Meaningful meetings are possible, desirable, and should be the aim of every executive. Many people say meaningful meetings is an oxymoron, and they have a point. Research shows consistently that most meetings waste time and cost significant sums. Some studies show over 75% of meetings waste time. Get a Klu, a corporate coaching and training consulting firm found that professionals lose 31 hours monthly to unproductive meetings. Besides, they indicate that of the eleven million meetings held in the U.S.A. daily, half are wasteful meetings.
We must strive to hold meaningful meetings and stop the meaningless meetings epidemic. Always err in the direction of not holding a meeting. Still, as I indicate below, sometimes we need to meet. Meanwhile, here are six elements needed to hold meaningful meetings. Although they are not exhaustive, when followed, the chances of positive outcomes will improve significantly.
Meaningful Meetings Ingredients
These few basics will create the foundation for attendees to be effective at the meeting and following, and will aid the productivity of the group:
- Targeted invitees
- Start & End Times & Meeting Etiquette
- Air Traffic Controller
Conveners are responsible for making meetings meaningful to produce specific results graciously, and compassionately. Conveners or their delegates arrange the meetings—including developing the purpose, agenda, and expected outcomes, with relevant persons. They ensure appropriate action plans and highlights are recorded, but they do not necessarily perform these activities themselves— they merely ensure they are done.
The convener needs someone to assist her to look at the process during the meeting. Without concern for the process, a few people will dominate, and discussions go off topic. It is crucial folks understand that the process determines the outcome.
Not all meetings have the same purpose. However, each meaningful meeting must have a purpose. There are at least three meeting categories: information sharing, accountability and or reporting, and problem-solving. Why would anyone call a meeting without an explicit purpose? Often, a meeting is the ideal way for some folks to procrastinate—defer a tough decision. Then again, the convener, and maybe a few other folks, know the purpose, but do not articulate it to others in advance because that’s the way things happen in that firm—poor communications is the norm.
Sometimes people call meetings out of habit. They hold weekly and other meetings because that’s been happening for years. And nobody asks, why. I recall being invited to be an elder at a church. The pastor said they had weekly elders meeting, and I asked why. He was shocked that I wouldn’t know. Still, I said, why do we need to meet weekly? The answer: That’s what we have always done. I declined the invitation.
Meaningful Meetings in Asia
During seven years working in Japan and other parts of Asia (Asia), I experienced two major differences between business meetings there and in the West. First, most of those meetings were meaningful, but lengthy, unlike here where meetings are meaningless and lengthy.
Second, often in Asia, they defined precisely in advance, the specific purpose of problem-solving meetings, and invited persons who were usually well prepared. Here in the West, several people are unprepared but willing to offer opinions unrelated to agenda items.
Third, the group was attentive when each person spoke, no doubt, because of respect for elders and hierarchy. Consequently, participants listened to each other and generally built on each other’s contributions. In the West, when one person speaks, others don’t listen but plan his and her statement, which might be unrelated to what was just said.
In the West, sometimes you don’t know the aim of the meeting until after it starts. Many times the invitation is not explicit on its nature: problem-solving, information sharing, or accountability reporting. Further, in meetings, we seem to compete for airtime: we are not keen to listen to another’s point with an open mind, but always prepared to interrupt another in mid-sentence to add our views, even if it does not necessarily build on the speaker’s point.
In the Japanese system, we spent much time defining and agreeing the identified purpose at the start of the meeting, before concentrating on solving the problem. Usually, each person did not compete for airtime. I found this system weak in information sharing and accountability meetings. Indeed, I was on the board of a couple Japanese companies, and was continually amazed at the paucity of data presented to shareholders and the brevity of shareholders meetings.
Meaningful Meetings Have Agendas
The ideal vehicle to define the meeting’s purpose is a carefully crafted agenda, with a starting and ending time. It should be comprehensive and indicate clearly items for discussion: ideally, with a starting and ending time for each agenda item. Besides, it should show a person or persons responsible for each item and the expected meeting outcome. Often we spend time on the first few items, especially if they are non-controversial, and rush the remaining, irrespective of their importance.
Meaningful meetings have attendees with purpose. Attendees for information sharing and accountability meetings are obvious: those who need to receive and those who present and explain information. Generally, these meetings have many participants. For problem-solving meetings however, the size will vary depending on the nature of the problem. The convener must ensure each person explains his view without interruption and challenge: the emphasis must be on clarifying views before others discuss and contest them. Here are some procedural matters to help us stay focused during a problem-solving meeting.
- Explain fully, specific proposals before debating them.
- Differentiate clarification discussions from challenges to substance.
- Finish one proposal before moving to another.
