Finding a New Way to Meet: 10 Pitfalls of Pitiful Meetings ... and How to Fix Them - Part I

Meetings can be important team-building and idea-generating opportunities for your employees. The key to meetings success, says author Kimberly Douglas, is knowing how to do them right.

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Hoboken, NJ — October 2, 2009 — It's Friday afternoon, and your team is filing into the conference room, mumbling and grumbling as they take their seats for yet another meeting. An hour passes and the meeting comes to a much-anticipated end, leaving everyone involved wondering why the meeting was held in the first place. After all, the usual suspects dominated the discussion, and the same ideas that came up in last week's meeting were once again batted around. No one seemed to write anything down, and no one agreed to put anything discussed into action.

If this kind of ineffective meeting sounds familiar, you're not alone, says Kimberly Douglas. It's a problem that plagues many organizations — but it's also one, she adds, that can be remedied.

"In these tough economic times, every second of the work day is valuable," says Douglas, author of The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results (Wiley, 2009, $24.95). "None of it should be wasted in meetings that seem to go nowhere or that are plagued by conflict or lack of participation. I have sat through countless meetings myself — some great, and some not-so-great. But those that weren't so great could have been so much better with just a little more effort."

Douglas adds, "If leaders know how to conduct better meetings, those meetings can actually become time well-spent — time that increases employee productivity, participation and innovation."

The question of productivity is a huge issue when it comes to meetings. According to a Microsoft survey of over 38,000 employees, almost 70 percent felt that the average 5.6 hours they spend each week in meetings are unproductive. Another survey conducted by OfficeTeam had 28 percent of its 150 senior executives responding that meetings are a waste of time. Furthermore, 45 percent of respondents said they believed their employees could be more productive if meetings were banned at least one day a week.

"In too many companies, meetings have become a way for leaders and their employees to simply go through the motions," says Douglas. "If a new initiative is being implemented or new product ideas are needed, the feeling from management is often, 'Well, let's have a meeting. At least it will seem like we are doing something.' Unfortunately, not enough thought goes into how to conduct those meetings."

Having a meeting, in and of itself, is not a bad idea, Douglas says. In fact, meetings can be the most engaging and thought-provoking times of the day for leaders and team members alike. "The key," Douglas advises, "is avoiding those pitfalls that sink a meeting's productivity."

If it's time for a meetings overhaul at your organization, read on for Douglas's 10 common meeting pitfalls and how you can fix them:

What's the point? A common problem with many meetings is that they're scheduled with seemingly no clear objective in mind. Douglas suggests that you run through a pre-meeting checklist before putting it on everyone's schedule.

First, ask yourself whether the meeting is even necessary. Could the information you want to provide be just as easily presented in an e-mail? What do you want to accomplish with the meeting? Will reaching that accomplishment really require a group decision? If you ask yourself these questions and decide that you do need to have the meeting, next consider who should attend. Design an agenda for the meeting. And clearly communicate any prep work that needs to be done by the participants beforehand.

"Being clear about the meeting's objectives will ensure a greater likelihood of it being effective than anything else you can do," says Douglas. "Simply answering, 'So why are we meeting?' before everyone is gathered in the conference room will help you ensure meetings are productive for everyone and will also help you avoid lost opportunity cost and draining employee motivation."

Where's the agenda? Remember the last time you actually received an agenda in advance of a meeting? Likely, you immediately had a higher perception of whether that meeting was going to be a waste of time or not. Once you know who will be attending the meeting, you need to finalize the agenda. A quality meeting agenda includes:

  • The date, time, and location of the meeting
  • The meeting's objectives
  • Three to six agenda items, accompanied by how long they'll take to discuss and who the discussion leaders will be
  • A clear explanation of the prep work that should be completed before the meeting.

Note that it is okay to use standing agenda items from meeting to meeting — such as "Company Overview," "Industry Trends," "Strategy Discussion," "Review of Metrics," "Results" and "Problem Solving" — as long as you also include the length of time allotted for each item and who will be leading the discussion. Send the agenda out as far in advance of the meeting as possible, and then redistribute an agenda/meeting reminder 48 hours prior to the meeting.

