It's been many years since Michael Doyle and David Straus wrote their groundbreaking book, How To Make Meetings Work (1976). Are you like many of my clients who gripe about numbing, deadening meetings? As one publication put it, "days, weeks, months, years of our lives are slipping away in stuffy, overcrowded conference rooms”. Little appears to be accomplished and no one seems to be able to do anything about it.
Doyle and Straus claimed that there were 11 million meetings in the US every day in 1976. Doyle says that there are 25 million today and most of them don't work. If you calculate how much productive time plus lost wages accrue to those sitting in the room, a truly staggering figure emerges.
Fortunately there are answers for this dilemma. Let me offer you ten tips for turning around your unproductive meetings.
1. Is the meeting necessary?
Let's start with a fundamental-and radical- question: Is your meeting necessary? A meeting largely serves two important business purposes: sharing information or making a decision. Can some other method of information sharing/decision making be used? Meetings are often held because "it's time for our meeting" with very little thought spent in what will actually happen. So rethink if you even need to hold it.
2. Send an Agenda in Advance
If you do decide to hold the meeting, send an agenda at least three days in advance. The agenda should be clear about what the meeting results should be, how people should prepare and what roles they will play. Show how the meeting connects with other meetings that may have contributed to the issues that will be addressed. Ask for feedback. The three days allow for modifications if needed.
And don't forget to connect the meeting with the larger mission and vision of the organization. This creates and reinforces the much-needed larger context for the meeting.
3. Start and End on Time
Not doing this just (starting on time) reinforces the latecomers and punishes those who arrive on time. There are few things more maddening then waiting for stragglers and then listening to the half-hearted apologies-or no apologies at all.
Ending on time indicates that you value people's work that must be done after the meeting. Unfinished items can be carried over as part of the planning for the next meeting.
4. Create Ground Rules and Follow Them
These should include:
- Whether "checking in" time should be before or part of the meeting
- Reinforcing starting and ending on time
- Creating a climate of trust where people can speak freely and no one gets hurt
- Setting boundaries around the decision making process. When do you just want information from the group and when do you want a group decision.
5. Appoint a Recorder, Timekeeper and Facilitator
This was Doyle and Straus' unique contribution to meeting effectiveness. These three roles keep the meeting moving and on track.
- Appoint people to play these roles at each meeting. The roles can be rotated during the meeting if there is an important issue that the role players want to participate in.
- Have the recorder chart (on a flip chart) the "meeting notes" as the meeting progresses. This "public" recording of the meeting eliminates the need for minutes and allows everyone to stay involved by having his or her contributions noted. This method also allows for making corrections on the spot. The notes should be transcribed and made available to all after the meeting.
- The timekeeper notes time allotted for agenda items and makes sure the time is adhered to.
- The facilitator keeps the meeting on track and makes sure the ground rules are followed, participation is wide spread, people are listened to and issues are aired and brought to a conclusion.
6. Plan the Meeting
Review the agenda and the meeting’s purpose. Get agreement on the outcomes to be accomplished by the end of the meeting. Make sure you have genuine buy-in.
7. Appoint a Devil’s Advocate
For each issue discussed, appoint and rotate the role of "devil's advocate". Many people will not speak out at meetings for fear of retribution, low group trust or just the fear of looking stupid. As a result "group think" becomes the norm and poor decisions result. By appointing a devil's advocate, you give official permission for raising differing views.
8. Designate Follow-Up
After an issue is agreed upon, designate:
- Who is responsible
- What they will do
- By when
This is the key issue of accountability. It makes the meeting worthwhile because it results in real organizational change.
9. Do a Meeting Review
On a flip chart sheet, draw a line down the middle. On the top of the left column place a simple plus (+). On the other column, place a delta (∆) (for needs improvement). List group responses to the following:
- Were the outcomes achieved?
- What worked and what didn't?
- How can the meeting be improved?
Use this information to plan the next meeting.
10. Monitor What Happens After the Meeting
Note the water cooler/coffee machine conversations after the meeting. That's where the real meeting analysis often comes out. Comments made away from a meeting — negative or positive — do not contribute to the meeting’s productivity. If you hear such comments, figure out a way to bring that information to the next meeting. It may require a revision of the ground rules so people feel safe to discuss the real issues.
Meetings don't have to be the horrible experience that they often are. By following these tips, your meetings and your organizational results will improve.