No More Mediocrity: Making Meetings More Effective and Enjoyable

“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” — John Kenneth Galbraith, Canadian-American economist.

No More Mediocrity: Making Meetings More Effective and Enjoyable by Laura Stack #productivityAs we can all attest, business meetings often waste valuable productive time and tend to last far longer than they should. But until we learn to communicate telepathically, they will remain a necessary evil—not just as a means of exchanging ideas and information—but also as a way to build relationships with others.

That doesn’t mean we have to like them.

In fact, as economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell once quipped, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” Whether he meant it facetiously or not, there’s a grain of truth in Sowell’s statement, since someone who enjoys meetings might actually prolong them and anything else they laid their hands on.

Sowell himself has wasted little time in making the most of his life. Born African-American in the Deep South in 1930, he was raised by his extended family; his father died before his birth, and his mother was forced to give him up. After dropping out of high school at age 17 for financial and family reasons, he took a number of jobs before entering the Marine Corps in 1951 to fight in the Korean War. Later he joined the civil service and took night classes at Howard University until he had enough credits to enter Harvard. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics in 1958, magna cum laude, he went on to acquire a master’s at Columbia and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1968. Since then, he’s become known as one of the nation’s top economists, having been mentored by George Stigler and Milton Friedman. Sowell clearly understand the value of time: nothing damages productivity worse than wasted time. It’s no wonder meetings are described as the place, “Where minutes are taken and hours are wasted.”

Easing Inevitability

You may never learn to enjoy meetings, but you can certainly make them more tolerable with these tips:

1. Decide whether the meeting is even necessary. You may discover you can handle the issue with a few emails or a conference call. Why call a full meeting if you don’t need one?

2. Get started on time. If someone doesn’t arrive on time, tough. Start when you agreed to, and don’t start over just because some individuals arrive late. People can check the minutes later to find out what you discussed before they arrived or get notes from a colleague.

3. Use a facilitator. Have someone direct the meeting. Their role should include keeping the discussion on topic, acknowledging speakers, soliciting the opinions of the quieter attendees, and keeping a few people from dominating the meeting. They should also be in charge of ending the meeting on time.

4. Change the venue. You don’t necessarily have to conduct your meeting in a corporate conference room. You may be able to achieve a much more relaxed, open atmosphere by holding your meeting over coffee at the local Starbucks. There’s no reason to remain tied to your office, and a venue change may make the attendees more creative.

5. Provide food. People feel better when there’s something to munch on during a meeting. If some of the attendees are counting calories, provide a range of crudités as well as bagels and donuts.

6. Make the agenda crystal clear. People need to know why they’re meeting and what you expect to accomplish as a result. Distribute the agenda and associated materials well in advance, at least 24 hours, preferably 72. Be clear at the end about what decisions were made, as well as who is responsible for what, by when.

7. Be very picky about who attends. If a meeting has little to do with a particular person, don’t invite them. Just “showing the flag” isn’t a good enough reason to have a person at a meeting. Send them a copy of the minutes if they need to have a general idea of what happened. It’s cheaper and simpler.

8. Schedule breaks for long meetings. This will allow people to take care of biological needs and stretch their legs. A good rule of thumb is a 5-10 minute break per hour. In seminars, I never go longer than 90 minutes without getting people up to stretch.

The Bottom Line

You may have noticed that I didn’t suggest an icebreaker activity to increase the meeting’s “fun quotient.” Icebreakers take up valuable time, and routine meetings aren’t supposed to be fun—just necessary. If you’re having an off-site retreat or something more a-typical with “team building” as a goal, this might be appropriate. But while a business meeting may never be a blast, you can make them effective and efficient if you’ll implement the eight points I’ve suggested here. What other protocols have you found to make meetings more efficient? What guidelines does your team follow to make them more effective?

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Comments

  1. Great stuff, Laura, as always! Thanks for this. Meetings are, indeed, a necessary evil and can certainly be made less evil with a little forethought and effort. I’m a big believer, too, that the idea of a “mandatory meeting” has to be squashed (I have a lot to say on this topic, but won’t leave a tome comment — check out this link if you’re interested: http://www.eryceyl.com/blog/2013/01/03/your-meeting-in-not-mandatory-part-one/).

    Also, someone who absolutely changed my life when it comes to meetings (that’s kind of a sad thing to say, in itself, isn’t it?) is Al Pitampalli. His Modern Meeting Standard (also known as Read This Before Our Next Meeting) has some truly revolutionary ideas about overhauling meetings in organizations. I highly recommend his work: http://modernmeetingstandard.com/

  2. James Edgar says:

    Excellent tips. Points 2, 3 and 6 are standard operating procedure for Toastmasters meetings. People generally think of Toastmasters as an avenue to learn public speaking skills (it is), but it is also an avenue for learning leadership skills. When you have a clear facilitator and agenda, and committment to staying within the alloted time, it’s amazing how much the “dread” factor decreases toward meetings.

    • James, I agree a facilitator can make meetings much more effective, since the leader can focus on…leading! Toastmasters is an excellent organization. I often recommend it to people wanting to become better speakers, and you learn about yourself in the process and grow as a leader. I am friends with many well-known Toastmasters, including Ed Tate, Darren LaCroix, Rory Vaden, Sheryl Roush, Jeanne Robertson, and a bunch I’m sure I’m forgetting. Thanks for reaching out!

  3. I think bringing food is great but it should be during break times. The person eating might have a full concentration on what he eats rather than the lecture. Just a thought. 😉 Also, I love the fact that it’s always essential to inform the employees or whoever it is of what the meeting is all about. It should always interest the employees to make sure that they’ll be on time and get an update about the important information. Great post Laura!

    • Steve,

      I agree that in larger training meetings, food is best during breaks and lunch. As a speaker, I find it difficult when people are eating while I speaking! I’m more referring to departmental meetings with small groups that are held over several hours. If the meeting spans the lunch hour, it’s a courtesy to order food for the attendees, so people aren’t starving while trying to solve problems. And you’re right about the importance of understanding the meeting agenda in advance. How can you be prepared to thoughtfully contribute, if you haven’t received an agenda of the topics to be discussed, decisions to be made, or value to be added?

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Laura

  4. Sisi Xu says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thank you for sharing a great list to run a productive meeting. Our team has tried to meet outside of conference which turns out great! Everyone seems happier with a higher energy level and is more likely to contribute awesome ideas!
    Point 7 is so true. Getting the right person to a meeting is most crucial and hard as well! In big enterprises, people may not even know the others who attend the same meeting, like their position, role in the project, etc. Introduction and confusion of each others’ responsibilities take a lot of time and make it especially difficult to reach a decision!
    Also, as you mentioned that a crystal clear agenda is important to run the meeting productively; however, in real world, people don’t always have time to read the agenda in advance. Also, people often deviate from the agenda. For example, people try to talk over each other and meetings are run over-time. Do you have any tips to share about this issue? 🙂

    Sisi

    • Sisi, usually the people attending don’t have time to read it because it hasn’t been sent far enough in advance. If there is a lot of material to review, the leader should send the documents at least 48 hours prior. When I had board meetings for the National Speakers Association, our agenda items were sent a week in advance. A facilitator who is not the leader should be used to make sure the agenda is followed, people aren’t interrupted, and the meeting moves along at a good clip. If an item comes up not on the agenda, it should be “parked” until the next meeting. If the meeting end time comes, the meeting should end, even if all items aren’t covered—unless participants agree to extend. But most have already scheduled additional meetings and can’t stay. Hope this helps!

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