Captain Kirk ruefully summed up the trouble with meetings this way: “A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.” Cameron Herold quotes the Star Trek hero in his book Double Double: How to Double Your Revenue and Profit in 3 Years or Less. But he does so not to write off meetings as useless, but in a chapter on how to make them very useful indeed.
Herold is a business coach and mentor who, through his Vancouver-based firm BackPocket COO, applies what has he learned over more than 20 years operating such successful growth companies as 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. In Double Double, he suggests these strategies for taking back your meetings.
Publish a clear agenda ahead of time. Every successful meeting has a clear purpose that can be stated in one sentence. The agenda should state this purpose, the possible outcomes (no more than three) and the action items to be covered. Publishing the agenda ahead of time allows introverted people in particular to prepare in advance what they’d like to share in discussion. Without that, most introverts won’t respond during the allotted time and will leave the meeting full of their unspoken ideas.
Determine a meeting style. There are three basic types of meetings: information share, creative discussion and consensus decision.
In the first type, information can flow up to leadership from employees or down to employees from senior management. You can entertain requests for clarification, but there’s no real debate or discussion.
The second type of meeting revolves around brainstorming, but without making any decisions about the feasibility or validity of the ideas put on the table. Here, it’s critical that employees understand that key stakeholders will make decisions at a later date using the information collected.
In the third type of meeting, decisions must be made and participants will almost certainly express passionate feelings. But consensus must be reached, with all feelings and conflicts left in the room. Never continue the discussion outside of the meeting.
Start on time and end early. Close the door to anyone who arrives late. This isn’t just a matter of showing respect for people’s time. If you can’t start a meeting on time, why would your company produce or deliver its goods or services on time?
Always end meetings five minutes earlier than scheduled. This builds in a buffer so everyone can take a quick break and still be on time for any following meeting.
Whenever possible, try to compress time. If you think a meeting will take one hour, give it 30 minutes. Meetings tend to fill the space you give them, so by limiting their length you’ll increase your productivity.
Foster useful communication. Don’t let the extroverts dominate your meeting. To run successful meetings, you must engage every participant, especially those who typically remain silent, because they could really add value to the discussion. Foster dialogue with the newcomers or quiet folks first. Then go around the table, moving up in seniority as you solicit feedback or ideas. Leaders should always give feedback last so they don’t sway the group.
If you’re in a creative discussion, emulate General Electric’s WorkOut process by giving each participant sticky notes and asking them to write down five to 10 ideas, one per note. Then have each employee post them on the wall while reading out his or her ideas. You’ll quickly have a wealth of suggestions, and even those who propose only one or two will have contributed.
Know your role. There should be four roles in every meeting: chair, timekeeper, participants and closer.
The chair announces which type of meeting it is and ensures that participants stick to the agenda. His or her key task is to keep the meeting from going sideways—and, if it does, stopping the meeting to correct the problem or suggest that the group rebook to try again later.
The timekeeper makes sure everyone stays on schedule, all the agenda points are covered and no one lingers too long on any one point.
The participants’ role is to arrive prepared to contribute and to remain interested. They may also be responsible for maintaining the “parking lot” of ideas that come up but should be addressed at a later date.
Typically, the chair is also the closer, beginning by asking, “Who’s doing what, and by when?” This guards against people leaving the meeting without having outlined their next steps, and against anyone starting a project based on items that were merely being discussed at the meeting.