What’s the SCORE? by Dana Peterka: Are meetings a waste of time?

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Unfortunately, much of the time we spend in meetings is wasted.

Meetings are often poorly designed, lack facilitation, don’t bring closure to issues and fail to let participants know what is expected of them.

I am certain that you could add many more concerns to this list. The reality is properly designed and effectively conducted meetings can be time savers.

Since this topic is so vast and the space in this column is limited, I will offer some basic concepts for your consideration.

Who is the owner? Every meeting or agenda item has an owner. It is the person responsible for what is being discussed and managing the topic. It may be the senior manager or the person in charge of a given area such as the web site manager.

It is important to understand who the owner is because, in reality, the meeting participants should be “working for” the owner during that meeting time slot.

Tell the participants what is expected of them. One conceptual meeting model is each agenda item falls into one of three categories: passing information, getting information or problem solving.

We often expect participants to intuitively know this. The topic owner should make the participants’ role clear. It doesn’t always happen. I was at a recent meeting where a minor budget overrun was pointed out. Immediately, several participants started problem solving about how to resolve the issue. After several minutes, the person who brought up the topic was able to state that the problem had been resolved. She was just passing information.

Passing information. Don’t put a lengthy passing information topic on the agenda without considering alternatives. If it takes more than a few minutes to explain, send out the information early so that participants can study the information at their convenience. Then they will be prepared to cover the agenda item more effectively and in much shorter time. If the topic is complex and would benefit from an interactive discussion, consider having a separate meeting.

Consent agenda items. If you use Robert’s Rules of Order, send out routine items like the financial report and previous meeting minutes before the meeting. The person in charge of the agenda topic then immediately asks for a motion to approve to immediately bring closure to the topic. If you have conventional business meetings, look for opportunities to use consent type approach. For example, monthly performance against expense budget could be sent out early with comments about deviations. The participants could then be asked if there are any questions.

Describe the desired outcome. Tell everyone upfront where you want them to be at the end of the meeting or agenda item. For example, telling the group that by the end of the discussion, we want to approve the redesign of the web site. This gets everyone focused and aligned on the outcome.

Parking lot. In many meetings, the participants can get off track and start discussing a different issue. Sometimes the issue can be very important and it can be difficult to get the group back on topic. One facilitation technique is to have an issue “parking lot” on a flip chart or white board. When it is posted, the group knows that their concern has been captured for further action.

Bring closure to each decision made. I have been at too many meetings, where I thought that a decision was made, to only have it resurface again at the next meeting. Rather than express their concerns about a decision, some people do a “silent veto.” They ignore any actions they should have implemented and resurface the topic again at a later meeting. The topic owner should verbally summarize the decision and then confirm it in writing. If the topic is discussed at a later meeting, the owner should start the discussion with reading the summary.

Document action item commitments. The meeting owner, or her designee, should send out a list of the key action items and due dates that were agreed to at the meeting. This should be done immediately after the meeting. This will help make the who, what, how and when of the actions clear to everyone. The next meeting should include an update on the status of these key action items. Some groups track activities with a red – yellow - green highlight report. The seriously off track red items are addressed in depth. The group discusses the lagging yellow items to determine if additional attention is needed to keep them from becoming a red item. Please note that I used the term key action items. The focus should be on only those critical few items that have the greatest impact.

These are basic meeting management concepts. Are there any of these that you can use to make your meetings more effective? You don’t have to be the meeting or agenda item owner to do so. As a participant, you can have an impact. For example, you can ask a presenter how they want you to listen. Do they want input from the group? What is the topic owner’s goal? Where does he want to be at the end of the presentation of his topic? One conceptual meeting model calls this “guerilla” facilitation, which is facilitating meeting effectiveness without having the formal role of meeting facilitator.
Dana Peterka
(Standard contact information)
Roane County Chamber of Commerce
865- xxx