Fewer, Shorter Meetings

September 28, 2011

The ruling paradigm on meetings is that they should be scheduled for one hour. If a manager sends a note to her administrative assistant to schedule a meeting sometime this week, the assistant will instinctively assume the duration is one hour.

We come by this paradigm through convention, and it is an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Suppose the administrative person scheduled the meeting for 40 minutes. What would be the outcome? In most organizations it would mean that everyone invited to the meeting saved at least 20 minutes. As a side benefit, the 40 minutes spent at the meeting would be far more productive because the standard paradigm has been broken.

Start by challenging the need for a meeting at all. This is especially true for “standing meetings” (by this I mean the kind that happen automatically each week, not the kind where there are no chairs in the room – BTW, no chairs is a great way to encourage shorter meetings). Since standing meetings often do not have a specific agenda, they frequently degrade into “group grope” sessions.

There are numerous things that can be done to improve the time utilization at meetings, Here are nine of my favorite techniques;

  1. Suggest that the person leading the meeting be extremely mindful of the duration. After all, what we have at work is our time.
  2. Have a meeting agenda and stick to it unless the group makes a conscious decision to adjust priorities.
  3. Shock people into a realization of what is actually happening:  Set up the meeting to start at 2:17 pm and end at 2:49 pm. That would be a 33 minute meeting (if my math is correct).
  4. Put a premium on how the time is spent in meetings. Make sure the agenda is specific as to how much time will be devoted to each topic and stick to that schedule. Have a PITA assigned to keep things on track (PITA stands for Pain In The Rear).
  5. Acknowledge the need for important side issues, but do not let them derail the meeting.  Handle them efficiently or find another venue to deal with them.
  6. Start and end each meeting on time.  Become known as a stickler for this. You can be courteous and bring stragglers up to speed on what has already been accomplished, but you are really enabling them to continue the practice. It is not polite to others to arrive late for meetings. It is also not polite to attendees for the leader to extend beyond the advertised finish time.
  7. Have a set of expected behaviors for your meetings and post them. Hold each other accountable for abiding by these rules.  Here is a favorite rule of mine. It is expected that when someone feels we are spinning our wheels or not making the best use of time, he or she will give the “time out” signal to the person running the meeting (finger tips of one hand touching the palm of the other hand).  Nobody will be punished in any way for making this sign. It simply calls the question as to whether we are spending our time wisely right now.
  8. Have some time set aside in each meeting to reinforce good behavior and feel good about things that are going well. If we spend 100% of our time dealing with the bad stuff that needs to be fixed, we will never smell the roses.
  9. Obtain and use a meeting cost calculator. You can find free programs on the WEB.  Just plug in the average salary and the number of people, and the calculator lets you know how much money is being spent.  With this information visible on the screen, wordy managers find it beneficial to shut up sooner.

All these rules are common sense. It is too bad they are not common practice, because they help preserve our most critical resource: our time.


Merger Miseries 6 – Bean Counters and Bubbleheads

October 18, 2010

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the trials and tribulations of mergers and acquisitions. This episode concerns who takes the leading roles in the process and how that choice impacts the entire process. It is obvious that the people leading a business deal will color or slant the discussions toward their personal area of expertise. Since mergers and acquisitions involve serious reconfiguration of the financial structure of the organization, the financial side of the house normally takes the lead role. Any kind of restructuring activity is going to have implications that directly impact all financial reports, which alter how the entity is viewed by the investment community.

Letting the financial aspects of a restructuring be paramount is only natural, but it has the effect of subrogating the impact of the action on people from the very start. In most cases, people are visualized as falling in line with the plan once the financial details have been struck. This attitude allows the bean counters to conjure up options that have maximum value in terms of the balance sheet and income statements, but their points of view are in a vacuum in terms of how people will respond.

Top managers act as if they are in a bubble of secret and titillating information about the possibilities of the proposed action. Early conversations are kept strictly inside the secret bubble. The human impact and ideas from the impacted people are not front and center at this point. The bubbleheads do fully intend to cover all personnel (some call it HR) issues later and “roll out” a communication plan to explain the process and benefits. The problem is that later is often far too late to be perceived as anything but a “lay on” by the people in the organization.

The well known Pareto Principle states that for any set of items, 20% of the items contain 80% of the value. I think this principle holds in early merger talks because the human aspects of the proposed action get less than 20% of the attention early on, but they really contain 80% of the value to the organization long term. Unfortunately by giving short shrift to the human aspects of a merger, a great opportunity to build stake and understanding is squandered.

There is a simple antidote to this problem. It is to create a nucleus of individuals with equal power to impact the decisions up front. This group would be represented by people centered individuals (HR or Operations Management), Financial Managers, Senior Officials, and Legal Counsel. This group would work on all aspects of a proposed action in a balanced approach that considers how and when to include the people in the process as a prime consideration. This policy would set up talks on future organizational changes for success. From first inkling of a merger, don’t let the bean counters and bubbleheads be the only parties at the table.


Leaders and Managers

March 16, 2010

There is a lot of information on the contrast between leaders and managers. Typically we see a side by side comparison with items such as:

“Managers do things right” while

“Leaders do the right things.”

I like to take a different slant on describing the differences because I believe a pure manager comes to work with an entirely different mindset from a pure leader. Of course, there really is no such thing as a pure manager or leader, it is always some kind of a combination of the two concepts. Here is how I describe the differences.

The Manager

The manager wants everything to go smoothly. He or she wants every process to run the way it should and get the maximum productivity. There should be no waste. The manager wants everyone to follow all the rules and be there every day motivated to do good work. In essence, the manager wants to stabilize things and clone everything to be exactly right. The manager is all about doing things right, and is most closely associated with the mission of the organization (what they are trying to accomplish). The manager works with the process, the equipment, the schedule, and the people in terms of what they should be doing. Managers are now oriented.

The Leader

The leader is often a destabilizing force. He or she is most interested in where the organization is going rather than just optimizing today’s processes. That may mean making people unhappy for some time in order for the greater good. If people are too complacent and do not see the dangers, the leader is there to create a burning platform. Leaders are sometimes very unpopular. The idea is to do the right things, which may mean some pretty difficult decisions. The leader is all about the vision of the organization (where they are trying to go). The leader works with the balance sheet, the strategic plan, the product line, and the people in terms of what they can become. Leaders are future oriented.

The Leader/Manager

This person is able to combine the best of both worlds and act in both roles. All of us act as leaders and managers at times, but each of us favors one mode or the other. A good balance between the two extremes is the best place to be. In general, the world has far more competent managers than competent leaders, so if you have leadership tendencies, that is a good thing to have.

Really great leaders do not mind being average managers. They recognize their weakness and surround themselves with outstanding managers to handle the details.