How to run effective meetings.

E-mail diminishes the need for staff meetings and offers a number of advantages.
As soon as a company grows to more people than can be counted on one hand, the temptation builds to call frequent staff meetings in order to keep everyone “on the same page.” Not a bad idea in theory. Without regular communication and feedback, you can end up with one of those situations in which the proverbial right hand doesn't know what the left is doing.

Good intentions have a way of going awry, however. Meetings can take on lives of their own and not only drain productivity from the company, but result in MIS-communication.

Nonproductive meetings have been a pet peeve of mine throughout my career. Between work and various volunteer organizations that I've belonged to, months of my life have been frittered away in bull sessions that accomplished little or nothing. Hundreds of times I've walked away from a meeting muttering to myself about what a waste of time that was. I'm sure all of you have had the same experience.

The good news is that the need for staff meetings is diminishing, thanks to e-mail. Probably 90 percent of the information that needs to be conveyed to people you work with can be better done via e-mail than in face-to-face group encounters. I preside over the editorial staffs of three different trade magazines, and we don't conduct more than a half-dozen staff meetings a year. Almost all of the communication we need to put out these magazines can be done electronically.

Advantages of e-mail over meetings are plentiful:

  • E-mail provides an automatic printable record of who said what and who's responsible for certain tasks.

  • You can copy as many or as few people as necessary. Persons not copied generally don't know they've been excluded, which avoids the hurt feelings and office politics that result when certain individuals get excluded from group meetings.

  • E-mail is much, much quicker and encourages to-the-point brevity.

  • You can send or read e-mail any time of night and day. Participants need not disrupt their work to be present at a specific time and place.

Of course, word-smithing is our trade, so the way our magazine staffs communicate may not be applicable to everyone. There also are disadvantages to e-mail. Some people communicate better verbally than with the written word, and people who are not good writers but are full of good ideas may not get a fair hearing via e-mail. Moreover, e-mail misses the body language and voice inflections that are so important to communication.

So meetings are here to stay. The goal should be to minimize them and make those that do take place as productive as possible. Here are some tips to achieve those objectives.

1. Avoid regularly scheduled meetings.

Monday morning staff meetings are a hoary tradition in the business world. They're aimed at making plans for the coming week and reviewing progress made the previous week. Construction firms in particular find these sessions helpful to track project schedules.

Sometimes they are. But the problem with regularly scheduled meetings is the meetings become an end unto themselves rather than a means to an end. Participants get in the habit of meeting because they're supposed to have a meeting, whether or not there is anything important to be discussed.

2. All meetings need a written agenda.

A meeting without an agenda is a bull session. Sometimes great ideas come out of bull sessions (B.S.). But B.S. can take place during lunch breaks, over cocktails, on the golf course, in fishing boats or wherever else colleagues may gather on their own time. B.S. has no place during business hours. If you are going to occupy the time of people on your payroll while the meter is running, it needs to be for the purpose of discussing specific business issues. That requires a meeting, not a bull session.

And a meeting requires an agenda. It should outline the topics for discussion at the meeting, the more specific the better. You cannot address, say, “business problems,” in a one-hour meeting. There's only enough time to address one or two specific problems. So the agenda would be better to reference “collections” or “tardiness” or “inspections” or some other issue that you actually might be able to get a handle on in a brief period of time.

Agendas should have time limits assigned to each item on the agenda, and the meeting itself should have a time limit. This would vary, of course, with the scope of the meeting, but you're kidding yourself if you think you'll resolve three times as many issues in a three-hour meeting as you would in a one-hour session. People wear out. Discussions go off on tangents. Bathroom breaks become necessary. Keep meetings as short as possible.

3. Productive meetings require defined objectives.

What is the purpose of any given meeting, and what is the expected outcome? If you can't give a pointed answer to these questions, don't bother holding a meeting.

A single objective is best. Some good reasons to hold a meeting include:

  • To inform large numbers of people of something in which they all have a stake.

  • To brainstorm or discuss a specific proposal.

  • To organize a project and assign responsibilities.

  • To train.

  • To dispel a rumor or break some news, good or bad.

Dictators run the best meetings.

4. Dictators run the best meetings.

A tight agenda and time limits are useless without a dictator to enforce them. Whoever presides over a meeting must be ruthless in keeping to the agenda and to the time limits. S/he ought to verge on rudeness in cutting off speakers who ramble and make sure everyone keeps to the topic at hand. If nobody volunteers, the meeting leader needs to assign specific tasks to specific individuals, along with deadlines for completion. If a discussion topic runs past its time limit, the meeting chairperson needs to decide whether to cut off discussion for another time or continue it and table something else on the agenda for a later time.

Without a dictator presiding, meetings always degenerate into bull sessions - always!

5. Someone needs to take notes and disseminate them.

Without a written record, the same issues tend to get debated in meeting after meeting without resolution. That's when people say, “Didn't we cover that already?” while everyone scratches their heads in vague recollection. Moreover, everyone has selective memory. We tend to remember discussions that went to our liking, while forgetting those that didn't. Also, notes assure that specific individuals are held accountable for tasks assigned.

I use the word “notes” rather than “minutes” because most minutes are couched in innocuous language that details what was discussed but not the disposition. They'll say something like, “Bob brought up the issue of collections,” without saying that the CFO was given a week to get money from the worst deadbeats or else initiate legal action.

Notes should summarize the meeting in as much detail as the recorder can keep track of. Copies should be sent to all meeting participants, with names listed so everyone has a record of who was present - along with the time and date of the meeting. The recorder should invite anyone who disputes a point in the notes to take it up with the recorder within a reasonable deadline. If someone disputes the notes, revised notes may be necessary - again, disseminated to all participants. If nobody objects, then the notes stand as an accurate record of that meeting.

6. Calculate the cost of a meeting.

Break down the hourly pay of each participant - estimate it if you don't have precise knowledge. Add the total and multiply by the hours or fraction thereof taken up by the meeting.

You'll find that most staff meetings cost hundreds of dollars when you factor in the value of people's time, and it doesn't take much to tip the scale into four-figure territory. Then ask yourself whether the results of that meeting were worth the cost.

Would you be willing to pay $1,000 to support a bull session? Few of you would answer yes. But I bet many of you have done it without knowing by eating up valuable staff time with unproductive meetings.

Before you call everyone together, first consider whether there is a better way to discuss or disseminate the information. Ask yourself how much time could be saved using alternatives such as individual conferences, phone calls or e-mail. Don't spend your hard-earned money on bull sessions.