meeting back to the chair." Bob then asked, "Should I do the same thing when members get into a heated discussion?"

"Actually, the better approach would be to act as a mediator. If the chair doesn't assume the role automatically, then you do it. Restate each person's position, as you see it, and point out the similarities. This technique forces the participants to be more objective and takes some of the heat out of the discussion."

"What about bringing other work in with you, if you think the meeting will be boring," asked Bob. "Is this permissible?"

"If it's a large meeting, you could probably get away with it," said Sandra. "But remember you can't do two things well at the same time. One, if not both, of the tasks will suffer."

"So I shouldn't bother making any notes at a meeting."

"No, I didn't say that," replied Sandra. "Always make your own notes on action items that concern you or on items you want to follow up on. I record this right on the agenda sheet. Don't wait for the minutes to jog your memory."

"Another tip. Don't dash out of a meeting as soon as it is over. Take time to speak with the chair and the other participants after the session. Some of the best 'meetings' are held after the scheduled meeting."

"Okay, Sandra. Then what do I do, wait for the next meeting?" laughed Bob.

"No, don't make that mistake. There are several things you should do. Start to work on the action items you are responsible for. Second, file that agenda sheet listing the items you want to see followed up. Later, when the minutes arrive, check that these items are included. Don't let important items disappear."

"Third, read the minutes. I know it's boring but this is the history of your group's activities. Help ensure it's accurate and keep in mind that only the information presented at the meeting can be included."

"Fourth, talk to non-members about any meeting topics that concern them - if the information is not confidential. This will consolidate your understanding of the topic, give you additional input and establish you as a knowledgeable employee."

"Did you hear about that meeting Jim in accounting held last week to try and get his people to come up with solutions to the job ranking problem? I hear it was a real fiasco. Some of the people still aren't talking to each other," Bob asked.

Sandra smiled. "Unfortunately, it was doomed to start with. The physical setting of the room is an important aspect of meetings. Jim chose the small boardroom on the 8th floor. You know the one with the round table. Round tables are useless for situations when you are dealing with controversial questions. They tend to magnify small irritations. Round tables are wonderful for brainstorming, but if you need to do any problem solving use a rectangular table. On the other hand, if you want a really short meeting don't give people a chance to sit down. Convey the information and answer any questions while they are standing."

Bob sighed, "Well, you've certainly given me a lot to think about. Attending a meeting requires more than just showing up."

"Right. Meetings are a necessary part of today's business world. And you must take responsibility for them, if you want to get the most from them."

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