Running Effective Meetings

Business meetings do not have to be the most despised activity in your work day.

Meetings are a fact of life in any organizational endeavor. They facilitate communications and enable individuals to work together for a common goal. Without meetings, you may not be able to accomplish a large and complex project like a software application.

Many people dislike meetings. Their dislike has little to do with the purpose of the meetings, which is often relevant and important. Rather, to many of you, meetings seem like a waste of time. A few of you would rather go to the dentist than have to attend a regularly-scheduled status meeting in your organization.

In most cases, people dislike meetings because they are poorly conceived and run. They do not despise meetings because of an inherent dislike of gatherings in general. Meetings can appear a waste of time, in that it feels like nothing is ever accomplished.

There are two possible reasons for your poor impression of meetings.

First the meeting facilitator simply doesn't know the proper way of running meetings. This problem is often exacerbated by the interpersonal dynamics of participants in the meeting. For example, the meeting facilitator is not usually the most senior person in the room, which can make for uncomfortable moments when determining what topics are most important and merit discussion, and drawing conclusions.

Second some of the participants of the meeting may not want to make resolutions about issues within the context of the meeting. This type of participant opposition is usually an organizational problem that cannot be solved within the context of the meeting.

So what constitutes a productive meeting? You'll discover several characteristics that differentiate a successful meeting from a futile one.

A successful meeting has a clearly defined purpose and expected outcomes. The matters discussed should not be trivial. They should be entirely within the purview of the group participating in the meeting, minimizing the need to postpone a decision until others can be consulted.

A successful meeting only includes people with a stake in either the decision or the outcome. Too often more people are invited to meetings for purposes of prestige or inclusiveness. By limiting participation, you'll have a smaller group that's more likely to achieve the meeting objectives. Management experts suggest that no more than one person in a particular group or function should be permitted to attend the same meeting.

A successful meeting is like drinking a fine wine; it should not be called before its time. If you can't make a decision yet, or if you don't have all of the relevant facts, then you don't need to hold a meeting.

These characteristics of success also help you envision the characteristices of a futile meeting. It has too many participants, some with no practical reason to attend. Or, relevant participants may have been overlooked and not invited to the meeting. Participants may also be missing facts and information. Perhaps the most common, and worst, meeting flaw is that the objective is not well defined, and the futile meeting invariably ends late and with no decisions or action items gained.

Here are a few things you can do to plan and execute successful meetings, or help your team members run more effective meetings.

Prepare a written agenda, and distribute it prior to the meeting. This agenda is your roadmap for the meeting. It outlines participants' roles and let them know how to prepare. In some cases, the agenda may tell participants that their presence is not required, reducing the size of the meeting.

Make sure that the meeting starts on time. Timeliness is especially important with a recurring meeting, and all participants should be expected to show up on time. When participants habitually show up at the meeting ten minutes late, they waste the time of prompt participants and show the lack of importance they place on the meeting. Requiring late participants to pay a token amount, perhaps a dollar, into a kitty that can be used to treat the group to lunch or an activity is an effective way to encourage timeliness. The embarrassment of tardiness typically hurts more than the fine.

Similarly, avoid facilitating meetings that last longer than scheduled. Long meetings disrupt the schedules of participants, and you're not likely to achieve anything of great significance during the overrun. Management experts suggest that meetings over ninety minutes are unproductive.

Follow your agenda during the meeting to keep the discussion on track. Sometimes you'll find it's important to encourage open discussion, but even open discussion must be related to the purpose, or agenda, of the meeting. If the discussion moves away from its purpose, then you can suggest that it's continued after the meeting, or at another meeting.

Summarize action items and decisions made during the meeting at the end of the meeting. In the case of action items, make sure that the person responsible for the item agrees and commits to implementing the action. Also ensure that all participants agree on decisions before they're finalized. After the meeting, send out an e-mail to the group with a written summary of actions and decisions.

Take on the role of a facilitator, rather than decision-maker, if you're running the meeting. This is especially important if the facilitator is not the most senior employee in the room. If you're facilitating the meeting, make sure that rank and expertise amongst participants is balanced so that the meeting goals are achieved within the time period you scheduled. While you may not be the most knowledgeable person in the room, you are responsible as facilitator for ensuring that participants would rather be at the meeting than in the dentist chair.

About the Author

Peter Varhol is the executive editor, reviews of Redmond magazine and has more than 20 years of experience as a software developer, software product manager and technology writer. He has graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics, and has taught both subjects at the university level.

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