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First class coach - How can we get more out of our regular weekly meetings? It's currently all a bit unexciting with people droning on about recent deals. How do we achieve a more spontaneous exchange of ideas, and are some times of the day better than ot

by MARGARET EXLEY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How can we get more out of our regular weekly meetings? It's currently all a bit unexciting with people droning on about recent deals. How do we achieve a more spontaneous exchange of ideas, and are some times of the day better than others?

Meetings are the most commonly abused business process.

No one ever feels inhibited about calling them, we all feel that we know how to run them, and yet many meetings feel like (and are) a huge waste of time and effort.

A good meeting, like a good team, is successful when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: when the decisions made, ideas generated and work done are better than that which any one person could achieve. Paradoxically, the more care you take in preparing and structuring meetings, the more likely you are to achieve the spontaneous exchange of ideas you seek.

So here are some tips to help you out.

First, only call meetings if they have a real purpose. Many (particularly regular ones) are not necessary. Information exchange, updating the boss or showcasing your latest triumph can all be achieved more effectively in other ways, such as e-mail, intranet or video. Identify a few clear objectives such as decision-making on a specific issue, planning or problem solving and summarise them at the start of every meeting. Then focus on them.

Second, check the composition and skills of those attending. Are the right people in the room - and only the right people? A good test is whether you can communicate with them all easily.

(In a group of 10 or more this becomes difficult.) Then consider whether each member understands the roles and skills of the others. If not spend some time, particularly with new members, to familiarise them. This sounds obvious, but people often fail to apply this simple bit of group maintenance.

Third, establish clear ground rules for behaviour. For example, attendance should be mandatory; people must turn up on time; there should be no interruptions to take phone calls; and meetings should always finish on time. Others might include guidelines on people sending a proxy or on confidentiality.

Full constructive challenge should be allowed, but not destructive confrontation.

You can cut out the 'droning' by asking people to provide one page on any news they may have in advance. This means people still get the information, but don't spend time on it at the meeting.

Fourth, chairmanship. Whatever you call them, every group needs a leader or facilitator. A good chairman will pay attention to the content and the process of the meeting. They must make sure that every item on the agenda is dealt with effectively and efficiently. They should look at how the group is functioning and give and seek regular feedback on areas for change and improvement. They should refresh the agenda regularly and challenge the group by bringing in outsiders with a different perspective.

They should encourage the group to celebrate its successes and to give each other positive feedback.

You ask about the best time for meetings. Let me first say something about frequency. Weekly meetings are appropriate for operational planning, progress chasing and project management. They are not particularly good for strategic discussions or in-depth examination of particular topics, unless they have been specifically set up for this purpose.

Monthly meetings give you a better chance to look at subjects in more depth, and from time to time you may want to abandon a standard or regular agenda and focus on one or two subjects in greater depth. I believe Monday or Friday mornings are preferable for weekly meetings, when people's energy levels are likely to be highest.

Meetings are a big investment of time and effort. The cost over a year of a weekly meeting of, say, two hours is substantial. They are worth every penny if the meetings improve the running of the business.

But like every other business process, they must be effectively designed, managed and maintained to create the opportunity for people to be creative and spontaneous and to feel a real sense of common purpose. If you manage to achieve that, people will look forward to your meetings and really feel they are getting something out of them.

Margaret Exley leads Towers Perrin's European practice on change and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is also a director of HM Treasury's Management Board.

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