Meetings – Timewasters, or Timesavers?
Here is one of my personal pet hates. The meeting that adds absolutely no value to anyone involved.
A few weeks ago, one of my clients asked if we should set up a meeting but when I asked what exactly would be the purpose of the meeting, so that I could decide whether or not it would be something I, or anyone else should invest any of their time in, she couldn’t answer. Needless to say, I didn’t attend – and nobody died! Now here’s the useful bit regarding meetings:
Meetings can be either “formal” or informal, but they should only take place when the purpose or objective can be achieved more effectively through the sharing process than by any other method of communication. That is would the information be just as effective if it was sent in a memo format or even displayed on a notice.
Before any meeting takes place we should ask ourselves
“Why am I having this meeting”
If it is not possible to state the purpose of the meeting than perhaps there is no need for it to go ahead.
We should not fall into the trap of holding the weekly departmental meeting because it has always been held. Many meetings waste a great deal of time and therefore money for the simple reason that they are held for historical reasons rather than practical ones.
Generally speaking objectives fall into one of four categories:
• To give information
• To make decisions
• To investigate
• To plan
We can look at these four categories in more detail.
To give information – This type of meeting is solely concerned with passing on information to members of the meeting
• New product launch
• Start of shift meeting
• Change of company procedures
It is possible that some questions will be asked and a degree of sharing of information, but, in most meetings of this nature it is mostly a one way process of communication.
To make decisions – this type of meeting is held when one person deciding alone may make a biased decision, or when the views of several different people would lead to a better quality of decision.
Much discussion will probably be necessary to reach an agreement but the final decision will be more agreeable if everyone has had their say.
A lot of discussion will probably be necessary to reach agreement.
This type of meeting is held to bring together people representing all side of an issue, i.e. to investigate a quality concern. It may be necessary to bring together people from a number of different areas to ensure all angles of the problem are investigated. It might also be useful to consider bringing in outside expertise.
This type of meeting is held to ensure that representatives of all people affected by a decision, or with responsibility for action, are involved in the planning stage of a project, i.e. Project Planning Team. If the plan is to be implemented smoothly it is important that agreement is reached on all sides.
Types of Meeting
Meetings can be classified in a number of different ways. The type of meeting depends on: –
• Frequency – how often the meeting is held
Start of shift
• Composition – who is attending the meeting
You and your supervisor
You and your peers
You and your customers
You and your suppliers
You and your workers
• Motivation – what is the reason behind the meeting
New product design
• Decision making process – what the scope is for making decisions
Board of Directors
No matter what type of meeting you are going to chair you will have to do some planning and preparation.
A certain amount of pre-meeting preparation is essential if the meeting you are chairing is to be effective.
This in itself will not guarantee success, but the absence of good preparation will definitely detract from the effectiveness of the meeting.
This pre-meeting preparation can be thought of in terms of the five W’s:
• Why should we hold the meeting – the objectives
• Who should attend – the people
• What is to be discussed – the agenda
• Where should the meeting be held – the venue
• When should the meeting be held – the timing
From this we can obtain the order in which we must carry out our preparation:
• The objective
• The people
• The agenda
• The venue
• The timing
We have already discussed the types of objective which a meeting may have. However, we cannot over emphasise the importance of knowing why we are holding the meeting and what we want to achieve – the outcome.
The value and success of any meeting, other than perhaps the information giving type, is seriously threatened if too many people are present.
Decisions will be difficult to reach or people may feel intimidated and therefore reluctant to make possibly valuable contributions.
Between four and seven is the ideal number but twelve is generally considered the outside limit. Any more than this and the effectiveness of the meeting will be greatly reduced.
It is therefore important that a lot of thought goes into deciding who should attend.
The following guidelines may help you in making the decision:
• Invite only people with the authority to get the job done
• Invite a representative from all groups who will be affected by the decision
• Invite the people necessary to reach agreement on the various issues
If despite having followed these guidelines, there are still too many people attending, there may be a case to split the meeting into sub-committees to address separate issues.
Of all the documents and papers required for a meeting, by far the most important is the agenda.
Properly used, it can speed up and clarify the objective of the meeting.
In most instances, items on the agenda are too brief and vague and therefore do not allow participants to prepare adequately for the discussion points.
It is a good idea to put out a circulation list with the agenda so people can see who else is expected to attend.
The purpose of the agenda is to give discipline to the direction of the meeting, ensure no important item is overlooked and to allow participants time to prepare. For these reasons it is important that the agenda is written rather than carried around in someone’s head.
Even for emergency meetings, called in response to a crisis, a scribbled agenda of the points to be covered can help give direction and stop the meeting becoming side tracked on irrelevant subjects.
The following guidelines may help you when you are writing an agenda:
• Show the time and place of the meeting
• Gather items for discussion from the meeting attendees
• Convince yourself that an item is worth discussing before accepting it
• If a person who submits an item cannot attend the meeting don’t take the item unless absolutely necessary
• Write items in order of their potential ease of disposal, not in order of size or difficulty, i.e. items on which agreement can easily be made to unite the group during the early part of the meeting should be dealt with first
• Write items in a logical sequence
• Set a time limit for each item (even if you do not stick to it religiously it will always be a guide)
• Be realistic on how many items you include on the agenda
• Write down the purpose of each item i.e. for information, to discuss, to decide etc. This will give the participants more detailed information on what to prepare
• Use simple language i.e. ‘take a decision’ – do not conduct a review of its commercial viability
• Never leave people guessing – show exactly what is to be discussed and why
• Outline what preparation should be done by participants and any other paper they should bring
• ‘Any Other Business’ consider whether you want to include this. It can be seen as an opportunity to waste time or introduce a hidden agenda item. But it could be useful for someone to raise an issue, which occurred after the agenda was set.
Where possible, the agenda should be set in advance and circulate, ideally, 48 hours before the meeting. (Long enough to allow people to prepare but not so far in advance that the meeting will be forgotten).
Arrangements should be made for a suitable venue to be available for the duration of the meeting.
If the meeting is just in house the geographical location is not an issue but if some attendees are from other places try to balance out the travelling times.
Although you may not have much choice over where you hold your meeting is should be in convenient place for all members. It should be free from interruptions and should have adequate seating for all participants.
There is no hard and fast rule on the length of time a meeting should take.
Obviously, the points to be covered on the agenda will govern how long will be necessary. However, for a meeting to be effective it should certainly not take any longer than two hours.
If this is not the case, items should perhaps be moved to the next meeting. If this is not possible a break should be taken during the meeting and the frequency of the meetings should be looked at for the future.
There may be a genuine case for holding more meetings of shorter duration.
There is no ‘best’ time for a meeting to take place, other than when everyone is available. However, it is generally considered that performance and alertness fall off rapidly during the latter part of the day. For a meeting to finish promptly it is always a good idea to hold it just before lunch.
Again consider the travelling time of individuals and how they will be arriving. If they travel by train allow them time to get from the station. Breakfast meetings are becoming more common and offer the opportunity to combine hospitality with information.
Establish when information will be available if it is crucial to the meeting. If you need up-to-date financial information and this is produced quarterly try to arrange your meeting after each quarter.
The Meeting itself
Having successfully carried out all the pre-meeting preparation necessary, we are now well along the route to have an effective meeting.
The next step is to look at the meeting itself.
To do this we must consider:
• The responsibility of the chairperson when dealing with the subject
• The responsibility of the chairperson when dealing with the people
• Taking minutes
• Participating in the meeting
• Overcoming the barriers to effective meetings
I’m not going to cover the whole subject here in one e-mail but if you want to get the comprehensive guide to effective meetings, simply go over to the resources area of our website.