It doesn’t take a serious web search to find various ‘experts’ dissecting meetings. It has become a very trendy position to make fun of one of the final standing vestiges of old world corporate operations. From the fine folks at 37 Signals to the inept clowns at your local blog (stop it!), the meeting has become the common whipping boy and has been beaten in effigy. While some of the hatred is a very understandable response to decades of crappy meetings, it is important to realize that the tool is not the problem. The problem is the tool running the meeting.
Why are we meeting? Seems like a pretty good question, right? Amazingly many never bother to ask this question. A meeting is a very expensive endeavor as not only is there a direct cost of the folks attending but there is an opportunity cost incurred by those same folks not doing their normal job. Before scheduling a meeting, determine why you think that is a good idea. Is it the best way to convey information on to many (unlikely as there are a ton of better methods for that goal.) Are you trying to drive a decision that is stuck? That is a good reason for a meeting, so you should move to the next phase of meeting planning which is to determine how a decision will be reached.
NOTE: Sometimes group meetings to convey concepts and disseminate information are the right thing to do. I have seen very effective group meetings which also serve to improve moral or rally the troops. The secret is that you need to understand the goal of the meeting and make sure that a meeting is the right tool. If an email or a post on the company intranet site w0uld be better (or just as effective), do that instead and save the time and intrusion.
Common purposes: convey information, resolve a conflict, brainstorm or drive to a decision.
Now that you’ve decided why you’re meeting, determine how you will be meeting. Is this a leader-led meeting where participants will be asked for feedback but no open discussion is expected? Is this a brainstorming meeting where we need people to take their blinders off and participate without any fear of feeling foolish in the pursuit of new ideas? Whatever your plan, make sure that is clear in the invitation so that folks can bring the data necessary or research whatever preliminary information will make them effective in the meeting.
Based on format, the organizer should select very carefully who should be invited to the meeting. If a person can contribute or is required, make sure they are there and that they understand how important their participation in the meeting is in the grand scheme of things.
DO NOT INVITE ONLOOKERS! There is no need for a cheering section. People not involved in the process simply detract from the meeting regardless of their location on the corporate ladder. Managers that insist on being present regardless of their usefulness in the meeting are part of the problem, not the solution and represent a cancer in your organization.
If this is a brainstorming meeting, make sure there is an assigned person to take notes and that there is a plan for follow up. If there is a goal of a decision to come from the meeting, the worst thing you can do is decide to meet again and discuss again. Decisions, unlike wine, do not get better with age. When you prepare properly, you have the information necessary to make an informed decision. Stop being afraid of that process. Evaluate the information and make the most informed decision you can.
Another standard expectation is that the meeting will respect the time of all members. Invite only the people necessary and only people who can help make the meeting useful. We have all seen meeting rosters swell to large numbers by good intentioned wannabe participants. Opinions are like…well you know the colloquialism. Get the opinions that matter in the room (even dissenting ones) and eliminate the others.
Respect start time and end time and make that possible by informing folks of the plans in advance. An agenda is not a ‘nice to have.’ If you don’t care enough to inform me of the point of the meeting, who is required and how next steps will be articulated and driven too, I don’t care enough to attend your meeting. My time is worth more than that and so should yours be.
Standing meetings, banning technology and arbitrarily shorter meetings (Like described here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204795304577221422368339442.html) are just tools for crappy leaders. Know why you are imposing yourself on the time of your team and partners and make sure that spend is a good one. It is really that simple.
The problem is not the tool, it is the tool running the tool.
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