October 1, 2008

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Lean, Mean Meetings

Combat Boredom in the Boardroom

Heather Stewart

October 1, 2008

It’s the usual staff meeting and three people are covertly checking their PDAs under the table. One is staring blankly at the wall, while another sits back in her chair with her eyes closed. Someone else is busily stuffing envelopes; one staff member is hiding out in the bathroom. Meanwhile, a department head is droning out his report to the group — that was also distributed as a handout. And yes, you’re paying them all to be at this meeting. “A bad meeting is like a mattress,” says David Sturt, executive vice president at O.C. Tanner. “It’s soft and bounces around a little bit.” Sturt is certainly in a position to know. O.C. Tanner, like every successful company, has its full slate of meetings: executive meetings, management meet-ings, departmental meetings, team meetings, client meetings…and the list goes on. The research varies, but most estimates say that today’s workforce spends somewhere between 35 to 66 percent of the workday in meetings. And the higher up the corporate ladder you are, the more time you’ll relinquish to meetings. So we should try to cut out as many meetings as we can, right? Well, not so fast. The answer, says Sturt, is to have better meetings, not fewer meetings. “I always favor more communication rather than less,” he says. “But you have to create some discipline around a meeting.” Make It Relevant Breck England of FranklinCovey does not pull any punches when describing bad meetings. “It’s like being on a ship with a captain who is asleep, and no one knows what the destination is,” he says. “Bad meetings are a symptom of an organization that is out of control.” England designs workshops and other learning opportunities offered by FranklinCovey. In his “Meeting Advantage” workshop, leaders discover how to set clear objectives for meetings and keep them focused and moving forward. “If priorities were well understood in a company, then meetings would automatically be more focused,” England says. The biggest complaint about meetings is that they’re pointless and a waste of time. Indeed, too many people are dragged into meetings that are not relevant to their work. Or, they’ll have to sit through an hour-long meeting for the 10 minutes that matter to them personally. “A good meeting leader knows what the objective is and invites the people who really need to be there,” says England. Another common com-plaint among workers is that meetings meander aimlessly, sucking up time without generating anything useful. Here’s an all-too common scenario: “We don’t have an agenda today,” announces the meeting leader. “I thought we could all just touch base and talk about any concerns you might have.” And thus begins an hour of utter pointlessness. In fact, a well-designed agenda can set the tone and pace for the entire meeting. One of England’s pet peeves is the vague, one-word agenda item. “For instance, an agenda that simply says ‘Budget.’ What about the budget? How can you possibly prepare for that?” Instead, he says, the agenda should indicate some sort of action such as: “Validate our actual budget needs for next quarter,” or “Prepare the budget request for next year.” If the agenda is specifically described, and distributed well before the meeting, participants can come prepared with the necessary information—and the meeting will actually be productive. “It’s important for a leader to set down precisely what needs to be achieved on the agenda,” says England. With a detailed and specific agenda in hand, some invitees may realize their presence is not really required. If you find yourself invited to meetings that don’t bear on your work, England says it’s perfectly acceptable to discuss your attendance with the boss. You can ask your boss about what’s most important: your attendance at a possibly irrelevant meeting or the time to work on high priority assignments. “Ask your supervisor, ‘What role would you like me to play in the meeting?’” he says. This simple question can make it clear that, as an inactive participant, the meeting would be a waste of your time. Set Some Boundaries The agenda is nailed down and the objectives are clear. It’s time to get down to business, but the conversation seems to be wandering off track. Here’s where meetings tend to get, as Sturt says, a bit soft. “There are a lot of meetings for updating or collaboration, and they tend to run amok,” says Beth Noymer Levine of SmartMouth Communications, a Salt Lake-based company that offers speaker coaching, presentation skills training and media readiness training. “What people forget to do is drill down on the purpose and stay focused,” she says. The key to keeping things centered is to stick to some boundaries and ground rules. The agenda, for starters, should establish timeframes for covering each topic. Out of respect for everyone’s busy schedule, meeting leaders should try as hard as possible to stick to the timetable. If the conversation shows no signs of wrapping up, it may be best to continue the discussion at a later date. Similarly, unforeseen topics can arise during a meeting. “If an item is worth veering off to, then it’s worth its own meeting,” says England. Schedule a future meeting for the new topic, and get back to the agenda. “When you’ve got somebody who goes off-track or is using the time to vent, simply remind everyone what the purpose of the meeting is, and that can