With the popularity of electronic calendars and group scheduling systems, the logistics of setting up meetings has become easier than ever. As a result, meetings appear on individuals’ schedules without warning, and people often find themselves going directly from one meeting to the next. Because it’s easy to include people, lots of people are invited—but the real outcomes of meetings are as rare as ever.
In general, people in meetings are involved in one or more of three activities:
1. Giving information
2. Gathering input
3. Solving problems
Unfortunately, all too often, meetings are held for the first of these, giving information. Someone calls a meeting to tell; those invited attend to listen. These one-sided, face-to-face conversations represent a large investment of time and resources for a very minimal return. If someone holds a meeting simply to give information, they could probably send a quick e-mail and achieve the same results.
The second reason, gathering input, has slightly more value. Project status meetings and weekly staff meetings are examples of meetings that gather input. A team or project leader calls the meeting, individuals present pieces of information, and the leader sets direction or makes decisions based on group input—often sending the participants away to do the real work. If you are not looking for interaction and do not wish to tap the knowledge and energy of the group to solve problems, can you really justify the investment of time and energy that a meeting represents?
The most valuable meetings are those where people actually spend time solving problems together. Problem solving meetings allow individuals to make valuable contributions; they allow the team to tap the groups combined knowledge; they build real commitment and consensus for the solutions reached by the group; and, over time, they produce highly effective teams.
Here are 5 ways to increase the amount of problem solving that takes place at your next meeting:
1. Invite the right people to participate.
Most meetings are simply too big for any real work to get done. Make sure the list of meeting attendees includes those people who can really contribute to the task at hand and that they understand in advance what the meeting will be about.
2. Provide background materials and pre-meeting assignments.
Help people come prepared by providing background reading, advanced copies of materials to be discussed at the meeting, and/or a list of information or data that they should collect before the meeting.
3. Establish a clear sense of the problem or task at the beginning of the meeting.
Make sure everyone in the group understands why you are meeting and what problem (or opportunity) you want to address. Take some time to clarify why this is a problem, who owns the problem, why it hasn’t been solved before, and why solving it now will make a difference.
4. Separate Problem from Process.
If possible, put someone in charge of the meetings’ process. It is very difficult to lead a discussion and take an active part in that discussion at the same time, so it helps if the person who owns the problem doesn’t also have to worry about the process. The person in charge of process should keep the session stays on track, make sure everyone’s input is heard and recorded, and insure that the person who owns the problem gets what he or she needs from the group.
5. Keep a record of what you do during the meeting.
It’s amazing how many meetings end with no record of what has been considered or decided and how little accountability meeting attendees have for the outcomes. Keep a running account of the discussion on flip charts during the meeting. The flip charts keep people engaged and focused. Posting them around the room is a vivid reminder of where the discussion is and where it has been. A simple transcription of the flip charts can be used as a record of the meeting—and bringing summary charts from one meeting to the next is an excellent way to insure continuity and avoid rehashing the same issue over and over again.
6. Take time for conclusions.
Keep an eye on the clock and save the last 5 to 10 minutes of the meeting for a wrap-up of what you have decided. Create a shared action plan for what needs to happen next. Make sure that you end each meeting with a clear understanding of what you have decided and a detailed plan for who will do what by when.
These steps will help you turn meeting time into working time. I’m not saying that they will change your life, but who knows? What will you do with your evenings if don’t have to wait until after hours to get work done.