Published: April 18, 2008
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Hold a Successful Meeting: At Last!

MeetingMeetings have a bad reputation. It’s unfair, really. It’s not the meeting’s fault. It could be good, if only people would let it. 

While heavy-duty or especially difficult meetings require more than a few little tools to be effective, you can vastly improve the outcome of a routine meeting simply by using a mere five of my favorite tools. Talk about traveling light! 

1. Invite the right people. It sounds simple enough, but too often I see topics covered with a full group that only apply to a sub-set of the group, on the excuse that, “this is the only time we have them together.” Likewise, if you can’t make a decision without Ms. X or Mr. Y, who will not be in attendance, you have to seriously question why you’re having the meeting. You’re not alone if you’ve done this. I’ve been guilty of this sin myself.

2. Start with a clear objective for the meeting. And, BTW, don’t keep it to yourself! Send it to everyone. Will you be making decisions? Getting input? Sharing feedback? Particularly with routine meetings, it’s tempting to hold the meeting because it’s what we do, or because you think it provides some sort of bonding, but what are you really trying to accomplish? People don’t actually bond very much in unproductive meetings that lack clear objectives.

3. Set up a successful agenda in advance. Okay, for some leaders setting an agenda at all would be progress! You know who you are. :)

As you build the agenda, get real about how long it will take to address each topic. You can’t treat a complex issue like ongoing poor product quality the same way you treat a status report on a successful project. Yet, how often do we find ourselves in a meeting in which these two topics have roughly the same allocation of time? As a guideline, assume that if the goal is to make a decision, it will take four times longer than if the goal is to simply provide a status report. If you know darn well that the status report will actually stimulate a provocative discussion but no decision is expected to be made, allow twice the time as for a more routine status report.

For what it’s worth, eliminate all status reports, if possible. If it’s really just a status report, with no discussion needed, email should do the trick. 

4. Visually track problem-solving and decision-making discussions. If it’s a virtual meeting, use a shared document to track the discussion, such as Webex. If everyone is in the same room, or if you’re lucky enough to have Telepresence, use a flipchart or whiteboard. I have never understood the allergic reaction some people have to flipcharts. It’s not a sign that you’re dummies just because you can’t remember the key points brought out five or ten minutes ago. There’s a lot going on in these meetings, and visual tracking of the content keeps everyone tracking together.

5. End with “Speak and Listen.” This has become my favorite tool to wrap up a meeting and ensure that what’s really important to the participants is out in the open, so it can be addressed either in the next meeting or separately.

This is such a simple activity and it works equally well for engineers, artists, teachers, accountants, executives…you get the picture. Each person in the room has 30 seconds to share whatever he or she wants to share. There are no rules other than to be respectful. This is not the time to flame your fellow meeting participants.

Go around the room in order, politely cutting the speaker off at exactly 30 seconds. That includes the big boss – no letting him or her prattle on over the time limit. Believe me, after the first or second cut-off, everyone else will be succinct.

Go two rounds, so that each person has spoken for up to 60 seconds.

There is no discussion whatsoever during the exercise. It is strictly about speaking and listening, about getting in touch with each other’s concerns and perspectives.

This is also an excellent meeting opener, although generally I use it as a closer.

Assuming your group is of a reasonable size, this should take all of 5 - 10 minutes, and it has an impressive impact on the team’s sense of unity and cohesion. It also serves the function of providing air time for what is important to each person. You would be amazed at how far off your assumptions can be from someone else’s. For virtual teams in particular, this is an essential opportunity for people on the phone to really be heard.

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