Why do people seem to spend their entire work day in a series of meetings? I am not a big fan of meetings. I think they waste our time and time is our most precious resource. Think about it for a moment. Only one person can speak at a time while everyone else must be silent. Hopefully we are listening intently and learning, but to be honest it’s way too easy to think about other things that are more pressing. Maybe the meeting is for update purposes only. If that’s the case, then my time is being completely wasted. Now sum all of the time people spend in such meetings and they might become the most significant non-productive cost in virtually any organization.
Meetings are for making decisions, not reviewing information or discussing options or being updated. All of those knowledge acquisition activities can and should be completed prior to the actual decision. I don’t need to attend a meeting to acquire knowledge. I can and should do that at a time that is convenient to me. Maybe the problem is that prior to the past 10 years formal meetings were the only way people can participate in the decision making process. We are so used to the concept of personally attended meetings that we cannot see that there is a better and certainly more productive way.
The keys to effective meetings are collaboration and structure. Rather than “listening” to individual people present information that we may or may not need, we should be able to access that same information electronically, study it at our leisure and respond appropriately. In this case the meeting moderator makes sure the process moves forward and people respond no later than agreed upon dates. All meetings require a moderator or project manager and all “attendees” need to follow guidelines and timetables set by the moderator.
OK, if the concept of meetings needs to be changed, how can we acquire knowledge and make decisions? Since this is a blog post and not a formal article, let’s just summarize the key points.All meetings need to deal with a single specific issue.The moderator needs to define precisely the purpose of the meeting. If a decision is to be made, the issue itself needs to be defined precisely. If the meeting is just for update purposes, the discussion topic needs to be defined precisely. No waffling is permitted.The moderator will decide who should participate and when the decision will be made. If the meeting is for update purposes only, the moderator sets the date for the next update.If the meeting is an on-going discussion, the moderator’s primary responsibility should be following the discussion thread and keeping people on track.If the discussion is to be led by specific people (the primarily stakeholders), they need to create the initial thread. The meeting begins only when this initial thread has been created and distributed to each participant.Each person then has the ability to read each post, consider it and respond accordingly. If they want to add a comment that is not in response to someone else’s previous comment, they can do so.Even though this is a discussion, people should present questions and suggestions for the next steps to be taken.Individuals should also suggest solutions to problem areas raised as a result of the information to be presented at the meeting. While knowledge acquisition is important, virtually all discussions should be oriented toward making progress.
If your firm is small, the most effective vehicle might be simple e-mail exchanges with each participant being copied. The only problem with this approach is that it would be difficult to create a concise history of the discussion. The moderator might have to act as the scribe, creating a master document that contains history.
If your firm is large, this approach will not work well. In this case you would probably need to acquire a software system that has been designed specifically to facilitate an on-line discussion. My fiancé is currently pursuing a master’s degree in nursing and several of her on-line classes require that student groups collaborate to publish papers relating to some aspect of nursing management. Each student can access a discussion board whereby group members can submit original thoughts regarding the subject at hand or respond to a comment made by another group member. The discussion board has the ability to organize the information into new subject areas or associate each student’s submission with another student’s contribution. The moderator (group leader responsible for writing the final paper) can see what has been submitted and ask questions of the group or individual students.
If a face-to-face meeting is required, particularly if a decision needs to be made, the following suggestions might help.The agenda for each meeting, and all accompanying documents, should be distributed sufficiently in advance of the meeting that each person has the time to read and assimilate the information, and form an opinion as to what needs to be done.The agenda itself must be decision oriented. If someone has reservations regarding the decision that will be made, those reservations should be discussed in advance of the meeting (using some of the suggestions made earlier). Each person should be ready to make a decision.Do not schedule more topics for discussion than can be covered in one hour.Encourage people who do not speak up to do so, and counsel in private those who want to take control of the meeting.Do not criticize people for mistakes made or suggestions that prove to be unworkable. Brainstorming and taking risks are important success factors.Limit the discussion on each topic.Make a decision at the end of each discussion.Use each meeting to praise people for their individual and collective efforts.
Meetings can be an enormous non-productive cost. We have the ability to acquire knowledge, discuss issues and make decisions in a collaborative electronic environment. Many of us can increase our productivity if only we didn’t have to attend an endless series of meetings that really don’t seem to have any useful purpose.