More than five ways to improve meetings

The pathway to more effective meetings is to follow some basic and very useful techniques. Here are 5.5 tips that will help you improve your meetings.

Meetings are the good, the bad and the ugly of all businesses. We hold meetings to surface and resolve problems, to communicate strategies and to provide instruction and feedback. Companies need meetings to create teamwork to move the company forward. But a large percent of time spent in meetings is wasted. The pathway to more effective meetings is to follow some basic and very useful techniques. Here are 5.5 tips that will help you improve your meetings.

1. Plan the agenda in detail: This means more than just listing the topics to be discussed. It means identifying how the topics will be addressed, how long you feel it should take and who leads it. The ways to address a topic include: brainstorming, open discussion, one party download of information, question and answer discussion, and facilitated decision making.

Determining how much time to allot a topic is related to how it will be addressed. A one-way download of information takes as long as the amount of information to share. The length of a question and answer session depends on how controversial the topic is. Brainstorming may be done in five to 10 minutes, but decision making can take much longer especially if a consensus is desired.

Who leads the decision also depends on the way the topic will be addressed. A content expert should do any downloads. For decision-making on an emotionally charged topic a skilled and neutral facilitator is best.

2. Provide meeting ground rules up front: Set guidelines or a code of conduct for how the meeting will be run and how team members are expected to act. For meetings that happen frequently, such as monthly leadership session, the ground rules should be established, displayed in the meeting room, and quickly reviewed at the start of each meeting. If violations of the guidelines occur during the meeting, they should be discussed and resolved. For project teams or special one-time meetings, present the code of conduct at the start of the meeting. Give participants a chance to discuss and understand the meaning behind the rules and ask for a commitment to live them. Establishing meeting ground rules provides the participants an opportunity for ownership of the meeting's success. It should take five or 10 minutes initially for a review of the guidelines, and a couple of minutes to acknowledge rules in subsequent meetings. (For a free copy of a sample code of conduct e-mail [email protected].)

3. Use a BIN to capture and hold ideas: When participants surface ideas or topics that are not related to the current part of the agenda, the leaders must decide to address the new topic at the present time or defer it until later, perhaps another meeting or forum. If the leader decides to defer the topic, it may appear to the person who suggested it, that his idea was ignored. To put that person at ease and insure his issues are addressed make sure to write the idea down on a flip chart paper or whiteboard labeled "BIN." Make it visible to all and explain that we will put the idea in a bin to hold it until the appropriate time to address. Some facilitators call this a "parking lot" instead of a bin. It means the same thing, but I just don't like my ideas in a parking lot where they can get run over! Using a bin list can reduce the number of times a person brings up the same issue because he feels it was not heard by the team. Revisit the bin at the end of each meeting to decide the most appropriate course of action for each item. It may be necessary to table the idea for a future agenda, or forward to other groups or another person in a leadership position for resolution.

4. Maintain a visible list of action items: During most meetings people commit or are assigned to specific actions. Often the various individuals in the meeting perceive these differently. This difference in understanding can lead to disappointment and failure when people don’t do what others expected of them. If everyone is left to record his own actions, it is highly likely that people will have different understandings of who was to do what. If left to one person to take "minutes" that person's understanding may differ from the person who is responsible to take action as well. This breakdown in communications may not be detected until minutes are released or when reviewed at the next meeting. Keeping a running list of actions identified during the meeting on a flipchart paper visible to all will allow for clarification on who is to do what. Reviewing the list at the end of the meeting will only take two to three minutes, but will help insure ownership. The list can be copied and distributed to all meeting attendees and can also be a useful visible tool to review actions at the next meeting.

5. Use the group memory to improve discussions and decisions: The group memory is a flipchart paper or white board that is in the front of the meeting room. Use it (not the leader) as the focus of the meeting. Record on it key words as stated during the discussions. Simple things such as putting the words on a board so all can see and directing the discussion towards the words will diffuse some of the tension that comes when people differ on issues. This technique even helps when doing one-way information downloads without discussion.

5.5 Do plus, delta to improve meetings: At the end of each meeting take five minutes to ask two questions in this order: What worked or made this meeting more useful for you? Record these answers as "pluses," and what could we do differently to make future meetings more useful and efficient? Record these answers as "deltas." After all comments have been made, review the responses to determine what actions to do for the next meeting. Record both pluses and deltas before discussing any of them. Always do the pluses first. Meetings will improve as the participants take ownership in listening to and acting on their own ideas for making it better.

Meetings are some of our most expensive uses of time. Consider the value of 10 people's time in a meeting for an hour. It is probably higher than any crew rate! We owe it to ourselves and to the other participants to hold effective and efficient meetings. Use these 5.5 tips and it will help.

Dennis Sowards is an industry consultant and guest writer for industry magazines. His company is Quality Support Services Inc. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (480) 835-1185.