#215 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 5          May 1996

Garbage-Free Meetings
by Sharon Lippincott

Ms. Lippincott is principal of TeamWorks PLUS in Monroeviille, Pennsylvania (phone 412-733-4720), helping people in organizations understand each other more clearly and quickly so they can all row in the same direction.  She is author of Meetings:  Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts (Lighthouse Point Press, Pittsburgh, 1994).                                                                

You’re sitting at your desk, eagerly pouring over your latest results.  They’re looking good and your mind races ahead. Suddenly you realize someone has called your name.  You look over your shoulder as a colleague asks, "You haven't forgotten the meeting again, have you?"  "No! Of course not!  I was just finishing up a few things here," you fib, groaning inwardly.  "What a colossal waste of time," you think to yourself.  "Why can't they just have their dumb meetings and leave me alone? It's not like anything ever gets done in them.  " But, you get up and slog down the hall in resignation, muttering "Garbage in, garbage out--what a waste!"  You long ago accepted the reality that if they let you get away with skipping meetings that didn't matter, everyone would want to, and heaven knows that would never do!    

Research supports your perception that meetings are indeed wasting a lot of your time. In a survey reported in Industry Week, two thousand managers claimed that about one-third of the time they spend in meetings is wasted.  The cost of this waste is staggering. If they spend only fifteen hours a week in meetings, they’re probably wasting five or more of those hours.  The impact on their productivity is the same as if they took an extra six weeks of paid vacation each year!  You can keep track of the time you spend in meetings and figure your own annual waste factor.

Fortunately, you are not condemned to recycling that waste for the rest of your career.  There are many things you can do to hold (or attend) fewer, shorter meetings that get better results.  The first step is to look at meetings as a process for transforming ideas and information into decisions   and actions.  From this process perspective, a meeting begins when someone decides that other people need to be involved in a decision or collective action of some sort.  It continues through the collective time spent in the meeting room, and doesn’t end until all the decisions and action items are completely implemented.  By all reports, the world is full of unfinished meetings!                                     

Take a close look at each phase of the process to trim waste and improve results.

Before the Meeting                                                            

Everyone is aware of the middle part of the meeting process.  Few realize that most problems in the visible meeting directly result from failures in the preparation phase before the meeting. Even a lack of results after the meeting can often be traced to poor preparation, or the G.I.G.O. Principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out).  A three-point checklist can help you ensure a garbage-free meeting:  Purpose, People and Plan.   

PURPOSE--A crisp, clear, concise purpose statement lays the foundation for the success of any meeting.  A powerful purpose statement finishes the sentence, "We are holding this meeting to..." For example, "... decide which new CAD software package to purchase," or "... identify the source of the high deviation rate in the xyz process."  Once you have a clear purpose statement, you may find that holding a meeting isn’t the most effective way to achieve that purpose.  E-mail, memos, phone calls, or distributing reports may get the same job done, faster and easier.

PEOPLE--With a clear purpose in mind, you can select a concentrated group with expertise or insight relating to that purpose.  If you are deciding about CAD software, you probably don't need to include people who won't either be using it or approving the expenditure.  If you are solving problems, you need to include people with expertise and knowledge of the process as well as the technology.                        

If your meeting group must grow beyond seven or eight people, a trained facilitator can shorten the time needed to achieve the purpose and also improve the quality of results.  When different levels of management are involved, a facilitator is especially helpful in defusing power issues.

PLAN--Your plan for the meeting, commonly known as the agenda, includes logistics such as time, place, and date.  It also includes a listing of objectives to be achieved, or anticipated outcomes, and details that will help people prepare ahead of time to make strong contributions and decisions.                                              

Ideally this agenda should be circulated to all participants a few days before the actual meeting.  In practice, this is almost never done.  Research has shown that approximately one-third of all meetings use an agenda, but almost without exception, if there is an agenda, it’s simply handed out at the beginning of the meeting.

A last minute agenda is better than nothing, but early distribution can be a gold mine.  As part of their meeting process improvement efforts at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute, a ground rule was drafted that nobody had to attend a meeting if they didn’t receive an agenda at least 48 hours before the meeting.   Pete Malpass, a staff member,  documented continuous improvement over two years in their meeting process that has resulted in a cost saving of two-thirds.  He attributes a large part of this phenomenal success to the now almost universal use of predistributed agendas.                                       

During the Meeting                                                           

The visible part of the meeting comprises two modules, Discussion and Decision, that often cycle through several loops to cover all of the items on the agenda.  For best results, the discussion/decision cycle needs to be enclosed within Opening and Closing routines.  Both elements are commonly overlooked.                                         

OPENING--It takes more than just sitting down in chairs and loosening the jawbones to make a meeting successful.  Use the following pointers to get your meeting off on the right foot:

  Start on time.  State the time on the agenda and stick to it.  People will soon get the message that you mean business and readjust their internal clocks to arrive at the designated time rather than the "real" starting time.                                                                       

  Review the agenda.  Bring extra copies for those who arrive without one.  Review the items on it, and get agreement from the group on the content and time line.  Any time spent negotiating the agenda up front will pay handsome dividends later in the meeting.                                     

