Quality Check for Meetings

November 27, 2011

For most of us, meetings are our most significant time-wasting activity. If you have not found yourself frustrated while sitting in a useless meeting with no escape, you must be a hermit.

The interesting thing is that we, the participants, really do have the power to manage these interfaces between people in ways that are productive, impactful, and fun. In this article, I want to focus on a simple quality check as a means to improve meetings.

The way time is used in meetings is a part of the overall culture of a team. Managing meetings well is one activity that will improve team performance, but it should not be done in a vacuum. It should be a part of an overall process to improve trust and accountability within the team. Leaders normally set the pace for what goes on in any team, so they need to take a lead role in managing meetings for better outcomes.

I advocate that teams have a quick evaluation at the end of each meeting. The leader simply states the following. “Our time is precious, and meetings use a lot of time. It is our responsibility to make sure we are making the best use of every minute. How many of you think this meeting was an excellent investment.” The feedback can be in the form of a quick discussion, a questionnaire, or, if trust is high already, just a thumbs up for good, thumbs down for bad. Of course, if a binary vote turns out to be mostly negative, a conversation needs to take place to understand the specific issues. It can take less than a minute, but it gives a quick feedback. The other benefit is that it lets people know the leader is not clueless and is open to suggested improvements for next time.

For this method to be fruitful, the leader must establish an environment of trust. People need to know they will not be punished, in any way, for giving their opinions. If the leader reacts well to comments, even if the input suggests the leader is wasting the group’s time, then trust will be enhanced. Another benefit occurs if the leader includes other people in planning future events to prevent the same problem at the next meeting.

It is critical if the leader does such an evaluation that he or she follows up and actually makes the changes suggested. A subsequent time check should not bring up the same issues. If it does, then stronger action is required before going further. The leader is responsible for the follow up and modification of meeting processes, even though he or she may ask for help from others as well.

This quality check allows everyone to take ownership of the meeting process to ensure it is vital and adding value. If there are problems in the meeting format or content, they can be addressed before the next meeting, so bad habits are not proliferated. I urge you to add this simple check to the end of all your meetings. It will pay big dividends.


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.