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A Waste of Time: Best Practices For Productive Business Meetings
A Waste of Time: Learn best practics for turning your company meetings into fruitful exchanges for growing your business and increasing production. It can be easy to let meetings turn into business disasters. Find out how to save your company from meeting hell.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 4/1/2007

   If you’re like most people the announcement of a company meeting excites you about as much as a trip to the dentist. It may seem as productive as shoveling dirt from one pile to another or as inspiring as a Tony Robbins infomercial. But it doesn’t have to be this way. While you may never have A+ meetings all the time, managers can certainly do things to make them more productive.

   All too often meetings get treated like a necessary evil when they should be considered a precious resource. Meetings are only one of a number of communication techniques that can be used during the work day. It is never good to hold a meeting just to communicate something that could be written in an e-mail. It is even worse to send out an e-mail and then hold a meeting just to read what is in the e-mail. But those kinds of meetings take place every day in both small and large businesses.

   Meetings work best to explore problems, review performance, discuss new ventures, or strategize production. When you need real dialogue, a table is the best piece of technology to figure out a solution not e-mail or memos. Brain dumps where managers are simply sharing information may be better left to written communication. Meetings might be a good follow-up in those cases if employees are not getting the message.

   You may be in more informal meetings than you realize. Those “hey, you got a minute?” conversations can take a lot of time. Effective meetings at the right time may help eliminate the need for those discussions if everybody gets on the same page.

   Good meetings start with a plan. While you should feel free to venture away from the agenda if something significant happens, managers should at least know what the reason for meeting is and what they hope to accomplish. Don’t let the meeting get bogged down in a discussion of minutiae.

   No meeting can be everything to everyone. Meetings without a specific purpose are doomed to failure from the start. A “meeting stew” is poor recipe for success. Without direction, managers babble, employees ramble on about something that only matters to them, and everyone develops a bad taste for future meetings.

   Effective facilitators have to know when to say when. There is a moment where meetings go on beyond their usefulness. At this point, people are meeting just to meet and private informal discussion may be necessary before any big group meeting takes place again on the matter. You always want to end on a high note. Sometimes it is better to cut a meeting off early than to trudge into a deeper issue only to find that nothing is accomplished and everyone leaves the room disgruntled or disillusioned.

   Meetings should not go over the allotted time except in rare instances. Starting and ending on time indicates that everyone respects each other’s time. This also limits the production impact of the meeting. If everyone is waiting for the one guy still on the phone, that results in lost productivity. 

   One pallet company owner recently told me that he has as few meetings as possible because they typically turn into gripe sessions. This can be true especially if employees don’t understand the big picture or think they always get the short end of the stick. Setting up proper rules about meeting etiquette can help alleviate this problem. For example, the facilitator may say that in a brainstorm or general discussion no idea can be shot down, not even by the top dog in the room. Generally, companies with effective avenues for addressing employee concerns and complaints will also find that gripes occur less frequently during business meetings.

   Have the right people in the room. I don’t know how many times I have had the same meeting two, three and four times because all the players can’t be available at the same time. Don’t hold a meeting until all the stakeholders in the process can be there. You might want to consider inviting a few outsiders from another department because they may add a fresh perspective. This should be done to get their unique perspective not to force others to share in the misery of meeting hell.

    Don’t run cookie cutter meetings. Utilize a variety of meeting styles, methods, places, durations, facilitators, etc. Consider holding a meeting where everyone stands up. These fast meetings should be about one issue or the day’s current activities. Because everyone is standing, nobody will feel inclined to go on forever talking about nothing.

   If meetings tend to run too long, hold meetings toward the end of the day, when you know people will be in a hurry to get home. This will limit aimless chatter.

   Recognizing top performers in front of the entire group is an easy way to build morale. You might want to give some kind of prize for the best idea or have some other method to recognize and reward participation. Contests can be good ways to get the creative juices flowing in a board meeting.

   Some people are just afraid to speak up in a big group. Consider tossing out a problem and then break up employees into small groups to discuss possible ideas for ten minutes. Have everyone come back and report on what they discussed.

   Your conference room may not be the best place to hold a meeting. White walls and fluorescent lights have a tendency to put people to sleep. You may want to take the group to another location.

   Adding a little levity to the meeting can break the ice. Of course, you don’t want an ice breaker that offends people or causes them to shut down. Meetings are different than gatherings. Meetings are called to fix a problem or explore a certain issue. Gatherings have less purpose other than for co-workers to get to know each other. Food or snacks can be a good way to lighten the atmosphere although managers may have to work to keep things on track if the meeting starts to stray over to gathering mode.

   Just because you are the boss doesn’t mean you know the first thing about running an effective meeting. This can be hard to accept, especially if you are the boss. Consider getting training for those who will regularly facilitate your meetings. This should include managers and those who are responsible for spreading your corporate vision.

   All meetings should have a clear outcome that is recapped at the end with a quick review. Assign someone to take minutes and keep track of what was said. Consider having the top managers take notes while middle level managers or competent, lower level workers facilitate the meeting. This changes the dynamic and may lead to some innovative solutions from the floor that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

   Specific assignments should be communicated verbally as well as in writing through a follow-up e-mail or memo. Managers must then follow-up in a few days to let the employees know that the company is serious about what was discussed. A lack of management follow-up is a major reason why many ideas never get beyond the conference room.

   In all cases, each company has to find what works for its workforce. Managers shouldn’t be afraid to take risks and try new approaches. The key to unlocking your potential may be the one thing you haven’t tried yet.

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