When putting together the agenda for your meeting, Douglas also suggests considering the individual "Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument" profiles of your team members. Before you begin your meetings overhaul, have an HBDI certified specialist come in to profile your team. The HBDI is an assessment instrument that measures people's specific thinking preferences. Your team members will be divided based on the HBDI quadrants: Analyze (the blue quadrant), Organize (the green quadrant), Strategize (the yellow quadrant) and Personalize (the red quadrant). Once you know how your team members think, you can design a meeting agenda that better suits each one of them. It is a great way to design your meetings so that there is something for everyone, and you can even color code your agenda based on the quadrant colors to indicate which parts of the meeting your team members will find the most engaging.

"When people come into a meeting knowing what is going to be discussed, they see exactly how their time will be spent," says Douglas. "They have time in advance to plan their own participation and can thus participate more effectively. By simply creating an agenda, you are already significantly upping your chances of having a successful meeting."

Conference room overcrowding. Would you attend a meeting if you didn't know why the meeting was being held and why you, in particular, were invited? Often, too many people who don't have a clear understanding of what role they are supposed to play are invited to meetings. Those in attendance need to know if you want them to be an expert, an influencer or a decider.

"When you're creating your meeting participant list, think about the meeting's purpose," says Douglas. "Does Stan from Accounting really need to be in on the next marketing meeting? Does Barbara in HR need to know what is expected of the sales team for the next quarter? Make sure everyone who is attending the meeting knows exactly why they were invited."

If need be, she advises, communicate directly to them why you want them there. "Keep the number of 'required' attendees as small as possible. And if critical members can't attend, consider postponing the meeting until they can. Having a meeting without all of the right brains present can cause just as many delays and productivity problems as postponing the meeting a couple of days."

Finally, Douglas suggests using the following litmus test. Ask yourself, Will this meeting be the best use of this person's time, given its objectives? If you answer yes, then it's highly likely that person should be there.

"Once you do get all of the right team members assembled, you might also consider having them use a meeting cost calculator, which allows them to privately enter in their salaries and the meeting length to calculate how much it is costing the company for them to be in a given meeting," adds Douglas. "It is a powerful tool that can promote individual productivity because it reminds everyone involved of the financial significance of the time spent in the meeting."

The meeting will seemingly go on forever. Now, that might be an exaggeration, but that exact thought will be crossing the minds of those attending a meeting that seems to be going nowhere. When the eyes of attendees start wandering to watches, BlackBerries and wall clocks in an attempt to see exactly how much time they've spent in the meeting and to estimate how much more time will elapse before they can get back to their long to-do lists, you're in trouble.

"Providing a meeting agenda will go a long way toward solving this problem," says Douglas. "When attendees know exactly when a meeting will be over, they won't spend their time internally speculating about when they can leave."

Douglas also highlights the benefits of creating a reputation for yourself as being a meeting leader who starts and ends on time, every time. And if you do need to extend the meeting's length, ask the group's permission before doing so.

"When you're creating your meeting agendas, remember that the ideal maximum meeting length is 60 minutes," Douglas says. "And use what I call 'time boxes' for each agenda item. That means X amount of time is allotted for each agenda item. Bring a kitchen timer that you can use to enforce the time limits."

Because time is of the essence for every agenda item, you might want to encourage your discussion leaders to go around and get a headline from each person in the meeting to start each discussion topic. That gives everyone a chance to participate, without allowing one person to take up all of the discussion time for a topic. "And to keep those attending on their toes, you might even want to consider unusual start times like 11:45 a.m. or 1:15 p.m.," Douglas suggests.

The meeting becomes a free-for-all. Anyone who's ever attended a meeting or led a meeting knows that it doesn't take long for things to get off track. The best way to avoid losing control of the conversation and the meeting as a whole is to set some conversational ground rules right away. Make it clear to those in attendance that the ground rules will be used to ensure that everyone's time is well-spent. Then select four to six rules based on the unique needs of those attending and your specific meeting objectives.

A few possibilities include, "Everyone participates," "Speak in headlines" (to prevent attendees from rambling), and "Police yourself — Am I participating too much or not enough?", etc. Keep the rules front and center. You may even want to write them on a flip chart to display during the meeting. Or, once they're established, you can include them in the actual agenda.

"Always ask for the input of the group," says Douglas. "They may think a rule will hinder the productivity of the meeting, or they may have a suggestion that will help to keep everyone on topic. The bottom line is, create rules that will help everyone stay focused on the meeting's goals. Do that consistently, and your meetings will be the better for it."

Read Part II of "Finding a New Way to Meet: Ten Pitfalls of Pitiful Meetings ... and How to Fix Them" here.