Mending Meetings

Are meetings where good ideas go to die at your company? That’s what I’ve experienced—if you have a good idea, or any suggestion you’re excited about, the worst thing to hear is: “Let’s discuss.” I always want to say: “No, let’s just do it.” I can procrastinate with the best of them, but when I feel inspired or motivated to make a change, I don’t want to discuss it; I just want to jump in. Deliberating about the best way to get things done is sometimes necessary, but the meetings that take place for this purpose are often so counterproductive they result in action getting stifled rather than refined.

Consultant and training expert Joel D. Levitt, author of 10 Minutes a Week to Great Meetings, sent us his suggestions for correcting bad meetings. Among Levitt’s suggestions: sending out an agenda before the meeting so the meeting doesn’t ramble on, reminding participants that there will be no e-mailing or texting during the meeting, and having the facilitator elicit feedback from everyone at the table so the meeting isn’t dominated by a couple of loudmouths.

I’ve noticed some of those same problems, too. For the rambling problem, I think that beyond having an agenda, meeting leaders should assign attendees homework prior to the meeting. For instance, if your meeting is to discuss ideas for a revamped Website, ask each participant to prepare in writing three ideas for changes or additions to the site, including how those changes could be made and how much they think the proposed change or addition would be likely to cost in time and money. Doing this does two things ensures the meeting delivers exactly what you want—actionable new ideas—and gives participants a fair chance to contribute. Often shyer, less aggressive voices in meetings get drowned out, so their ideas aren’t heard. This way, even if those gentler voices aren’t heard, the meeting leader will have their ideas in hand, and can follow up with them later, or better yet, the leader can review the ideas prior to the meeting, and call on particular participants whose ideas he or she liked, rather than just haphazardly “opening up the floor” for discussion.

Another thought is, once the meeting leader has reviewed the participants’ ideas prior to the meeting (so the leader knows exactly whose ideas were whose), the leader can make all the participants’ ideas available to one another, so they will come to the meeting knowing in advance whose ideas they may like to make suggestions or comments about.

The next thing that comes to mind is the need to deter the participant who just likes the sound of his or her own voice. I’m currently dealing with a personality like this, and it can be irritating if it isn’t your own personality—hard to sympathize with. This is the person who has nothing to say, but decides a recap of what was just said is necessary: “Now, if I understand correctly…” and then the authoritative voice lists what has just been said without adding anything new or useful. It is up to the leader not to encourage this kind of behavior. It’s hard not to get hypnotized by a nice-sounding authoritative voice, but meeting leaders should be aware of this personality type (the impressive presenter who doesn’t actually contribute much in the way of deliverables) and shut him or her down.

Here’s a possible response when John I’m-so-In-Love-with-Myself begins to pipe up: “Yes, that’s right, John. It’s good to hear how well you grasp this challenge. In fact, it would be great if you could mull all this over, and put together a list of possible solutions to the challenge. Please have that for me by a week from today.” Trust me, the presenter who likes to hear his own voice far more than he enjoys work will be much less likely to pipe up without purpose in the future!

Then, just as you give participants assignments to come up with actionable ideas prior to the meeting, it’s important to give each participant assignments before leaving the meeting to do whatever you decided needs to be done. Don’t just tell them verbally what the assignment is—follow up with individual e-mails recapping what you assigned to each and giving each person a realistic due date for getting the work done.

If dealing with all these communications prior to and after meetings sounds overwhelming, it may be because your meetings feature too many participants. Another obstacle to productive meetings seems to be participants who don’t actually need to be involved. You don’t need to include all “stakeholders” in the meeting. The meeting should be reserved for those people whose work you need in order to meet your goals. You can always send the stakeholders not involved in the meeting a recap of what took place in the meeting afterward and then send them updates. I’d be careful about “welcoming their suggestions,” though, because too often those who don’t have responsibility for the work required to get a project done have suggestions that are unrealistic. Don’t worry; the opinionated ones will let you know if they don’t like what you’re doing, even if you don’t encourage them. No need to spur their (often useless) critiques.

Last, it would be great if a leader of a department could recognize that very often meetings aren’t needed at all. It’s OK to have enough confidence in your own intelligence and judgment to act on your own or with just the input and ideas of a trusted employee. Even in our era of over-sharing, everything doesn’t have to be a group decision or decision by committee. Group think (and paralysis) isn’t always a good thing.

How do you train managers to run meetings? What are your top tips for preparing managers to lead effective meetings that result in projects being successfully completed on time?

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