Monday, November 23, 2009

Effective Meetings

It’s always a good idea to revisit some fundamental management principles to keep ourselves focused and productive. And what part of our day is more time consuming than the seemingly endless barrage of meetings and conference calls that beckon us? One of the most productive meetings I’ve ever been involved with was led by Ken Ciancimino, the then-Executive Director of the Trump Organization. Our little IT-company had a proposal for Mr. Trump, and he was kind enough to have one of his senior executives listen. Entering the meeting room precisely at the designated time, Mr. Ciancimino explained: “Here’s how we do meetings here. I want to know who, what, where, when, how and why. And then we’re done. Fair enough?” Without the need for any further explanation, we knew exactly what to present. He made it abundantly clear that time was money, and gave us a simple, universally understood outline to ensure we covered all the bases he needed covered to report back. We were in and out in less than 30 minutes. A colleague from Trump’s IT group followed up the next day with a 4-page technical questionnaire. Efficiency defined. Wow.

Through my involvement in a few hundred meetings at dozens of client companies over the past several years, it’s become evident that the lessons learned on that day in Trump Tower are lost on most – and that some simple guidelines might yield some real benefit. Here’s my take on good meetings; feel free to share your own ideas and experiences:

  • Start on time. How many meetings are scheduled to start at a specific time, yet the meeting organizer wants to “wait a few more minutes” for one or two late arrivals? This punishes and frustrates the folks who were on time. The latecomers can catch up, or be briefed after the meeting by one of their colleagues.

  • Always have an agenda. Provide meeting participants with a meeting agenda in advance of the meeting, providing enough time for preparation. Not providing an agenda almost guarantees a meandering discussion.

  • Facilitate. If you call a meeting and provide an agenda, then lead the meeting. State the agenda at the outset. Keep one eye on the agenda, and the other on the clock. Be mindful of other people’s time and keep the conversation moving. Resist the temptation to deliver speeches or to proselytize, and make certain anyone who wants to be heard is heard.

  • Set the default meeting duration to 30 minutes. It seems the “default” time for any meeting is one hour. Setting the default time to 30 minutes adds a little “creative tension” to the meeting and inhibits the empty chatter that fills far too many meetings.

  • Keep the group size manageable. Trying to facilitate a meeting of more than 10 or so participants is like (to use an overused metaphor) trying to herd cats. Keep the group relatively small and focused.

  • Have take-aways. Once the agenda has been covered, ensure there are specific actions defined and assigned. Gain acknowledgement that the person to whom something is assigned is “owned” by them, and have them offer a definitive date and time by which the activity will be completed.

  • Stop on time. Do not overrun the allotted time. Use the last minute or two to summarize what’s been accomplished and who is responsible for what. If, with a few minutes remaining, it does not appear that the agenda will be covered, schedule a second meeting.

These are common sense ideas that will pay great dividends to those who take them to heart. As process improvement consultants, we’re constantly looking for ways to increase productive capacity and reduce waste. As one of the major consumers of our time, meetings demand solid discipline and the application of good practices.

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