How to Really Manage Meetings
The best-conducted forum will always be the one where a concise, specific agenda has been prepared and distributed in advance so that the attendees know what to expect.
Unless your business is a sole proprietorship, you undeniably are confronted on an ongoing basis with the need to meet with the people you work with to discuss new policies or procedures, plan projects, and generally to discourse about your operations. But wait a minute – the need to meet? Do we always actually need to meet? That’s a question worth giving careful consideration to, because workplace meetings have the well-deserved reputation of sometimes being unnecessary, counter-productive, or otherwise of little benefit to those required to attend.
But why is that the case? The reality is that economy of effort should be the underlying driver for the operational decisions we make in our businesses each day. Regardless of the size of your staff or operating budget, it’s in your best interest to focus on those things which bring the greatest reward with a minimum of investment. And yet, business meetings – which are held in high regard as absolute “must-haves” – can sometimes end up being little more than frustrating time-eaters. Irrespective of the goals and motivations behind them, not every meeting is the success story the chairperson would like to believe that it is.
So what, exactly, is the happy medium? Rather than succumbing to the temptation to simply avoiding meetings altogether, a more constructive approach might be to examine some of the negative factors which cause meetings to fall short of their potential and to look at ways to remove them from the equation. Meetings, like so many other facets of daily operations for small businesses or nonprofits, can sometimes occur as though everyone (including the meeting chair) were somehow operating on autopilot. Without an intentional and structured approach, the meeting is doomed from the start, and what little practical information is absorbed by the attendees will fail to justify the loss of paid employee time associated with it.
Every participant in every meeting is actually a stakeholder in its legitimacy and success, and the first person in this equation is the organizer, who also usually ends up being the chair. If you are the owner of your business and you find yourself in the position of frequently scheduling meetings, stop right away and ask yourself –why? The idea of meetings being a great collaborative experience unfortunately doesn’t always play out that way once everyone is seated at the conference table. The potential is certainly there, but sometimes the scenario is more like a speech than a meeting, with the chairperson talking endlessly for an hour with no opportunity for input from anyone else.
If you’re the one conducting the meeting, you owe it to every attendee to make sure that their time is well spent and that they’ll actually benefit from having been there. Various surveys conducted during the past decade show that one of the major gripes employees express regarding meetings is that they’re often completely unnecessary. One common opinion is that the information shared in most meetings would be better communicated through emails, where each team member could review and disseminate it at their own pace. Keep that very much at the forefront of your thoughts when you contemplate scheduling a meeting – would an email be quicker and a lot more effective?
An even greater frustration for team members can be a meeting in which everyone is provided with a printed copy of the information being discussed, only to discover that the chairperson spends the next 60 minutes reading the contents verbatim. This is problematic on two levels – first, it demeans the team members by implying that they’re somehow incapable of reading on their own, and second, it becomes nothing more than clutter which eats up the allotted meeting time and prevents any real group discussion from taking place. If hard copies are distributed for each attendee, ensure that there’s adequate time to start an actual conversation about the material. This is an amazing opportunity for you to glean all of the insight, skill, and wisdom of the people on your team, so be sure you don’t squander it by not giving them the chance to participate.
Another counterproductive aspect of far too many meetings is the chaos that ensues when the person chairing hasn’t given any real thought to crafting an agenda. The best-conducted forum will always be the one where a concise, specific agenda has been prepared and distributed in advance so that the attendees know what to expect. This kind of intentional approach can be a tremendous catalyst for collaboration because prior notice of what will be discussed is bound to spark conversation among team members in advance. This sets the stage for a real discussion of ideas and concerns once everyone is in the group setting. The agenda also addresses another negative factor which plagues business meetings, and that’s the failure on the part of the chairperson to stay on topic.
If the subject of the day is discussing a new procedure for the Contracts department, don’t suddenly lurch into a discourse about how everyone is making too many copies on the printer at the front desk. There’s certainly a valid venue for that – a general team meeting allowing people to raise questions and concerns – but if you’ve convened to discuss specific subjects, don’t stray from them. An open-ended, “anything goes” conversation is best suited for a brainstorming session where the whole point is to throw a myriad of ideas onto the table for everyone’s consideration. A standard, subject-centered meeting needs to employ a kind of real-time editing wherein the chairperson is diligent about guiding the conversation back to the primary topic if things start to drift.
Perhaps the most significant component of a properly guided meeting is the concept of time management. This is also the aspect that every single attendee, including the chairperson, has a vested interest in. Ironically, time management is taken very lightly in a variety of ways, all with negative impacts on the success of the meeting. The first manifestation of this is failing to start at the appointed time, which does nothing to endear those team members who may already be grumbling at having to attend a meeting when they have work to be done. Late starts immediately create a climate of everything being unnecessarily rushed, and the integrity of the agenda (presuming that there is one) is already compromised out of the gate.
Even meetings which start when scheduled and adhere to what’s in the agenda can go off the rails if one or two people end up commandeering the proceedings. Everyone should have the ability to interject into the discussion, but some participants inevitably end up taking the reins and talking well beyond what would be considered a reasonable duration. This is where the chair needs to gently but firmly step in and bring things back under control. Failing to curtail an endless monologue during a meeting does a real disservice to those attendees who are quietly and patiently waiting for their turn to speak. This also does nothing to help capture the attention of team members focusing more on their phones than on the items being discussed.
A meeting, if properly managed, can be one of the most effective communication tools for any small business or nonprofit, a time to both give and receive information. A casual attitude toward how meetings are conducted will rarely yield successful results, but approaching them with a real sense of purpose and structure can be extremely effective. The truth is simple – if you don’t manage meetings, they’ll manage you. Resolve to keep a firm hand on how you conduct them, commit to properly utilizing the time you’ve allotted, and do everything you can to transform them into vibrant forums to strengthen both your organization and the people who serve it.
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