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December 12, 2017

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Tips to improve your meetings

Dear Joan:

As a manager in a large company I find that I spend most of my day in useless meetings. Small talk eats up a lot of the meeting time, we wander every which way and generally don't get much done.

I hear many of my colleagues complain about this but we don't seem to do anything about it. Do you have some suggestions?

Answer:

Since your co-workers are as frustrated as you are about wasting time in meetings, they may be ready for someone (you!) to take the lead to improve them. Why not take the first bold step toward becoming a legend in your own time by suggesting that the participants evaluate a meeting you lead. This is not for the timid. You may not like what you hear but at least the group will breathe a sigh of relief and admire your courage for jousting with this big destroyer of white-collar productivity.

Start with the evaluation techniques that you feel are right for the group and your company's culture. In fact, you might want to start small, say, with a group you think is already functioning pretty well. That way you'll learn from an easy one before venturing into the meeting meat grinders that grind up major chunks of your time. One other precaution before you start--work on your own meetings first. Then, if it seems to be helping, privately talk up the results to other meeting leaders rather than bringing up it up during one of their meetings.

Here's a simple approach for a group that's fairly open: At the start of your next meeting, say, "I'd like to try something different at the end of our meeting today. I'll be asking each of you what you thought of the meeting; if it was productive and if you have any suggestions to improve future meetings, so please be thinking about that. The reason I want to do this is so we can make a wise use of everyone's time. OK?" Once their mouths close, they'll probably agree it's a good idea but they'll be cautious about being totally honest. One thing for sure, they'll pay more attention to the process and the dynamics than they have in years!

At the end of the meeting, leave at least ten minutes and go around the room asking each one what they thought. Some will need prodding, so ask them what they liked and what they thought could be improved. Write down their points and bring them back next time. Before the next meeting begins, review what they said and suggest that the group work on a few of the improvements. At the end, tell them you'll ask them to rate how the group did. (This is not just a report card on your leadership ability but rather a self-evaluation of their own performance, too.)

If you think your group has a long way to go before they'll be able to self-critique, try a more structured approach. For example, you could make an assignment to complete the following sentence and send it to you anonymously: "In our meeting, we should do more of.....less of.....and the same amount of ...." If you tell them they can be anonymous, they may snipe at the meeting so it will be important to follow up on their criticisms. Don't defend yourself. Instead, calmly bring up their concerns and ask for ideas that would improve those areas. If you can model openness and honesty, they'll soon follow your lead.

Some tips to improve your meetings without any survey at all are these:

  • Start every meeting with a simple statement about what you would like to accomplish in the time available. Name a specific outcome, not a general goal. For instance, don't say your purpose is to "discuss" something. That's what gets you in trouble. Instead, use action words such as decide, finish, develop a list of pros and cons, brainstorm solution ideas, etc.

  • Check with quiet people to see what they are thinking. Too many meetings are undone in the hallway by silent participants who express their concerns after the meeting's adjourned.

  • Ask someone to record the minutes on a flipchart. This keeps everyone's attention focused on the same thing.

  • If you can't come up with an agenda before the meeting, cancel it. This tells everyone that you won't meet unless there's a reason. If the agenda is built by the group at the beginning of the meeting and no significant items are forthcoming, cancel the meeting then and there. This will be a great way to demonstrate you are serious about respecting their time and staying productive.

  • When the agenda is compiled, determine what outcome is needed on each issue. In other words, do they need input only or do they want to inform the group or problem solve?

  • Summarize at every turning point in the meeting. For instance, restate the decision that was just made, the actions everyone agreed to and the new approach the group wants to take in the discussion. Why? Because if you don't, you will have confusion, misunderstanding and miscommunication--guaranteed.

  • Prior to implementing a decision, always ask, "What could go wrong?" Then set aside a few minutes for everyone to shoot holes in the solution. This will give them permission to be negative and get out any unspoken concerns they have before you launch it. Don't let them attack any idea too early, however, or the group's creative energy will drain away.

If your meetings begin to improve, you should notice people arriving on time with high energy. You'll also begin to have people take an active part in shaping the meeting if it goes off track because you'll create a feeling that meetings are valuable work times that people won't want to waste.

- Joan Lloyd

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