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  • 09.22.06

Make Meetings Matter

A little preparation can transform your business meetings from a dreaded chore to a useful tool.

“Maybe meetings have become a life-form capable of calling themselves and reproducing via human hosts.”– Scott Adams, in a 2001 “Dilbert” comicstrip

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It sometimes seems there is no end to the proliferation of workplace meetings. Team meetings, department meetings, and committee meetings fill the workweek. In fact, according to a 2006 online survey conducted by Microsoft, American workers spend an average of 5.5 hours each week in meetings Yet, 71% of survey respondents indicated their meetings weren’t productive.

The consensus on meetings seems to be that, like the girl with a curl in the nursery rhyme, when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. “Good meetings help you get organized and focus on the right things,” explains Michael Alter, president of Glenview, Ill.-based SurePayroll. “Bad meetings are a poison that can really slow down your business progress.”

Avoid toxic business meetings by using these tips as your antidotes.

“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” –John Kenneth Galbraith

Alter takes care to remind staff at meetings, “We are not meeting for meeting’s sake. We are meeting to accomplish goals.” A meeting should be held because you wish to do something–communicate information, brainstorm ideas, or solve a problem. Meeting organizers should know why the meeting is being held and what they hope to accomplish in the course of the meeting. Without an objective, meetings can meander off course.

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” –Alexander Graham Bell

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The swiftest way to accomplish a goal is to map out the steps required to achieve it. Preparation before a meeting can save time during it. Circulate a solid agenda in advance of a meeting to let participants prepare to address the topics that will be covered. An agenda ensures participants will bring all required materials to the meeting and will stay on topic. Without an agenda, important issues can be overlooked and topics unrelated to the task at hand can take up valuable time.

“Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions.”–John Randolph

The most common criticism of meetings is that they waste time. Keep meetings brief and stick to a schedule so participants don’t feeling their time is being wasted. Starting meetings on time shows respect for participants’ schedules and more will be accomplished if a meeting ends before participants’ eyes glaze over. Without a firm time-schedule, meetings can last longer than anticipated.

“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.”–Captain James T. Kirk

It is important to summarize the topics discussed in a meeting and record any decisions made. Without a record of a meeting’s accomplishments, people may forget the course of action agreed upon.

“Neither comprehension nor learning can take place in an atmosphere of anxiety.”–Rose F. Kennedy

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Meeting organizers should create an atmosphere in which participants feel comfortable contributing their comments. Make sure participants stick to the topics on the agenda and don’t use the meeting as a forum for airing personal grievances.

The physical setting of the meeting also can influence its tone. Sometimes a change of scenery can bring fresh insights to a group. Stamford, Conn.-based Vineyard Vines takes its staff and retailers on an annual multi-day retreat. For the last two years, the company has gone to Islamorada, Fla.

“Getting out of the office creates a certain sense of bonding and team spirit,” says Shep Murray, CEO and co-founder of Vineyard Vines. “When people spend time together outside their normal routines, good things happen for everybody. The positive energy certainly carries over when we get back to office.”

“Purgatory is a meeting that goes off on a tangent. Hell is a meeting that ends there.” –Jack Pitney

Don’t let your meetings end with a whimper. The end of a meeting should reiterate what has been accomplished and what plan of action has been agreed upon.

“For us, the last five or 10 minutes of the meeting is referred to as the ‘red zone,’ which means it’s time to wrap up and summarize,” said Alter. “The key question we ask is ‘Based on this meeting, who is going to do what?’ If you don’t use a red zone concept, the meeting usually ends in a state of utter confusion.”

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“Our meetings are held to discuss many problems which would never arise if we held fewer meetings.”–Ashleigh Brilliant

Last, but not least, only call meetings that are necessary. Standing meetings should not devolve into perfunctory activities. If a meetings is necessary, it will be productive and not a dreaded chore. If there is nothing meaningful on the agenda, cancel the meeting.