  Establish or review ground rules.  Ground rules and the agenda are the two most important elements for smoothly run meetings.  Ground rules can define the discussion process, i.e., the length of turns to speak, the role of a facilitator, a ban on "killer phrases," etc.  Along with a clear purpose and objectives, they serve the purpose of creating shared understanding of what the meeting is all about and how it will accomplish its task.                                                                                                                     

DISCUSSION--This is generally what people think of when they think of a meeting.  Use the following pointers to keep it from becoming a frustrating waste of time:  

• Stick to the agenda.  When people agree on content and time at the beginning, everyone has a vested interest in sticking to it.  Use simple refocusing statements like, "That's very interesting, but it's off the subject.  Let's get back to discussing Item X."                            

  Enforce the ground rules.  This is everyone's responsibility, not just the leader's. Ground rules are often thought of as a restriction of free-flowing discussion. Actually, they serve to unclog the flow of thoughts and ideas, allowing more people greater opportunity to participate.              

  Think win/win.  When differences arise, encourage people to focus on needs and requirements, not positions.  This leaves room for innovative solutions that may be better than either alternative.

  Record and save lists of ideas that are generated.  People find it easier to stick to the subject when they can be sure the occasional inspired thought won't get lost in the shuffle.

DECISION--Decisions can take many forms, and they can be delayed for avoidable reasons. Use these tips to improve your decisions:             

  Arrive prepared.  One reason to distribute the agenda ahead of time is to allow people time to ask questions, get approvals, and generally be ready to decide.                                               

  Use the best strategy.  Don't waste time on forming consensus for the sake of a fad, and don't be arbitrary when you need the enthusiastic support of stakeholders.    

CLOSURE--Schedule time on the agenda for a strong close.  If everyone gets up and dashes off just as the last agenda item concludes, lots of things are likely to fall through the cracks. Use these pointers for a strong close:                                                                    

  Evaluate the meeting.  This can be as simple as checking the list of anticipated outcomes to see whether you accomplished them.  Other indications of a successful meeting include starting and ending on time, and general satisfaction with the process and outcomes.

  Review decisions and assignments.  Make sure everyone understands things the same way.

  Plan the next meeting.  If a follow-up meeting is planned, agree now on the basic agenda and format. This simplifies the leader's job and helps people plan ahead and stay focused.     

After the Meeting                                                       

One of the most common complaints about meetings is that nothing happens afterwards. Ensuring results is a shared responsibility and falls into three domains:  Action, Communication and Tracking.                                                                         

ACTION--Nothing happens until somebody does something.  If you say you will, be sure you do.

COMMUNICATION--Just as circulating the agenda gets expectations aligned before the meeting, distributing minutes or some report afterward keeps everyone on the same page.  The meeting report can also inform people who weren't present about results, and help absent members catch up.                                                                   

TRACKING--When assignments are made, include a date for accountability.  An agreement should be made between the person responsible for the action and the person overseeing the process on the best way to track and ensure progress.       

Nobody can guarantee that if you follow all these suggestions, you can take an extra six weeks a year of vacation.  But it is certain that your meetings will smell a lot better without all the garbage.

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Additional Tips for Individuals                                           

Most of the suggestions so far have been targeted to people who convene meetings.  Quite likely, even if you lead a lot, you attend even more as a participant.  Don't despair.  You can have a positive impact even on these meetings.                                                  

BEFORE THE MEETING--Ask for an agenda if you haven't received one. Then decide whether attending the meeting will be a good use of your time.  You may choose to excuse yourself if you don't have a significant contribution to make.  You may also recognize that someone else would be as well or better qualified to take your place.  If you do attend, take time to bone up on the material before the meeting.                                                             

DURING THE MEETING--If there is no agenda, take the initiative and help draft one.  Then do what you can to refocus the discussion on that agenda when it strays.  Ask clarifying questions at the end to review assignments and ensure everyone leaves with the same understanding of outcomes.                                      

AFTER THE MEETING--Follow through on any obligations you agreed to.  Assist any way you can in getting the meeting report out and tracking overall results.

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