get things back on track,” says Levine. At the start of the meeting, you may want to remind everyone to put away PDAs and cell phones. Other ground rules may include coming prepared, keeping the conversation respectful and giving consideration to all perspectives. Some collaborative meetings, like brainstorming sessions, can benefit from ground rules that are formally agreed upon at the outset. “The tricky part about brainstorming sessions is how open-ended they are by nature,” Levine says. “There may not be something tangible that comes out of it.” Keep It Lively The fact is, a day of meetings can be more exhausting than running the Salt Lake Marathon. It takes supreme effort to keep absorbing new information and engage in endless discussions and negotiations. “Brevity is one of the best ways to ensure people will listen and pay attention,” says Levine. But she also says there are other smart strategies that can keep people awake and attentive since people learn in different ways — the majority of them needing some visual aides or physical activity to hold their interest. Handouts or a well-crafted, concise PowerPoint presentation can provide some visual interest. But endless PowerPoint slides can also have the reverse effect and put participants to sleep. At O.C. Tanner, the meeting room has whiteboards along all four walls. At any point during a meeting, says Sturt, participants can jump up and illustrate their thoughts on the whiteboard. This provides both something new to look at and a way for meeting attendees to get up and move around a little bit. It also fosters creativity and synergy—elements that are all too often absent from corporate meetings. “You really need to find a balance between giving participants what they need to get out of the meeting and an opportunity for activity,” Levine says. If your meeting is scheduled to go longer than an hour, provide intermissions to let everyone stretch and take a bathroom break. “Comfort measures are often overlooked,” says Levine. “Breaks and snacks help people recharge their batteries and get back in the groove.” Some meetings—particularly training sessions—often include participants who don’t know each other. It’s the meeting leader’s responsibility to make sure everyone feels comfortable and familiar with each other, says Levine. “I’m going to want them to work together. I’m going to want involvement and participation, so I know I’ll have to warm up the crowd.” Warming up the crowd may involve simple introductions—especially if it’s a very formal situation. Long training sessions or project kick-off meetings allow for a more entertaining approach, such as an icebreaker game that allows everyone to get to know each other. Keeping the meeting interesting requires, above all, some flexibility on the part of the meeting leader. “You always have to be open and adaptable because something may come up in the meeting that will change the landscape altogether,” Levine says. Meeting Adjourned Meetings are fundamental to the business world because they keep everyone up to date and bring people together so that critical decisions can be made. “Meetings are absolutely necessary,” says Levine. “They can be very productive.” But that’s not to say that some meetings can’t be eliminated. For example, you can send out a memo or an email if you just need to give your team an update. Or, if you need information from a specific person, just touch base with that person instead of bringing it up in a meeting. “Things can often be addressed through one-on-one interactions,” says Sturt. “Meetings are important to have. But when you can do without a meeting, by all means do without it.” Meatier Meetings Routine internal meetings are a fact of corporate life. But do they have to be so…routine? David Sturt of O.C. Tanner shares some strategies for making these regularly scheduled meetings pack a bigger punch. • Distribute a detailed agenda well before the meeting. This allows participants to come prepared with any needed information or observations. Specifying time frames for each agenda item will reassure participants that the meeting won’t last forever. • Bring the customer’s perspective into each meeting. For example, relay customer feedback or the outcome of a sales call. Without a focus on the customer, “it can get too easy to become wrapped up in the operational aspect of the business.” • Present research on industry trends—or any other relevant research—to keep the meeting focused. “It just helps you get right to the heart of what you’re doing as an organization.” • Create an opportunity for learning by having participants share information gleaned from conferences, lectures or books. • Foster conversation about overall strategy. “Absent that, you get mired in the day-to-day workings of the company.” • Make time to recognize employee accomplishments. “That little moment often has one of the greatest emotional impacts on the meeting.” Resources The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Meetings and Event Planning by Robin E. Craven and Lynn Johnson Golabowski The New Compleat Facilitator: A Handbook For Facilitators by Drew Howick How to Make Meetings Work! by Michael Doyle Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable...About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Patrick M. Lencioni Robert’s Rules of Order by Henry M. Robert, William J. Evans, Daniel H. Honemann, Thomas J. Balch and Sarah Corbin Robert
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