- Convener should encourage out-of-the-box approaches that challenge the status quo; never suppress discussions until each person understands the issue. Unusual proposals may be the basis for the solution; don’t restrain them just because they are unfamiliar.
- No one should monopolize discussions.
- Convener should be sensitive to different personalities: some folks will need encouragement to present their views.
- Meeting should agree action items: Someone should record key developments and specific follow up activity for each proposal including the following:
- Who – responsibility for specific action
- What – nature of action
- When – timing of next feedback
- Cost – source of resources necessary until next feedback
Although many of the above items apply to all meetings, they are particularly essential during a problem solving meeting.
Start & End Times & Meeting Etiquette
When the convener or other person announce the meeting, the invitation should show clearly the start and end times, and time and responsibility for each agenda item. The meeting should not last longer than 45 minutes to an hour—and should stick to the allotted times.
Do not allow late attendees. Advise all invitees that the meeting will start at the appointed time, so each person needs to be there a few minutes before to ensure an on-time start—and stick to the allotted times. The most offensive thing I see happening in meetings and events is when the convener says she will wait on more people to arrive. That’s an affront to those who arrived on time and merely encourages a sloopy, lateness culture.
Meaningful meetings mean proper time-keeping and the following meeting etiquette:
- No latecomers allowed
- No talking on cell phones or side discussions in the room
- If someone leaves the room to take a call or to talk with a colleague in the corridor, she is not allowed to return
- No extraneous discussions: time spent must focus on agenda items under discussion
- Meeting will end on time and each topic will get its planned time
- No interruptions—each person must finish his thoughts and no one must interrupt. Further, the next comment must refer to the most recent statement unless the convener decides to move to a different topic.
- Each person present is valuable and her views are welcomed and encouraged—nobody will be allowed to monopolize the discussions.
In my “on-going meetings” I insist that my students be in the classroom five minutes before the start time. Students who can’t be on-time can enter during a break period, but not while the class is in session. My students get it and are on time 99.99% of the time.
Meaningful Meetings Need An Air Traffic Controller
Of the etiquette guidelines, one person trying to monopolize disussions is the most difficult but crucial to prevent. Often the convener or chair does not focus on the process, and so people get off topic. A few persons monopolize discussions, and the meeting ends without achieving its purpose. It’s crucial the convener assigns someone to help with ensuring adequate air-time for those with required knowledge—an “air traffic controller” or process consultant (consultant).
When the focus is exclusively on the outcome, introverts and those people not willing to vie for air-time won’t speak. Meanwhile, others will wish to talk but will offer little substance. A process consultant who sits beside the convenor to focus on the process and discretely advises the convenor about deviant process issues is crucial to a meaningful meeting. While the convenor deals with the outcome, the consultant concentrates on the process—body language, non-verbals, excessive speaking, and so on, to ensure appropriate air-time for those folks wanting to contribute.
The consultant’s role is challenging because that person is not part of the discussions, but is trying to encourage, through the convenor, maximum participation from the group. When it’s performed well, the consultant will be alert to the flow of discussions and will ensure folks who would be reluctant to say anything in the meeting, will offer his and her comments on fundamental issues. My experience is these reserved folks usually have the most significant positive impact on the meeting’s outcome.
When is a Meeting Needed
Today, we have many different ways to meet electronically. We must be careful we do not meet because it is convenient, and we don’t have to leave our offices. Essentially, as I mentioned before, there are three broad categories of meetings, beyond needed face-to-face, one-on-one meetings: information sharing, accountability or responsibility reporting, and problem-solving. Still, before meeting, folks should ask the following questions:
- Why do we need to meet?
- Do we need interaction?
- Will we merely be telling people what they can read conveniently?
- Do we need to work together to come up with ideas?
- Will being together be valuable?
- Do so many people need to interact with each other?
- What if we didn’t meet?
- Is this the best use of people’s time recognizing that reducing the number of attendees saves time for everyone—attending and not attending?
Zero Electronic Devices Except For Note-Taking
To increase the probability of a meaningful meeting, we should not allow electronic devices in the room except for note taking. People who are “expecting calls” should not attend. The rule should be simple: If you are invited to the meeting, we need your complete attention. If you expect someone to contact you during the meeting, we will excuse you from the meeting and meet with those willing and able to be present.
Meaningful meeetings are essential for a business to be productive. Meaningful meetings will produce a highly motivated workforce and should be the goal of every CEO. The converse is true: wasteful meetings are counterproductive and expensive.
To be sure, we need many face-to-face meetings because of the need for human interaction. However, we should question whether we need all proposed meetings we plan to hold. As well, where feasible, we should question the need for meetings others arrange and invite us to attend, always suggesting appropriate alternatives.
© 2019 Michel A Bell
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