Meeting Adjourned!

by John Cesarone, Ph.D., P.E.

Meetings in a corporate or business setting are usually considered a necessary evil.  How can we make them as productive as possible while minimizing the pain they cause and the time they consume?  Presented below are some practical tips:

1. First and foremost, if at all possible, don't have a meeting!  Meetings take time, disrupt peoples' schedules, and waylay them from other productive activities that they should be engaging in.

2. Okay then, how do you know when you do need a meeting?  This depends on how interactive the tasks and people are in your organization, and how difficult it is to get the required people together through other mechanisms (such as dropping by their office, catching them on the phone, arranging a conference call or net meeting, etc.).  If decisions or plans need to be made that require three or more people be involved at the same time, and people are hard to round up any other way, then meetings become necessary. 

(There are other reasons for a meeting, of course: dissemination of information is one, but if communication is only one way, a memo might work just as well. Maybe not, if questions are anticipated, or if you want the psychological benefit of personal contact.  But we are talking about working meetings here.)

3. Who should be present at a meeting? Only those people necessary for the required discussions or decisions; those that you wouldn't be able to get together at one time any other way.

4. Another reason to have a meeting: it prevents infinite buck-passing.  When you get all the players together at once, you eliminate the "well, I need to talk to Steve before I can promise you a delivery date" syndrome.

5. When you do have a meeting, make sure you have an agenda, prepared in advance.  Discuss it at the beginning of the meeting so that everyone knows why they are there, and what needs to get accomplished before they can go back to their desks and start getting some work done again.

6. Set a time limit: if you think about how much everyone is getting paid while they are at the meeting, it adds up to a pretty expensive total hourly rate!

7. Make sure that there is one meeting leader!  His job is to make sure all agenda topics are covered, and that things are kept moving along so you finish on time.

8. One of the meeting leader's responsibilities is to keep the meeting on track and on time.  He should divide the total time of the meeting by the number of agenda items for a rough estimate of how long to spend on each item (of course some items will need more or less time than others).  

9. On the other hand, digressions from the agenda can be good; they can uncover issues that might not have been anticipated.  The meeting leader must make a judgment call regarding how long to let a digression go on.

10. Designate a minute-taker to keep track of decisions made and action items assigned; he should also distribute these minutes afterwards.  They need not be detailed, listing all discussions and disagreements, etc  Just make sure that the minutes capture what was accomplished, what was decided, and what was assigned.  Also note that the person with this task has much power: his interpretation of events becomes the official record of the meeting!

11. For each action item, assign one and only one person to be responsible for it getting done.  It's okay to have several other people designated to assist, but one person needs to know that his butt is on the line for getting the task done.

12. All action items should have deadlines; if they span further than the next meeting, have an intermediate milestone for the next meeting so that progress can be monitored.

13. At the next meeting, it makes sense to go over action items from the previous meeting, to see if they have been performed, or are keeping up with their milestones (that is, the approximate percentage completion is on track); pride in accomplishments, and shame at failure, are huge motivators, and people will not want to report failure in front of their peers any more often than necessary.

Is all that just too much information? Well, it can all be boiled down to these three simple rules:
   a) Have a plan and stick to it.
   b) Assign responsibilities.
   c) Use feedback on the responsibilities that were met and those that were missed.

© 2009  John Cesarone, Ph.D., P.E