Meetings Management

Why do meetings start late, drag on forever, and fail to accomplish anything?

Successful meetings are brief, focused, and productive. They happen by design, not by inadvertence. When meetings are run efficiently and effectively, they can begin on time, accomplish the goals for which they are being held, and end on time—and maximize human effort.

How can you maximize the benefits of meetings? By setting ground rules when you first begin a series of meetings. These guidelines can, then, be used to control fractious behavior when it occurs.

Among the questions that such ground rules should address are the following:

- Where and when will meetings be held?

- How will the need for emergency meetings be handled?

- How long will meetings last?

- How will decisions be reached?

- How will the team work with other groups within the organization?

- Who will be responsible for preparation of meeting minutes?

- Who will handle communication with senior management, if need be?

- How will the team handle conflicts and disagreements among its members?

- Will the team evaluate each session after the fact to help improve subsequent sessions?

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The nature of the meeting will determine the questions raised and their answers. A meeting of staff members headed by you, for instance, will require fewer questions than a cross-functional group meeting in which the heads of various areas of your organization are represented.

When you serve as meeting leader or chair, it's your task to work with participants to set the ground rules. To stimulate discussion, you might come with some questions prepared in advance. For instance, you might ask, "What was a major problem with the last meeting you attended? What could we do to avoid that problem this time?" Or, "How can we be sure that we stay focused on the agenda?" Or, "What will enable us to manage the discussions without over-controlling the flow of ideas or information?"

Don't prepare the ground rules on your own. Even if you are meeting with your own employees, and you have every right to set the operating rules for the group, the participants are more likely to follow the rules if they had a voice in their creation. When attendees help write the meeting guidelines, there is greater commitment. Members who don't follow the ground rules are likely to feel group displeasure, which for many is worse punishment than any one-on-one criticism from you.

Here are some sample ground rules:

- All meetings will begin and end on schedule.

- The position of chair will be rotated.

- Discussion time will be limited to that set on the agenda.

- Meetings will be held every second Tuesday, from 9:15 to 11:00 a.m, in the conference room.

- Three days prior to the meeting, members will receive a copy of the agenda and any handouts to read and come prepared for the discussion.

- The focus will be on issues, not personalities.

- Only one member will talk at a time.

- Decisions will be made by consensus.

- The group will evaluate each meeting to determine progress toward its objective and the quality of the meeting itself.

Such rules will mean nothing if they aren't followed. If you find they aren't, you, as a team leader, can interrupt the meeting to remind a member of the meeting's guidelines. If you are the meeting chair, you might prefer to take the offending member aside during a break or after the meeting.

You also have to follow the rules yourself.

When should I hold meetings?

A meeting is a management tool. Like any tool, it needs to be used when it can be most effective. Meetings are best used in the following situations:

1. You need a new approach to a problem. By bringing together a group of your employees or colleagues, you hope a creative idea will be generated that can address the problem.

2. You need information that others possess. The situation is so complex that you require a broad range of knowledge, so insights from more than one person are needed.

3. You need the participants to understand the solution you plan to apply. Your intention is to communicate your solution and the reasons behind it.

4. You have a solution to a problem but you aren't sure it is the right way to proceed. A group meeting is the quickest way to get feedback on the validity of your idea.

5. You want to make members feel like a team. A meeting can be a good setting to help your staff members better understand each other and build rapport among your employees.

6. You want to increase the likelihood of the plan being implemented successfully. Involving your employees in the decision will make them more interested in seeing the plan succeed.

7. You need more authority than you possess to proceed. A cross-functional group is needed, with participants from various areas of your organization.

8. You want to share responsibility for a decision or plan. If a mistake comes with a high cost, or the action you are considering has a high risk, you may want to involve others to share in the responsibility.

9. You have time and believe that using it in deliberation of a number of good ideas will ensure that the best one is chosen.

10. You want to use the meeting as a learning opportunity. All these are reasons for using meetings.

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Despite our lean organizations, there is no question that meetings continue to be a popular way in which work is done. Still, used indiscriminately, meetings can take up as much as 30 percent of your workweek. Already, senior managements spend almost half of their week in meetings.

So when faced with a choice, if you or a staff member, working independently, can accomplish the same goal, there is no point in calling a meeting. If you need information from another person, you can get that information via telephone, on e-mail, or over lunch or in a one-on-one meeting. It's even possible today to get a virtual group together on a corporate network for a one-time exchange of information. The decision itself and implementation of that decision may not demand a group effort.

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