Making Meetings Meaningful: Have an agenda, insist on punctuality and turn off the cell phones
You walk out of the staff meeting your boss holds every Thursday morning, head to the company cafeteria for coffee, and once again find yourself discussing with co-workers how little the 45-minute gathering accomplished.
That scene plays out daily around in organizations large and small as workers, many of them juggling more duties on tighter deadlines because of economic cutbacks, wonder why so much time is wasted in meetings.
"We find meetings typically are set up for failure at the outset," said Channing Rollo, director of business identification at Proudfoot Consulting Co., an Atlanta-based management consulting practice. "Nearly half [of meetings] don't have sufficient preparation, clear agendas or objectives. People sort of walk in unprepared, so everyone's time is wasted. We all know this from our day-to-day lives. We walk in and say, 'There goes an hour.' "
In a study of meetings at 235 companies worldwide, Proudfoot found fewer than half, or 41 percent, had an appropriate agenda set before the meeting took place; 38 percent clearly followed and focused on the agenda; and only 13 percent had a follow-up action plan that was reviewed before the meeting concluded.
Part of the reason meetings frequently fizzle is that managers or team leaders who organize them forget the fundamentals, said Ruth Parkinson, marketing manager in Proudfoot's London office who authored the study.
"There is no agenda set, no time limit set, people don't read the action points when they come out, people arrive late, and some are taking phone calls during the meeting."
Glenn Parker, a Skillman, N.J.-based team building consultant and co-author of the book, "Meeting Excellence: 33 Tools to Lead Meetings That Get Results," said meetings have become less effective because there are more being held.
"There are many more organizations using teams to get the work done. So one of the ways teams get work done is to have meetings. And with more meetings, there's more likelihood of bad meetings."
Mr. Parker's 2006 book was based on recommendations for meeting efficiency that he and co-author Robert Hoffman created for Novartis, a global pharmaceuticals business.
Among the most critical component to achieve better meetings, Mr. Parker said, is planning for goals the group needs to accomplish, "instead of just a list of things we want to talk about."
"Every meeting should have a purpose or what we call a 'key meeting outcome.' What is the one thing we need to get done to walk away and say that was a successful meeting? That should be on your agenda."
Another recurring problem, he said, is keeping the meeting on track.
"One of the biggest complaints we found at Novartis was that people go off on tangents and as a result, time doesn't get managed well and some things don't get considered because people have to leave and go to the next meeting. ... So people walk out saying, 'I wasted my time.' "
To prevent that, he advises the person conducting the meeting to open it by stating the key outcome the group needs to address, sticking to the agenda, and summarizing the action plan before the meeting wraps up.
Organizations can reduce the number of meetings "by being a little thoughtful," Mr. Parker said.
"Think before you announce a meeting. In fact is there a real purpose? Just because it's Tuesday at 10 a.m. doesn't mean we have to have the regular staff meeting."
And what about some of the most annoying elements of meetings -- the persistent late arrivals and cell phone interruptions?
"My rule of thumb is that you turn everything off during a meeting," said Mr. Parker. "Or you turn the phone to vibrate, because when you're here, we want you to be here unless your wife is expecting a baby. Part of etiquette also is to set the cultural tone. Meetings should start and end on time. It's disrespectful to others if you wait 15 minutes for others to show up, and those who normally show up on time say, 'What am I doing here?' "
While many workers -- and some managers -- might dream of a world without meetings, those who have studied meetings don't expect that to happen anytime soon.
"I see more of a proliferation because that's how work is getting done," said Mr. Parker. "Most companies have business interests all over the world. How else are you going to work with people if you can't communicate with them?"
Said Ms. Parkinson: "We're not anti-meeting per se. Companies just need to be clear about people's roles and expectations. As humans, I think we need to meet and talk."
First Published June 2, 2008 12:00 am