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We've Got To Stop Meeting Like This!
By Jack Pachuta   Printer Friendly Version

How often have you heard the emphatic statement, "We've got to stop meeting like this?" No, this is not a shout from some secret rendezvous, but rather the emotions expressed by many individuals who attend regularly scheduled company meetings. Frustrations frequently result when these gatherings are poorly conducted and produce few, if any, perceived results.

A consultant friend of mine, T Frank Hardesty, used to say (albeit a bit tongue in cheek): "Be sick when meetings are called. Never attend them. Later, ask anyone who was at the meeting what happened and, within five minutes, you will know anything of any significance that took place." While this strategy is extreme, it points out a common feeling - most company meetings just aren't worth attending.

If your staff cringes when the word meeting is uttered, consider these five guidelines for successful meetings. They will direct your thinking as to what must be considered for meetings that produce results.

Guideline #1: Follow an agenda.

Too often, attendees enter the meeting room unaware of what the meeting is all about. When they don't know what to expect, they won't be totally prepared to participate. Key facts and data may be left in their work areas and frustration strikes if they are not able to fully discuss the issues.

The agenda must be published far enough in advance for everyone to schedule the gathering and prepare to be a valuable participant. Each attendee should receive a personal copy of the agenda and have the opportunity to review it. Company mail will suffice for most notification, but E-mail can be even more effective in many office environments. Whichever medium you select, develop a system that ensures everyone will get the word.

A published agenda should include a start time and an ending time. Attendees are more likely to achieve results when they are working toward a specific deadline rather than attending an open-ended meeting which ends only when everyone has had his or her say. The discipline of an end-time also enables the person who called the meeting to speed things along to adjourn the meeting as scheduled. ("We've got to move on if we're going to end on time.") Or, it can become the reason for excluding unnecessary additional topics. ("That's a good point, but we don't have the time to discuss it right now.")

Also, the end-time allows attendees to plan the remainder of the day without having to worry about the possibility of a meeting extending longer than expected. Any person who publishes an agenda will become a hero or heroine for the time management considerations it indicates.

Guideline #2: List outcomes, not subjects.

Don't call a meeting to discuss the new training program. Instead, call a meeting to implement the new training program in the accounting department by January 31, 2001.

The first statement is a subject and doesn't direct the thinking of the attendees. Instead, it opens up the meeting for the inclusion of many extraneous issues. The second statement is an objective and focuses everyone's attention to find ways of achieving a specific result. Each meeting should be called for only one reason. When objectives are mixed, attendees become confused and the outcome cannot be honed to effectively meet organizational needs.

Guideline #3: Invite only those who should be there.

A consistent comment shared with fellow employees after many meetings is, "I don't know why I was invited. The meeting was a total waste of time for me." Often, departments schedule meetings because "We always have our staff meeting at eight o'clock on Monday morning." No consideration is made as to whether or not the meeting is required - it is a routine that, over time, may have become only moderately effective.

When Guidelines 1 and 2 are practiced, Guideline 3 is easy to implement. It follows that meetings should only involve those who can supply real input to the desired outcome. Everyone on the staff should not be invited to every meeting. It may seem like the politically correct thing to do (making the assumption, of course, that politics exist in most companies), but it does not make the meeting efficient. To maximize results, it is necessary to pick and choose the correct mix that will achieve the meeting's objective.

Guideline #4: End the meeting on time.

The best way to gain points in your progress rating for conducting meetings is to end on time. By publishing the ending time in the agenda, you make a commitment to the attendees. By living up to that pledge, everyone at the meeting feels more secure in your ability to coordinate meetings that are goal-oriented.

Of course, on rare occasions more time may be required to resolve a particular issue. If so, you must reach a consensus for extending the meeting by asking permission. You might say something like, "It looks like we are close to resolving this point. Do I have everyone's agreement that we should extend this meeting by 30 minutes?" A new end-time is established which must be adhered to.

Guideline #5: Follow-up the meeting with an action plan.

A meeting is reinforced, not by distributing minutes of the meeting, but by restating the plan that was finalized for accomplishing the objective. The format for this action plan is very simple. Make three columns on a sheet of paper. Over the first column write the word, "Who?" The second column is labeled "What?" with the third column tagged "By when?" When everyone knows who will do what by when in a chronological sequence, you have a cohesive action plan for reaching the outcome that was set for the meeting.

In addition, this type of action plan serves another vital function. Not only does it indicate actions, responsibilities and a timeframe, but also it serves as an internal crosscheck for the attendees. It enables each person to understand how he or she fits into the overall plan and provides a name to contact if something has not been completed on time.

Try using these guidelines when putting together your next meeting. They will set you apart as someone who understands the dynamics of working with others. As your reputation for running good meetings improves, so will your influence in the organization. You will save time and effort, as your meetings become events that are approached with positive, constructive feelings by all attendees. Soon, they may even begin saying, "We've got to keep meeting like this."

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