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On the Agenda: Meetings that Work

“On the Agenda: Meetings that Work”

Get more done in less time by learning to run fast, efficient, no-nonsense meetings.

Zan Ng recalls advice he heard soon after launching New-A Inc.: 80% of what makes a meeting work occurs outside the room — the preparation and follow-up. Ng, whose New York-based advertising firm now generates $35 million in annual sales, knows his employees’ time is money.

"If just five minutes is lost when I’ve got 20 employees in a room, that’s a waste of everyone’s time," says Ng. "And it’s so easy to lose five minutes, which can happen if you recap for someone who shows up late."

To save attendees’ time, think ahead. Ask yourself, "What do I want participants to do or know as a result of the meeting?" Distribute an outline or agenda of what you need to cover. Only invite individuals who must attend or who can make a solid contribution.

Set a fast pace

From the moment you call the meeting to order, become a clock-watcher. Inform the group about the meeting’s objective and how much time you’ve set aside to get there. Reinforce the need to cover all key items.

Four steps to snappier meetings:

  1. Reward speed. Dangle an incentive if the meeting wraps up quickly. You can say, "If we finish in 15 minutes instead of 30, you can head home early."
  2. Skip speakers who are unprepared. If you want to scold them, do it privately.
  3. Maintain momentum by avoiding debates over minutiae. If you want to communicate complicated information, summarize it in handouts. If participants show signs of going off track or arguing over trivial or unrelated issues, assign a task group to study the topic.
  4. Set ground rules to interrupt. If you want your meeting to serve as a team-building or brainstorming session, allow plenty of time for informal give-and-take. But if your goal is to reach consensus, get updates from your management team or explain new developments, warn attendees at the outset that you’ll interrupt if you:
    • Hear repetitive comments.
    • Detect a speaker veering far from the meeting’s purpose.
    • Think a speaker’s point needs clarification or is based on faulty information.

Brainstorm in less time

After sharing your idea, increase the participation level by requiring attendees to challenge it. Ask each person in the room to offer a one-sentence objection or concern. This helps activate everyone’s mind and ensures you get more feedback.

Roger Schomburg, co-owner of Universal Companies Inc., an exercise and beautyequipment distributor in Bristol, Va., limits all meetings to one hour. He likes to end brainstorming sessions by reserving five to 10 minutes to recap key ideas. Then he’ll cover three points:

  1. Person responsible for researching or implementing each idea.
  2. What deadlines they face.
  3. What to do with the results.

"You have to end with an action plan that everyone understands," says Schomburg. "That turns brainstorming into something tangible and keeps people accountable for following through."

It often saves time if you write one-word labels on a white board for each idea that participants raise. Then ask the group for more ideas. Once you generate a list of six or seven ideas, have the group vote on the top three they want to discuss further. This provides a loose structure so that your team can bounce around proposals in a supportive, democratic atmosphere.

Keep swimming along

Some more tips for productive meetings:

Assign times for each agenda item.

Speak last. Withhold your comments until the end. By speaking first, you’ll cast undue influence over the proceedings.

Meet in the trenches. Meet on the shop floor where surrounding employees or customers can listen and even give input. Convene behind closed doors when you need to preserve confidentiality.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000). stettner@attbi.com

CEOs Making it Happen:

Help the group ‘see’ your points

Tim Kane Tim Kane sometimes comes to meetings with a sample-size box of detergent. If an employee starts to pontificate, Kane slides the box down the table toward the employee like a hockey puck. His message: Get off your soapbox.

Kane, who founded Kinetic Workplace Inc. in 1994, likes to use visual cues to reinforce his points at meetings. The Pittsburgh-based consulting and software firm’s revenues grew 300% annually from 1999 to 2001.

To brainstorm with employees, Kane distributes 3×5 cards and asks attendees to write the three best answers to a question such as, "What do you think we should do to improve service?" He then posts the cards so that everyone can see them. "It’s a great way for the group to identify themes," he explains.

No walls, fewer meetings

Sheila Shechtman likes clutter-free meetings: no flip charts, no slides, no thick reports distributed to attendees. This forces the group to look each other in the eyes and communicate directly, rather than riffle through documents or gaze at overheads in a dark room.

Giftcorp., a corporate gift company with more than $3 million in revenues, operates out of 5,000 square feet at its headquarters in Hartford, Conn. Aside from a few private offices and a conference room, the entire work area is open, with no subdividing walls or cubicles.

The expansive work environment fosters lots of informal interaction among employees at all levels, which reduces the need for formal meetings, says Shechtman, Giftcorp founder and CEO.

Every Friday Shechtman chairs a management meeting with about six senior executives. These sessions are held over lunch in a windowless conference room with no phone, lasting 45 minutes to an hour.

"We start by having everyone give a status report," she says. "We’ll ask each other questions and share ideas. Then I’ll talk about new business and things I want help with. It’s both brainstorming and reporting. Everyone walks out of there knowing where the whole company stands."

Overcome barriers to stay on track

Marc Albin Marc Albin likes to keep meetings moving. Founder of Albin Engineering Services Inc., a $12 million technology-staffing firm in Sunnyvale, Calif., Albin has found that the best way to speed things up is to have a goal and time limit — and stick to it. To prevent dallying, Albin will sometimes convene a "standing meeting" where no one sits. This works best when Albin gathers four or five managers to reach a quick consensus.

Albin guards against meetings that lose their sense of purpose. When an employee raises irrelevant issues, Albin will interrupt politely and suggest they discuss it at another time.

"I’ll propose an option, like discussing something later on, rather than coming down hard and saying, ‘Don’t change the subject!’ " he says.